When Eric Lombeyda, who had attended and coxed at St. Benedict's Preparatory School in Newark and subsequently at Union College, saw an opportunity to coach rowing at his high school alma mater, he did not hesitate.
"I decided I needed to come back to help out and try to figure out any way we could keep pushing the guys to achieve great things," he said.
When Hannah Stafford, who had been working with Teach for America at another all-boys Newark school, got in touch with SBP head coach Craig White to ask if there might be a need for a teacher who could also coach swimming or rowing. Stafford too did not hesitate.
"Craig said yes, help is very much needed, so I jumped at the chance," she said.
But when White, a St. Benedict's alum who had returned to teach math at SBP after attending (and rowing at) William & Mary, was asked to start a rowing program, he definitely hesitated.
After working in the DC area, White was going to return to the Newark area in 2010 for family reasons, and got a call from the St. Benedict's headmaster to ask if he was 'coming back home - and if you are, you should come teach.' White took a position teaching math at the school soon afterward.
All was going well - then a student found out he had rowed in college.
"While I was there, this pain in the butt named Eric Rivera somehow found out that I had rowed in college," White recalls. Rivera had transferred to St. Benedict's after a year in a local public school, where he had learned to row.
"He enjoyed rowing at his previous school and wanted to keep rowing, so he made my life a living hell every day until I said yes. I couldn't take it anymore, and I broke."
That was 10 years ago; now SBP maintains a team of 60 rowers, training year round and rowing on the Passaic River out of the Kearny HS boathouse, and competing at regattas from Washington DC to upstate New York. The program has become a powerful example of what can happen if you offer rowing to kids at schools and places where rowing is still mostly absent.
St. Benedict's is a K-12 private school, so faces different challenges than public schools, but not so different; 88% of students receive some form of financial assistance to attend the school, the school is extremely ethnically diverse (60+% African-American and 30+% Latinx or mixed, with smaller numbers of white, Asian, and other ethnicities) . The students at St. Benedict’s are not monolithic culturally, racially, or in their socioeconomic background. Many students are children or relatives of alumni, some come to Benedict’s seeking more structure than public schools can provide, and some attend for the academic rigor.
The school's overall approach helps - St. Benedict's students are required to accumulate activity credits of some kind, including through athletics, to earn full membership within the community. But White says that kids join for the culture of the team.
Rowing Can Be Popular at an 'Urban' School
Rowing is fairly popular in the area, with high school crews in Kearny, Nutley, and other nearby schools. It is no different at St. Benedict's.
"Our sport is just as sought after as anything at St. Benedict's Prep," White notes. "As much as soccer, as much as basketball. If we had unlimited ergs, or twice the number of coaches we have now, we would have over 100 kids on our program."
In fact, the team sounds a lot like other rowing teams across the nation - the crew has the highest GPA at the school at over 3.5.
"There is nothing like rowing; from a physical perspective and what it does to you as a person, it is a unique activity and experience, and kids want it."
(See also Second Chances for First-Time Rowers at the Braxton Memorial: St. Benedict's Novice Boys Eight Burn Off the Nerves Before a Full Pull.)
But St. Benedict's and a small handful of programs nationwide seem to be doing something everyone else says they want to do but can't quite seem to make happen.
"We attract kids with our community, with our culture, and positivity of the environment; once the kids are in it, they know that they are going to grow from it," White says, noting that Stafford and Lombeyda have helped him build the program.
"And we coach to the kid, to accompany them through their efforts to keep their grades up, to be a better person, to find their trajectory in life, for all of that stuff. It's not just get on the erg and do the meters, get in the boat, work on technique, go home. It's everything. What's going on with mom, what's going on with dad, why didn't you hand in this homework. We coach the person."
Not Without Challenges
"From a financial perspective, it is hard for a school like ours just to stroke a check and make things happen when so much has to be done just to have the school exist day to day," White notes. "The school being there to provide a top-notch school experience for our community, that is the priority, period.
"Building the program has been difficult. We had to do it the old-fashioned way, with super-passionate parents - like Eric's mom (Sandra Sanchez, who is a volleyball and swimming coach herself) - who said 'we have to make it happen because I can see that my son enjoys this and is passionate about it, and we need to figure this out.' We say all the time, you cannot be a crappy person and be a good rower, and they see that take hold in their children. If we didn't have an army of moms and dads who see what the sport has done for their kids, we could not do this."
Starting a program anywhere is a lot of hard work, but Stafford says that the work at SBP is satisfying in itself.
"The kids are great," she said. "You don't think about how hard it is when you see a kid who is working really hard, who is transforming and making independent choices, and doing that alongside his teammates and for his teammates."
