Daisey Arechiga and Alondra Padilla, freshmen at Oakland Charter High School, were sprawled out the grass in front of the Oakland Strokes boathouse, facing the Estuary, on a scorching weekday afternoon. Arechiga and Padilla are part of the Strokes novice team. They’d finished their one-mile run. They’d finished their calisthenics. They’d done crunches on their backs, facing the hot sun, while a coxswain walked around yelling “Pick it up! Keep going! Really fast!”
It was their first day on the rowing team. Kind of brutal. But so far they liked it.
“We support each other, you know?” Alondra said. “She pushes me, like, ‘C’mon, you can do this.’ And I push her. We’re there for each other.”
Along with the other 60 or so kids in the Strokes’ novice girls program, Daisey and Alondra had already started a workout by the time assistant coach and outreach coordinator Jessie Manfrin walked around to divide kids into boats, and directed some to land practice. Now, instead of trying to catch their breath, Arechiga and Padilla wore excited smiles. When they heard their names announced for a boat, they glanced at each other, beaming, and snuck a quick high-five.
Oakland Strokes is a co-ed junior rowing program with about 200 kids on its roster from schools around the East Bay. The Strokes are one of the top youth rowing clubs in the country, boasting six national titles for the girls’ team and two for the boys. There’s a non-competitive middle school program, a novice team for first-year rowers, and a varsity team.
Crew has traditionally been known in pop culture as an expensive prep sport– a boat full of white collegiate types in sweaters, the stereotypical image goes, rowing along to the call of “stroke” from a calm coxswain with a bullhorn. In recent years, though, USRowing, crew’s national governing body, has stepped up efforts to increase minority participation in the sport. In July, an inaugural U.S. Rowing Diversity Invitational was held, featuring teams with “ethnically diverse and economically disadvantaged populations.”
There’s no separate “diversity” team on the Strokes, but last year the Strokes began an outreach program, looking for help to community groups like the Unity Council, a nonprofit community advocacy group based in the Fruitvale area. The idea was to introduce rowing to kids who may not have even heard of the sport, which demands discipline, focus, and partnership – all of which in turn helps students in the classroom and with college applications. “With urban populations, access to water sports is generally less available,” Manfrin said. “And it’s an extremely good avenue into colleges.”
Many of the rowers now on the Strokes are brand new to crew when they join, and head coach Derek Byrnes said he’s seen effort the effort and exertion straighten kids right up. “If you don’t like to push yourself, you will not do well,” Byrnes said.
This year, the Strokes welcomed 12 members to the girls novice team from Oakland Charter High School, including Daisey Arechiga and Alondra Padilla. (Manfrin said there are boys in the middle school outreach program, but not at the high school level, which was a choice made by the charter school, which already has boys rugby program.)
On this first day of their practice some of the charter school girls were in their basketball shorts and shoes. The more experienced team members wore typical rowing garb — the spandex shorts, the running shoes, the tank tops. Now the coxwains, the girls who steer the boars and bark out directions to the rowers, directed each of their groups in carrying an eight person boat from the boathouse and laying it into the water. Each of the eight rowers in the Daisey and Alondra’s group then attached oars to a long, thin, white boat, with “Oakland Strokes” written in orange on the side.
As they lowered themselves into the boats, a few of the newbies were wearing life vests. Manfrin said that for the first two weeks of practice with the middle school program last year, they just practiced taking the boat down to the water and getting in and out of the boat. Soon they’ll begin weekend swim lessons at the Mills College pool. “The comfort around water is going to be our biggest thing,” Manfrin said.
The rowers then pushed off the dock and began practice, slowly and meticulously practicing the correct way to row — where to keep their hands, and when to drop the blade of an oar into the water. Beth Anderson, the novice girls’ head coach, and Manfrin each hopped in a small motorboat, and followed next to the boats to instruct.
Manfrin is 28 years old and a former Strokes rower herself. After graduating from Moraga’s Campolindo High School in 2001, Manfrin went on to the University of Wisconsin, where she rowed for the team and studied social justice-oriented education. “It was sort of the marriage of two things I feel really passionately about,” Manfrin said of rowing and social justice. “It’s perfect.”
On the water, Manfrin instructed team members on proper rowing technique. “Arms at the catch! Legs! Body! Arms! Push down!” And she offered encouragement. “That’s it, Daisey! That’s it, Alondra!”
Daisey and Alondra said they’re having a lot of fun on the team. Alondra said when she started with the middle school program last year, she had never seen a crew boat before, and was really nervous about getting in the water because she doesn’t know how to swim. “It was, ‘Oh, goodness gracious, I hope I don’t fall,” she said. “But they made me feel comfortable here. Kind of awesome.”