Feature stories

Strokes of genius

After-school rowing program for girls builds confidence and character

Brian Gibbons Members of Row New York practice on Meadow Lake in Flushing Meadows Corona Park in a sport that demands strength, endurance, mental discipline and, most of all, teamwork.
Brian Gibbons “Hands on!” The teams work with racing shells ranging up to 60 feet in length.
Brian Gibbons Coach Michael Eichler weaves in between the boats, helping students perfect their mechanics and achieve the continuous, fluid motion they need to propel their boats forward.

“Stay in time. Exact! Exact! Exact! Pick up the force!”

The calm waters of Meadow Lake in Queens come to life as four teams of rowers propel their flotilla of boats toward an invisible finish line more than three-quarters of a mile away. Under the direction of their coxswains, the women who make up the four- and eight-member teams are a flurry of unified motion as they power their shells toward their destination.

As the sun sets through the trees of Flushing Meadows Corona Park, the work is just beginning for members of Row New York, who are perfecting their mechanics in preparation for an upcoming regatta. Thanks to the precision with which their oar blades hit the water, the only sound you can hear is the motor of coach Michael Eichler’s boat as he maneuvers in and out of their formation.

“Set the body! Straight line!” he says through his megaphone. “Let’s put some power into these strokes! Let’s jam it!”

The 100-plus girls who participate in Row New York’s after-school program at Meadow Lake represent more than 25 Queens middle and high schools. They’re on the water five or six days a week in boats with names like Presto, Title IX and Sotomayor, in honor of the Bronx-born Supreme Court justice, and they’re learning not just the sport of rowing, but also confidence, determination and teamwork.

“Our group is amazing; it’s a family,” said Jacqueline Rodas, a first-year varsity member and sophomore at Information Technology HS. “I’ve learned responsibility; I’ve learned how to trust my teammates.”

“My hope for all of these girls,” said coach Eichler, “is for them to leave here confident, not only in their own abilities, but in their ability to look at this boathouse, their teammates and friends and say, ‘We can do this together.’”

The work continues off the water as well, with one day a week set aside for academics, including SAT and Regents prep, at the Row New York offices.

“Based on what courses the girls are taking and what they need help in, they are working with tutors to finish their school- work and foundational reading, writing and math skills,” said Jennie Trayes, Row New York’s director of programs and operations.

“This program keeps you in shape, and it keeps you focused in school,” said Monique Avin, a senior at the Academy for College Preparation & Career Exploration and a third-year rower. “They expect you to be in college, and that’s definitely the right goal.”

In fact, the dozen or so regattas that the Row New York teams travel to on weekends are paired with college visits — a perfect way to expose the students to higher education.

Hundreds of girls from Queens try out each year for the coveted slots. This fall, the program has expanded to a second boathouse on the Harlem River, where the organization is recruiting a new crop of students in Manhattan and the Bronx.

The racing shells, as they are known, range up to 60 feet in length. The rowers face backward on a sliding seat and use their legs and arms to power the oars, while the coxswain steers the boat and calls out commands. Precision is everything as the rowers balance low in water, tackle wind resistance, and work on the timing and teamwork it takes to move and turn the boat.

“This sport focuses you,” said Avin. “Once you’re out in the water, you think about nothing else except getting this done.”

The after-school program is only one component of Row New York’s offerings. Trayes works with schools to bring the program indoors during the winter months, reaching another 2,000 students.

“We bring in rowing machines and other equipment for four or six weeks and set it all up right inside school gyms,” she said.

The organization’s District 75 Adaptive School Day program and its Middle School Indoor Rowing program take place during gym class.

Eichler said that character building is the essence of the program.

“We are empowering young women not only to do better in school and better in a sport, but also to achieve great success in their lives,” he said. “That can be a great complement to their schoolwork, their learning in the classroom, and to all the efforts that teachers put into these students.”

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