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Rowing Crew Is A Learning Experience

Hartford, East Hartford High School Students Compete For Free

November 14, 2005
By MELISSA PIONZIO, Courant Staff Writer

The Riverfront Recapture rowing program is over for the season, and the oars and long, narrow sculls have been cleaned and stored away. But for many team members, fond memories of their experiences on the Connecticut River linger.

"Everybody got attached to it and we we're sad when it ended," said Bulkeley High senior Cassandra Baez, who has rowed for two seasons. "It's just so relaxing. After school you are all stressed out and it is something to look forward to."

In its 17th year, the program is available free to high school students from Hartford and East Hartford. Equipment and training are provided by Riverfront Recapture as well as transportation to the summer and fall sessions held at Great River Park in Hartford's North Meadows.

"You don't have to be an athlete to do it; you are what you are," said Baez, who rowed for a season until becoming a coxswain, calling out directions to the rowers. "You can talk to people and instead of being shy, you are more out front, more confident."

The program also brings together urban students with students from towns such as West Hartford, Glastonbury and Berlin, who pay about $225 each season to participate. Together, they attend rowing competitions all over New England, including the Head of the Charles race last month in Boston. The race attracted high school and college crews from all over the world.

"It was amazing, I had heard stories about it, but just being there was so great," said Alysha Otte, a senior at Hartford Public High and the Greater Hartford Math & Science Academy. "There were so many people, and everyone there just loves the sport," she said.

For Otte, Baez and team members such as Hartford Public sophomore Anthony Acosta, the program has introduced them to a sport they didn't know much about. It also enabled them to make new friends from outside their neighborhoods.

"You have to concentrate. If one person messes up, then it's like the whole boat messes up," Acosta said. "Most of the sports I do, like swimming, you do by yourself. This one you have to work with everybody."

Jordan Klein, a senior at the Watkinson School, a private school in Hartford, has rowed for three seasons and said she experienced a lot of camaraderie among team members.

"It's a challenge every year because we get a new batch of kids that have different skill levels," said Klein, who like Otte is applying to colleges that offer crew. "I think that is one of the best ways you can grow as an athlete, by displaying your passion of what you do to other people."

As accessible as the program is, only 11 students from Hartford are on the team, which this year included 57 members, 30 from East Hartford. Getting Hartford students involved has been a challenge, said program directors Craig Mergins and Brian Wendry, but they are determined to keep at it and are looking for help.

In previous years, faculty members from Hartford's high schools helped with transportation or came to practices to provide encouragement.

"The key would be to get the schools to support it more. Getting a teacher involved in the rowing program to help get students involved would be helpful," said Mergins, who with Wendry gives rowing demonstrations at city high schools each spring. "We are trying to break those barriers down to get kids to understand, here is a new exciting place for you to learn that is right there next to your neighborhood."

Betty Gunn, a physical education teacher at Hartford Public, said busy schedules are always an issue for students and faculty.

"It's a great opportunity for these kids, but they have so many things going on in their lives," she said. "We really try. Commitment is very hard for these kids. They haven't always had things that they commit to, so they don't know how to do it now."

Diane Callis, a physical education teacher and athletic faculty director at Bulkeley, said she would love to see more involvement in the program and agreed that faculty involvement would help.

"When you are here all day long and can talk to kids in the hallways, go to the cafeterias and the stairways, you have more of a chance to get kids involved," she said. "It would be good to have an adviser or maybe have it start out as a club status. We've got some new teachers here and maybe we can try to get someone involved."

Maureen Rodgers, the athletic director for East Hartford High School, said the program has been a great opportunity for the students, especially when budget cuts pose threats to school programs. East Hartford has participated for three seasons. Students who consistently participate are eligible to obtain points toward a letter from the athletic department.

"This was really a godsend to have this program provided for us at no cost," she said. "I think it's a sport that not a lot of people know about. I don't think people realize how rigorous the workout is and the kids that do it have a lot of personal satisfaction that they can do something this difficult and be successful."

The program will continue to be available to Hartford and East Hartford students, said Mergins, but suburban schools have been calling, and it's hard to turn them away.

"There is a fabulous sport here that is recognized all over New England with college scholarship opportunities all over the place," Mergins said. "The potential for the Hartford school system is huge."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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