When Evanston Township High School launches its new crew team this fall, many recruits will be ready thanks to North Channel Community Rowing (NCCR), a free program for Evanston middle schoolers now entering its second year.
Designed to widen access to what has long been regarded as an elitist sport, NCCR was co-founded last summer by a team of veteran rowing coaches, including Michael Wyman and Sandy Culver, who are part of New Trier High School’s renowned crew program.
Culver explained that after the George Floyd killing, the group was motivated to take practical steps to broaden and diversify crew participation beyond the privileged few. “The Dammrich Rowing Center is on the corner of Oakton [Avenue] and McCormick [Boulevard]. It’s right in the backyard of Chute and Haven and Nichols middle schools, but many of the kids that we’re teaching now had no idea that there was even a boathouse there,” she said.
Wyman cited “cost and access” as the primary barriers to youth rowing and the program addresses those issues directly by eliminating participation fees and providing free transportation.
Last summer Culver and Wyman instructed 33 junior high students, mainly from District 65 schools, in the fundamentals of rowing, specifically sculling, a technique that employs two oars. On the North Channel of the Chicago River, teens glided through the water in four-person boats during three one-week camp sessions.
About half of those youths stayed on with NCCR to row in the fall, train indoors in the winter and return to the boats in the spring. Several of the eighth graders who aged out of the program will serve as counselors-in-training this summer.
Some of those eighth graders may also go on to row for the new ETHS club team, which will be headed by Luciana Ruiz, a recent Northwestern University graduate. She rowed five years at NU and has worked with Culver and Wyman since the early days of the youth program.
Ruiz said Culver and Wyman have offered her invaluable advice and practical support for establishing the high school club. “We share the same mission,” said Ruiz. “Part of the reason I wanted to establish the [ETHS] club is to give these kids the opportunity to experience rowing and all the value that it can add to your life.”
NCCR officially kicks off its second year on July 11 and camp registration is full. According to Wyman, 65 area youths applied for 45 spots. “We’re over the hump of recruiting,” he said, “now that the word has gotten out that the kids had fun.”
Rhema Tsedeke, a seventh grader at Dr. Bessie Rhodes School of Global Studies, is one of the youngsters who’s been helping to spread the word.
Rhema said she often passed by the boathouse on family walks by the river and thought it was “cool,” but never considered rowing as an option. Last summer her mom saw the NCCR flyer online and encouraged her to sign up.
“The entire experience is great,” said Rhema, who also swims competitively and plays volleyball. “You get to be on the water, and you get to row. It’s so much fun, and you also get great exercise as well.” She attended fall and winter workouts, plans to participate in another camp session in July and was thrilled to hear about the new ETHS club.
Even with interest burgeoning, camp sizes must remain limited, said Culver, in order to provide a high level of personalized instruction.
Priority is given to students who qualify for free lunch and the demographics of the group are tailored to reflect those of the Evanston community.
In partnership with the McGaw YMCA, NCCR provides free swim lessons to any participants who are not confident in the water. Last year, seven students attended swim classes. This fall, Wyman said he also hopes to incorporate tutoring and mentoring components into the program.
With the right support systems in place, Wyman said he believes young people can find success in rowing and go on to participate at the high school level. From there, the sport can unlock college scholarship opportunities, especially for women, and open doors for admission to competitive schools.
“Rowing is probably in the top two or three sports to help kids get into college. We see what it provides for the kids at New Trier, and we’re trying to help clear that pathway for the kids at North Channel Community Rowing.”
He and Culver point to many other positive effects rowing can have, not only physically but also mentally, teaching teens important lessons about endurance and teamwork. “There are no stars,” said Wyman. “There is no star point guard or center or quarterback. In a boat of eight people, [you’re] all the same.”
“You have to put your ego aside,” agreed Culver, “and make your crew as fast as it can be. Our hope is that rowing is a foundation and kids carry what they learn from rowing out into the world. It’s very transformative.”
Ruiz reflected on her own experience rowing during her years at Northwestern. “I am stronger now. I am more disciplined. I’m more patient and willing to put in hard work. Rowing has made me the person that I am. There are so many life lessons I learned along the way.”