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Girls’ rowing team puts oars within reach

on October 6, 2008

audio slides by ISABEL ESTERMAN

Sept. 7—About a dozen girls huddled in front of the boathouse at the Jack London Aquatic Center Sunday afternoon giggling and chatting away as though they’d known one another for years.

Who’s the cute new crew instructor? Who’s afraid of the water? Is rowing really that hard? they asked one another.

Above them, on the second floor of the center, the girls’ parents were hammering away with questions of their own to the coaches and directors of the junior women’s rowing team, the reason everyone had gathered there during an open house event.

Meanwhile, the girls, many of them Oakland flatlanders who have never rowed or swum before, were getting ready to embark on an experience few thought they would ever have.

A veteran team member shows a prospective team member how to row on the ergometer. (Photo by Martin Ricard)

A veteran team member shows a prospective team member how to row on the ergometer. (Photo by Martin Ricard)

They were about to get their first taste of crew.

“So, who’s ready to try out the ergs?” one of the veteran team members asked the group, referring to the ergometers the girls use to practice rowing. Almost immediately, they all jumped on the machines and each took turns trying out their rowing techniques.

On the surface, the open house seemed like any other orientation for a high school sports team.

But a closer look, and you would find teenagers—many of them black and Latina—drawn to an elite sport that has traditionally been enjoyed mostly by whites.

The aquatic center started the program in 2004 to make crew more diverse and financially accessible to youths in Oakland. Each girl is charged only $100 per semester instead of the thousands of dollars the sport usually requires. Many of the other teams that use the boathouse come from out of town.

At first the program’s main goal was just to expose Oakland flatland high school students to the water.

“Kids in Oakland don’t swim, and their parents don’t swim,” said Robert Kidd, the aquatic center’s executive director who is an avid rower himself. “So a big part of what we do is teach girls how to swim.”

The second big component of the program, Kidd said, is transportation. Because public transit doesn’t travel to the waterfront, the program provides vans that pick up the youths after school and bring them to the aquatic center.

Now, Kidd added, he finds that when most of the girls are out on the water with their oars, something else takes over any fear of drowning or financial worries.

“It just changes who they are,” Kidd said with a proud grin on his face. He said most of the girls who stick with the team also go on to college.

Dede Birch, who has been coaching the team for the last two years, said she has been most impressed by how the girls always find a way to come together as a team.

–story continues after slideshow–

slideshow by ISABEL ESTERMAN

Although the team has yet to win a competition, she said the girls show a sense of camaraderie that rivals any women’s crew team from the area.

During one recent match, Birch recalled, an opposing team—comprised mostly of white girls—rudely sized up the girls and called them the “immigrant team” because of their ethnic backgrounds.

The girls responded by taking a marker and writing “Asian Power,” “Latina Power,” “Black Power,” and “White Power” on each of their limbs as a sign of their tenacity.

That excitement about rowing was evident Sunday in both the girls who were returning to the team—10 of last year’s team members are coming back this year—as well as the newcomers who showed up at the open house.

Alexandria Flourney, 17, a team member for three years, practices her rowing techniques on the ergometer.

Alexandria Flourney, 17, a team member for three years, practices her rowing techniques on the ergometer. (Photo by Martin Ricard)

Take Alexandria Flourney, 17, a sturdy senior from East Oakland with a stroke of blonde in her hair like R&B artist Keyshia Cole. Flourney is going into her third season of rowing with the team.

She said she joined after her best friend signed up for the team. At first, she admits, she had her reservations.

“When I first joined,” she said, “I was like, ‘What is this?’”

She is now enthralled by crew, which she credits for boosting her self-esteem and giving her a competitive drive she didn’t know she had.

Her goal, she said, is to be on the women’s Olympic crew team.

Then there was Hanna Weisenberger, 15, a North Oakland sophomore who showed up at the open house on Sunday with tortoise-rimmed glasses, a skirt and blouse, and red pumps. She is the co-captain of the team this year and said she doesn’t feel like she can function without crew.

“Without crew,” she said, “I’m all over the place. I’m totally spazzed out.”

As for the newcomers, there were girls like Tenecia Redding, 15, and Margarita Amaya, 16, both sophomores this year at Oakland Technical High School.

They both said they were definitely joining the team, but each still had reservations.

Margarita had rowed before, but she said she had never done crew competitively.

Tenecia, on the other hand, said she still was afraid of drowning because she didn’t know how to swim. But she said she was willing to take the risk for something that seemed fun and beneficial.

“I guess my first real test,” she said, “is going to be when I have to jump in the deep end.”||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||||


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