Organization exposes Chicago kids to rowing

April 4, 2010 8:46:09 PM PDT
Rowing is a sport that can be traced back to Ancient Egypt and seems to be enjoyed by a privileged few. However, an area organization is out to change that perception by bringing the sport to inner-city high school students across Chicago.It's the mission of the Chicago Training Center (CTC) to teach the students a new way to get physically fit while enhancing their quality of life.

The sound of indoor rowing machines, or "ergs" as they're also called, fills the room as a group Chicago public high school students practice what they've learned in the sport of rowing, a sport they admit is a tough challenge.

"I didn't think I was gonna last that long. I thought, 'I'll stay for two weeks.' That's it," said Charielle McMullan.

That was four years ago, when McMullan learned about the sport as a freshman. At that time, in 2007, the Chicago Training Center was a new organization, a rowing club recruiting kids at inner-city high schools.

McMullan signed up, as did her classmate Abigail Avila, who never heard of rowing before and faced questions from some in her community about why she wanted to try it.

"A lot of my friends said to play soccer because I'm Hispanic. Most Hispanics play soccer, but I guess I want to try something different. I've always been like that," Avila said.

Going outside their comfort zones continued with each practice and competition, where students learned that success in the sport comes more from determination, than natural ability, or as Avila puts it:

"Hard work and a lot of pain," she said.

"When you get to that point when you're like, 'I gotta give it my all,' you just gotta give it all. Don't quit," said McMullan.

That discipline became a life lesson, which enabled both Mcmullan and Avila to earn full scholarships for a post-graduate year at Exeter Academy.

"It's a sport that most applies to everything else in their life. So then, you check out how it changes they way they address issues at school or whatever. You'll get better at algebra if you work hard all the time," said rowing coach Joe Byrd.

Kevin Ramos says he was doing poorly in school his freshman year until he started rowing.

"So, I love rowing, and I tried my best sophomore year, and I'm doing great," he said.

And now, Ramos gets the unique chance to row against his counterparts in Great Britain. With the help of the Internet, teams of Chicago Training Center kids competed against London youth rowing in a virtual 5,000-meter race.

CTC won.

The athletes get in an intense but fun practice before they trade their ergs for oars when the weather gets warmer and they hit the water.

It was done in honor of the legendary Oxford-Cambridge boat race in London, which the students watched. The corporate sponsor of that race also supports CTC and its mission of exposing underserved kids to a new sport.

"I think what they've got is really great. Now, our task over the next year and beyond is being able to replicate that and grow it all over Chicago," said Keith Pires of Xchanging.

The Chicago Training Center is a non-profit organization supported by volunteers and donors and also works closely with After School Matters, which provides stipends to the students for their transportation to CTC's facility in Gage Park on the Southwest Side.