There have been a few central givens in our sport over the years: "Wisconsin gets on the water really late," is one; "Philadelphia, love it or hate it, is a hub for the sport," is another; and, when speaking about getting future generations of rowers into the sport for the first time, "there’s no Little League for rowing" has long been accepted wisdom.
Over recent years however, this given has eroded as more and more athletes begin rowing, by accident or by design, at younger ages. It’s now possible to find camps, summer rowing programs, or learn-to-row sessions that open themselves up to younger athletes, while competitive club teams and, increasingly, scholastic teams are creating bona-fide rowing programs for Middle-School aged athletes. In short, it’s no longer that unusual to encounter athletes who started rowing before High School.
"With kids beginning sports so much earlier in mainstream sports--baseball, football, hockey, golf, soccer, lacrosse, swimming--it's getting even harder to make a High School team if you haven't done the sport before," says Chris Chase, of the Saratoga Rowing Association. "Rowing is one of the few sports a kid can try out for and make the team, because most rowing teams don't do cuts."
Chase came to be a rowing coach in a decidedly non-traditional way. A former competitive wrestler, Chase was approached during his first year of teaching by students wishing to start a rowing team at Saratoga High. So, despite no prior rowing experience of his own, Chase became one of the founders of the Saratoga Rowing Association.
In many ways, this “outsider” perspective has allowed Chase to see rowing through a fresh set of eyes, and in some ways, this could be seen as a metaphor for the ways that original thinking has led to changes in rowing, such as the growth of Middle School crew. In the past decade, Chase has emerged as a passionate, "deep thinking" advocate for youth and scholastic rowing, and he sees the growth of Middle School rowing as being of a piece with larger developments in the sport.
"Rowing is a lifelong sport," says Chase. "We live in a culture with a great deal of growing passion for fitness. How many sports in high school do kids actually ever do again after they graduate? Not many. Rowing is outdoors, yields tremendous fitness, and can be done alone or with others. Injuries, concussions, and a lot of other reasons are giving reasons for kids to switch sports to rowing."
In addition, Chase says, rowing offers a safe haven for teens (and pre-teens) looking to belong to something greater than themselves. "What teenager is not insecure? What teenager doesn't want to feel part of something, or necessary to a larger effort?" asks Chase. "Rowing is the cure. One of the greatest aspects of crew for kids is that you are only as good as the weakest person in the boat. No matter how good you are, your fate is tied to the worst athlete in your boat. This means, their performance, their improvements, their effort matters to them. Therefore, the weakest member MATTERS. They feel like they are important. They are part of something bigger than themselves. As a teenager, this is an amazing moment and feeling."
Conal Groom, a former USA National Team sculler, is a juniors coach at the Seattle Rowing Center. Groom is also involved in coaching the Junior National Team scullers, and he similarly sees the growth of Middle School rowing stemming broadly from a variety of factors. "Current grade and middle school parents went to college well into the modern Title IX era," says Groom. "The sport of rowing gained popularity and notice dramatically during the 90's. Additionally, parents of recent generations prefer to keep their children in organized activities or sports, as opposed to earlier generations who were happy for kids to spend their afternoons largely unscheduled. In areas where junior rowing is already popular, and parents see firsthand the sense of discipline and fitness levels the sport demands, it is natural for demand to rise for their younger children."
Collegiate opportunities for women especially seem to be driving at least some of the increased interest in rowing at ever younger ages. "Parents of middle school girls actually ask about scholarships much more often than you might imagine," says Chase.
POCKETS OF GROWTH
Rowing for younger athletes is not completely new, and there have always been pockets of rowing for younger athletes in various places around the US. One example of a program with a longer legacy is Connecticut’s Rumsey Hall, a 6th-9th grade boarding and day school in Washington, CT, which has offered rowing for younger athletes since the early 1970s. "Crew at Rumsey Hall may have begun as a recreational program, but I built a competitive schedule for the team beginning in spring 1990," says Rumsey’s Head Coach (and Assistant Headmaster) Fran Ryan. "Our first race was among Choate’s lower boats on the day before the Founder’s Day Regatta in 1990. Since then, we have raced anywhere from 2nd to 5th boat levels against some of the best prep school programs in New England. Basically, with middle schoolers, we prepare to race anyone, anytime!"
For scholastic teams, particularly private schools, Ryan sees the benefits of growth among younger age groups as "Independent schools, with populations of influence, trying to maintain their own value proposition by enhancing the programs," he says. "At the same time, they capture athletes that may otherwise be uninvolved or under-involved in their schools’ athletic programs. "
Around the Albany-Saratoga area in upstate New York, interest has similarly been percolating for over a decade. "In our area, 8 programs field middle school teams," said Chase. "We agreed 12 years ago or so that we would all row middle school kids. There are about 300 middle school rowers within 20 miles [of Saratoga Springs]."
Perhaps both ironically for its status as a late-bloomer in the sport and presciently for the direction that rowing is heading nationwide, Florida has allowed athletes as young as 7th grade to participate in that state’s State Championship regatta since the early 2000s. It’s no surprise that rowing was the fastest growing sport in Florida until almost 2010, a growth fuelled in part by an increase in numbers of younger athletes.
LEARNING FROM THE OUTSIDE WORLD
If you’ve spent any time around the US’s sculling coaches, it’s likely you’ve heard anecdotes about how rowing, specifically sculling, is taught at younger ages in other countries. "In England, rowers cannot begin sweeping until they are 16," says Saratoga’s Chase. "Look at major rowing countries: Germany, New Zealand, Australia, France, Italy, and on and on. They make their kids scull first, and add in sweep later in their high school years. The octuple is a huge event for the younger ages in those countries!"
So, is all this growth good for kids, and good for the sport? Advocates like Groom and Chase believe it is. "Hopefully the benefits are a lifelong tie to the sport for competition, health, recreation, and social outlets, but I think you’re asking about the benefits for competitive athletes," says Groom. "The younger athletes grow up with much more awareness of body and boat, and generally more relaxed in the boat. Their boat skills are more advanced because they teach themselves tricks when they are fearless, light and just messing around. I think they also intuit what they and the boats are capable of because they have been doing it longer, the old time on task theory. Lastly I think rowing then has more appeal to them; they are hooked not just for the competition but they are tied into the social and cultural elements as well."
For teams that are not tied to scholastic athletic departments, there’s the financial angle too. "Teams will also focus on Middle School rowing as it helps stabilize the business of having a Booster Club," says Chase. "Imagine the team getting their rowers for two extra years? Two more years of dues times 2-3 seasons, two more years of volunteers, 2 more years of parents to help grow the club, two more years of skill development which leads to better results potentially, which potentially leads to more exposure & potentially more financial support/donations. It's all tied together." Or, to put it even more simply, it might be a chance to spend a few extra years “simply messing about in boats.”
So is all this growth entirely positive? "Middle School rowing is only going to continue to grow," says Chase. "Maybe for, and maybe not for the right reasons, but it will grow. Most places will start Middle School teams to gain the extra years of skill development--to gain a competitive advantage. Others will start Middle School teams because it gets them access to athletes they probably would not get if those kids reach 9th grade." It’s probably also important to ask the right questions about making sure that all of these kids are being served in a way so that they can reap all the benefits of the sport.
The athletes are there, and they will continue to come…the evidence is even on Twitter:
In Part II of this article, to be posted next week, we’ll look at some suggested "best practices" for Middle School aged athletes.