"If the question is how we have managed to keep our program alive with the demographic we have kept it alive with for so long when others can't seem to do it - I have a colleague who says 'You have to want to work with kids like ours in the first place.'"
SBP Students at College and Beyond
Lombeyda was not sure he would continue with rowing in college, but his mother insisted he be involved with an activity of some kind, so he headed to the boathouse for the first practice.
"I'm in Schenectady, New York, two and a half hours from home, and no one really looks like me or Craig," he recalls. "But on the first day of practice I walked in and said 'hey coach, we spoke over email,' and he (Union coach Tom White) said 'great, I heard a lot about you; here's the workout, go run the practice while I introduce the walk-ons.'
"I was blown away. I was given a great opportunity and Tom believed in me, and I was fortunate enough to have learned valuable lessons with Craig that made me ready for that.
"Before I left, Craig told me that there would be very few people in the collegiate world of rowing that would look like me, prepare yourself, and I did," he said (and at this point in the conversation, White said 'I told you that?' and laughed). "The passion that I have for the sport allowed me to put blinders and stay focused on the sport. Were there moments of racial tension? Sure. But I was fortunate enough to receive amazing advice from Craig."
Lombeyda, Stafford, and White acknowledge that the transition to college rowing can be tricky, especially for young athletes of color.
"You have to be tough; you have to not allow the BS that you may have to deal with prevent you from loving the sport," White says. "Some people can do that - some have the grit, the resources, and the support from family to facilitate that - and some might not. A lot of that falls at the feet of the college coaches and program stakeholders; many of the athletes of color who make it, along the way they had a coach like Tom and supportive teammates, people who weren't looking at their color, but people who saw them and said hey, you can be good at this. So it is both; the kid has to have the grit, and the coach and team have to provide the supportive environment for everyone."
"The kids have to feel welcome, to feel they are a part of what you are doing, and to feel they have room to grow, and it can't be at their expense - 'hey you brown person, you have to change to fit in.' There can be standards; in my classroom there are clear standards, and they are never broken and never bent, and that is big. We have crystal clear expectations and standards for our program, and there are kids who decide to meet them, and they stay with the program.
"But also, you have to feel welcome, and as the coach you have to have a desire to meet those students where they are. Hannah and I teach, and if a kid comes to me with a problem - maybe he is struggling with polynomials, maybe he understands quadratics but can't subtract fractions - so long as he is meeting the standards, I don't care where he is. It's my responsibility as the educator to remove as many barriers as I can to catch him up to the rest of the class. To meet him where he is and help him grow. You have to be able to go there, and if you're not willing to eliminate those barriers, having a diverse team is not a priority for you."
"You're making an attempt to make them feel part of what you are doing," Lombeyda says. "It can be as simple as asking about their weekend, or how school is going; simple things to show someone that you care. This has happened throughout my whole career, people who have gone the extra mile."
Stafford notes that finances can also be a barrier for SBP students who want to row in college.
"There are a good number of great rowers, talented guys, who have not gone on to row in college because of the overwhelming expense of colleges that offer rowing. Some of those schools are not an option. Many SBP alumni do not move on to row in college, not for lack of desire, but for lack of access. There are no colleges in Newark that offer rowing. Our athletes would flock to any northern New Jersey college that started a rowing program."
"We took the financial piece off the table - you don't need $2-3000 to be on our team, you just need to pay $75 - and we have a team," White adds. "Remove barriers, and you will figure it out."
The SBP crew members have proven this to be true since the onset of the pandemic. "Our kids immediately took the initiative to continue training both on land (within the USRowing Junior National Team Summer Training Camp) and on the water with Brannon Johnson and the volunteers at BLJ Community rowing. The kids constantly push us to increase their access to the sport. Entering the kids in virtual competitions has been our only option due to COVID and they have still found success." The team has earned several top finishes over the years, most recently with athletes at Crash-B's, Ironmen Erg Classic, and Head of the Fish.
You Can Figure It Out White is optimistic about rowing's ability to cross over to athletes of all races, economic situations, and locations.
"As a rowing community, we need to decide if we want to grow the sport," he said. "There's no reason rowing can't be the most popular sport in America again if we can find a way to get the sport more visibility and the entire country has access to it. There is nothing like being in an eight that is moving well, and rowing is a sport you can do for life, which in itself is unique."
White is also emphatic about the benefits of having a diverse and inclusive program.
"It is a false assumption that having black kids and brown kids on your team means having more work on your hands, that you will need to do all these other things to 'help these poor brown children,'" White adds. "Just be a human being and treat the kids like human beings, and they will climb Mount Everest for you."
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