By Annette Hinkle
It’s mid-September. School is back in full swing and the fall sports season is upon us. While many students are headed back onto fields or into gyms to perfect their skills in sports like football, volleyball or field hockey, there’s one fall sport where young athletes compete on Sag Harbor’s greatest natural asset — its waterways.
Last Tuesday was opening day for Sag Harbor Community Rowing’s fall session. Many adults have come to discover the pleasures and challenges of rowing since the club was founded in 2008. But Sag Harbor Community Rowing also offers serious training for students — including kids as young as sixth grade — an age group generally not yet eligible for school sponsored sports.
“We were one of the first programs around to take kids that young,” says Lee Oldak, a coach and a founder of the rowing club.
“We were getting girls this high,” he adds as he holds his hand at chest height, “and they can do it. They’re powering a large boat that’s heavy. They can’t carry the boats, but once they’re on the water, they can work in unison, power it and make it go.”
But at the start of Tuesday’s session, this group of local sixth graders stood in clusters looking a little unsure of what they (or their parents) had gotten themselves into. Luckily Oldak and fellow coach Robert Montgomery have done this before. It didn’t take long before the novice rowers were hopping on and off the ergometer (or “erg for short”) rowing machines in groups of five to familiarize themselves with the simple — but crucial — oar moves they will be relying on out in Sag Harbor Cove.
“Starting position, up to the catch, drive to the finish, recovery,” said one student after another sliding forward and backward on the rower as Oldak ran each of them step by step through the sequence. If they faltered, they had to do it again.
“Starting position, up to the catch, drive to the finish.” It’s something of a mantra around here — to be repeated…and repeated….and repeated….
While some of the students may have been hoping to immediately jump in a boat and get out on the water, with the exception of the mandatory swimming test, this first session is taught entirely on land. Oldak and his coaches have found it to be the best way to get students quickly tuned into what they must know in order to move the narrow boats — or shells, as they’re officially called — through the water.
After the erg, the students move to shells on the grass where they go through the same motions. They add in feathering and squaring of the oars — two key movements that keep them from hitting the water when they’re not supposed to.
“We’ve learned over doing this three or four years, the more we’re on land sitting with them the more it pays off on the water,” says Oldak. “We’ve been able to shorten the training, focus on the command structure — the coaches are yelling technique to kids — there are about six terms they need to know.”
“Add in the element rowing backwards — even on land — a layer of confusion when they get caught on a piling or on weeds on the water and the only way to get out is row backwards,” he says. “So we make them do it with their eyes closed. We have to create body memory, which they do perfectly on land.”
“Of course, it goes out the window as soon as they’re on the water,” he adds.
So while the sixth graders worked through the first day’s phraseology and movements, Pierson seventh graders Ava Kiss, twins Falon and India Attias, Sophie Lattanzio and Peyton Yardley prepared their equipment to go out on the water.
These rowing veterans watched the newcomers and remembered being in the same position just last year.
“I didn’t know what it was going to be like,” said Falon. “We just tried it. It’s really fun.”
“We were the only ones who did it last year,” added her twin, India, eyeing the sizeable turnout — both boys and girls — from this year’s crop of sixth graders.
“More people know about it now,” noted Peyton. “After we started it, word got out to other people.”
These young rowers look like experienced pros at this point. And in many ways, they are. Last November, the girls (along with their friend Catherine Spolarich, who didn’t make Tuesday’s session) competed in the Snowflake Regatta in Riverhead. Though theirs was the only boat in their division, the girls finished the course just a couple minutes behind the varsity teams. An impressive showing, given their age. Then last spring, the sixth grade girls competing in the under 14 rowing competition at the Long Island Junior Rowing Championships won their race.
But for Oldak, Sag Harbor Community Rowing is not about racing, it’s about training. Which is much different than many student rowing programs further west on Long Island where competition is fierce and not every rower has equal opportunity to get the experience they’d like.
“I was talking to another girl my age,” recalls Ava of a fellow rower she met at one of the competitions. “She was pretty small for her age and she said that where she lives, it’s hard to get onto a rowing team when you’re short. You have to pay so much money for it and then, you don’t get much attention.”
The Sag Harbor Community Rowing program — which operates independently of any school, is open to all East End students, not just those from Sag Harbor — requires kids to take part in three sessions each week. By day two last Wednesday, the young rowers had perfected the basics and were out in the cove, powering the sleek thin shells through the water.
“At first I was afraid of falling in the water. But it’s really fun,” said first time rower Sophie Flax. “It’s more fun than I thought it would be.”
As the rowers settle into their rhythm, the next challenge for Oldak and the coaches is to determine which students will work well as a team. There’s a certain chemistry that develops (or not) as rowers hit their stride. The club has single shells, as well as doubles and quads — something for all personality types.
“We’ll try and match compatible kids. The boats develop on their own,” says Oldak. “Normally our stronger rower is in the stroke position – they set the pace in the back of the boat. The three behind follow – we want them to follow someone who has good technique, even if they’re not the best in terms of strength. They have to work well together — they’re equal. It’s a different kind of team sport, most of which take an individual effort.”
“Not every kid is capable of rowing with someone else. Shy kids are able to row in a single,” he says. “What’s neat about rowing as a sport is there’s no dominate person. It’s not the jocks … and even if there is a jock in the program, they’re all starting from the same point. It’s very technical, it’s very skill oriented. Tennis you can have natural ability – that doesn’t happen in rowing.”
Rowing is also a sport that isn’t defined by body type. Athletic kids can, of course, be really good at it. But, Oldak notes, so can those who are not traditional athletes and for kids who don’t enjoy sports in which opponents battle face-to-face, rowing can be a nice fit. As Oldak points out, anyone willing to put in the time has the opportunity to become an excellent rower.
He should know.
“I’ve been rowing actively since I started five years and I’m still refining my stroke,” says Oldak, who, although he had rowed in the past, admits he “had never rowed to this kind of level.”
Rowing, he explains, is a repetitive activity. While it takes only an hour or two to learn the basics, you never stop developing technique and improving a stroke.
“Our goal is to make everyone succeed and we’ve had success with everybody,” says Oldak.
The biggest challenge Oldak faces as the middle schoolers grow into high schoolers is the competition from all the other school sports and activities they try to fit into their busy schedules. Many are not able to stick with it, though he feels there are good reasons why they should — and that’s scholarships.
“The prep school kids get it – but out here the parents don’t get it,” says Oldak. “It’s huge for college, especially for girls because it’s considered a varsity sport due to Title 9.”
And because they start so young, there are lots of years ahead for the students to perfect their skills. One technique Oldak has found for doing just that is pairing student rowers with less experienced adult rowers.
“I don’t have a problem mixing adults with kids,” he says. “If the sixth grader has the skills, they have the skills. I’ve taken a lot of sixth graders and told them, ‘You know what to do and say — you’re teaching this person.’”
“I try to reward them for their skill level,” says Oldak. “Making these kids reteach reinforces what they’ve learned.”
This fall, the Sag Harbor Community Rowing program is offered Tuesday to Thursday afternoon and Saturday morning at Cove Park in Redwood. In addition to hour and a half sessions for youth rowers, there are also sessions where youth and adult rowers can work together. The program runs through November 11. The cost is $169 for students (required to row at least three times per week) and $199 for adults (required to row at least once a week). In spring, a membership fee ($250 adults/$125 youth) gives full access to the boats from May 1 to November 15. For more information, visit Sag Harbor Rowing online at www.rowsagharbor.org.