NEW JERSEY - Competitive rowing once thrived in Newark, New Jersey along the Passaic River, but it evaporated at the start of the twentieth century.
In fact, no boathouse exists currently day in Newark, but St. Benedict’s Preparatory High School in Newark is building a crew program with the potential of producing future Olympians while exposing young people of color to the sport.
And this program has come a long way from when it was launched in 2011 with nine students. Now, they have 60 students in the Boys Prep Division.
"I mean, the kids love the sport, the kids love the sport and the values that it brings, they love to compete. And it's very unique, it's not an opportunity that lots of kids of color have access to," said Head Coach Craig White.
A Newark, New Jersey native, White is not only the Crew team's head coach but a 2004 graduate of St. Benedicts.
On a hot late August day, White directs his top rowers through a workout on the Passaic River off a boathouse in Kearny. Off the water, he has plans to expand the program with a Girls Prep Division, and make rowing more accessible to athletes of color.
"I'd say next is to move home. We have to travel 4.2 miles every day to be able to practice. And we'd be able to recoup a lot of practice time if we could operate out of the city of Newark," says White.
Senior Oarsman, Yamill Harris says, "I think that it's really important, we can show more people that look like me, can do the sport. And I think people don't really see a bunch of teams that are of different colors and they don't like they feel like they can belong or they wouldn't fit in. And to show them that we as people can join together, of different colors, and row in the same boat and have the same technique."
Harris says he learned about crew, watching the boats glide under the Arlington Bridge in Kearny, New Jersey as he and his mother drove over the bridge one day. You just never know what might inspire these students to join the crew team. Senior Alvaro Paulin just wanted to slim down, but then he found a passion.
"When I came to Benedict's, I was really chubby," says Paulin. "I was really out of shape. I’ve never done a sport. And Benedict's requires you to do an activity. So you need to be involved in the community. And I was walking around school one day. And I saw a group of older guys who were really defined and ripped. And I thought ... maybe that'll work for me!"
And it has worked for Paulin, as well as his crew mates Harris and Jayden Dasher, all senior oarsmen who earned spots at the Olympic Development Program this past summer, operated by U.S. Rowing. The four-week program in Jacksonville, Florida is for rowers under 19-years old, to develop the sport's top athletes and support future National Team members.
Dasher says the program opened his eyes, "It's not like that here. You know, we have a good set of guys here, but it was just different to be around people who are taller than me, like much taller than me, much faster, much stronger than me. So, yeah, it just opened my eyes to the sport of rowing a lot more."
This season, the St. Benedict's Prep Crew Team has goals to place in the Philadelphia races in the fall, and be the fastest rowers at an indoor meet in Boston in the winter. But for some of these seniors, their goals are to go even further.
Dasher says he wants to go to college, " … and hopefully row division one and, well, for this year, I want to make national team … and then some time after college, you know, go to the Olympics.
Paulin says, "I really want to go to Cambridge University in England because they have this big race over there called ‘The Boat Race’. It's Cambridge versus Oxford. And my goal is to one day participate in that."
But these opportunities would not be possible for the St. Benedict’s students without National Grants. In mid-September, the crew program was selected as one of five recipients for the "A Most Beautiful Thing Inclusion Fund". The $75,000 will help St. Benedict’s Prep Crew get to the next level in the near future as well as someday build a boathouse of their own, in Newark.