Common wisdom has it that team sports are invaluable for teenagers. They can promote physical well-being, facilitate social bonding – and keep teens busy enough to stay out of trouble.

Now some gutsy women well beyond the age of adolescent mischief have joined the most rigorous of team sports to help keep a different sort of trouble at bay. Rowing as the crew team “Recovery on Water,” these women start each race with a formidable victory already in their wake: They are breast cancer survivors rowing to stave off recurrence.

Evanstonian Sue Ann Glaser, self-confessed drop-out from countless exercise programs, co-founded R.O.W. after her own battle with the disease.

A career social worker and former assistant director of the social work department at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, she was no stranger to teamwork. But having attended high school before Title IX paved the way for girls’ athletics, Ms. Glaser had no experience with team sports.

It took the confluence of a medical
crisis, a website, a mixed-up phone message and an encounter with a charismatic young coach to lead Ms. Glaser to water. The rewards of team rowing have kept
her afloat.

Diagnosed with breast cancer in March 2007, Ms. Glaser had undergone surgery and was struggling to maintain an exercise regimen to mitigate the side effects of chemotherapy. While browsing the Internet one day she came upon “a rowing team for cancer in Boston,” she says.

The idea struck her right where her will was faltering. “I need a team to help keep to my exercise program,” she concluded. She made numerous phone calls in hopes of stirring up interest.

Not one person called her back until, after she was feeling better, she reached Scott Runkle, whose domain is the Skokie Park District Rowing Center on the North Shore Canal. He mistook Ms. Glaser for the “other woman” he was meeting later that day.

That other woman, it turned out, was Jenn Gibbons, a collegiate rower and recent graduate of Michigan State University who was coaching the St. Ignatius Prep crew team.

Ms. Gibbons, Ms. Glaser learned, had called Mr. Runkle about setting up the very program Ms. Glaser envisioned – one like the one Ms. Gibbons had worked with in college.

Mr. Runkle introduced the two women, and they set to work. R.O.W. took shape as St. Ignatius parents offered to rent the school’s expensive crew shells to the group for $1 a year and Ignatius parent and Evanston lawyer Joe Monahan helped them incorporate as a not-for-profit.

 Ms. Glaser rounded up six friends and neighbors whose doctors had pointed to research showing that exercise can reduce the chance of a breast cancer recurrence by
up to 50 percent. None had ever rowed; most were strangers to team sports.

One of the original sextet was Mary Larson. “[R.O.W.] came out of the blue,” she says, a bonus from her friendship with Ms. Glaser and “an amazing thing” for someone who sees herself as neither “a sports nor a team person.” Ms. Larson says she has found “camaraderie and pride” in team membership. Meeting the physical challenge of rowing – especially after enduring the physical difficulties of cancer, she says – has made her “proud in a way I never thought I would be.”

The band of women looking for Recovery on Water convened for the first time on Feb. 2, 2008, at the “tanks” in the Skokie boathouse, meeting there for the indoor practice called “erging” until April.

By spring, says Ms. Glaser, their dynamic coach had organized a benefit to help underwrite the $50/hour rental of the boathouse and insurance on the valuable crew shells. And she had recruited volunteers from the St. Ignatius team to carry the shells, function as coxswains and cheer the team on.

Early on Ms. Gibbons shocked the group with the news that she had entered them in a race – a 1,000-meter regatta on the Lincoln Park lagoon in July.

The crew Ms. Glaser calls “middle-aged ladies in spandex” did compete. Though their four- and eight-man shells finished last, “it was,” says Ms. Glaser, “such a high.”

Some would-be team members encountered rough waters. A worsening of her lymphedema, the swelling of arm or hand tissue that sometimes follows breast surgery, forced Meg Omori to quit rowing. She responded by developing a product for others whose condition requires round-the-clock compression. In solidarity, the team now wears the graceful wraps she created – sheer armbands adorned with sinuous tattoos and marketed at

Some doctors have been reluctant to recommend rowing for breast cancer patients – especially those with lymphedema, says Ms. Glaser. They caution against repetitive motion or lifting more than 10 pounds, she says.

But at least one team member with lymphedema is rowing without complications. And statistics highlight the many benefits of exercise. Ms. Glaser counts pain relief as one. The medication Arimidex, which she says has been found to cut the risk of breast cancer recurrence in half, causes her joint pain –
pain she says disappears while she is on the river.

Until the end of October, Recovery on Water was rowing outdoors from the Chicago Training Center launch at Loomis and Eleanor, on the South Branch of the Chicago River. Active membership has grown to 27. Weeknight practices are held in a Chicago loft, though an Evanston cadre also meets to row on machines at the McGaw YMCA, where they received free memberships last summer. Ms. Glaser expects to be back at the Skokie boat house twice a month this winter.

The organization website has comments on the meaning of R. O. W. for its members. Ms. Glaser, having expressed her gratitude for the support and strength the team has brought her, sums up her experience with a smile. “I still hate exercise.
But I love being on the water,” she says.

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