Twice a week since May, a group of parenting teens has joined Liz Wirsing '03, coach of Mount Holyoke's novice crew squad, to row on the Connecticut River. The young women all are students at Holyoke's Care Center, an alternative education center recognized by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that works with teens who have dropped out of school. Though most of the participants had never before been in a boat nor participated in any sport, Wirsing has watched them become athletes and teammates. On August 19, they'll join teams from Boston, New Haven, and Pittsfield at the sixth annual Young Parents Regatta in South Hadley.
"We take the regatta seriously but it's mostly fun with everybody cheering for everyone," said Jeanne Friedman, Mount Holyoke's head crew coach. Friedman has been involved with the Care Center's region-wide rowing program--known as Rowing Strong, Rowing Together--since its inception seven years ago. She recalls that when Laurie Priest, Mount Holyoke's director of athletics, was contacted by Anne Teschner, executive director of the Care Center, about partnering for this program, Priest saw it as an ideal collaboration. "Laurie then approached me and I agreed that it was a perfect fit. Since its founding in 1837, Mount Holyoke has believed in the value of physical activity for women. Furthermore, rowing is unique among sports in that the basics can be learned quickly so participants get an immediate sense of accomplishment."
That quick sense of accomplishment, coupled with subsequent gains in physical strength and discipline, are transformative to the program's participants. "During the first few weeks the participants complain about the boat being heavy and about getting sweaty and dirty and all the bugs. They talk about everything but rowing," Wirsing said. "By this point, though, they've gotten the motion down and are doing great things on the water. They surprise me every day with their determination. And rowing really is an empowering sport. I keep seeing them help each other, using the expertise they've gained to coach each other."
Rowing, like many of the extracurricular activities at the Care Center, connects economically disadvantaged youth to a larger world, which translates into greater success in the classroom. "These girls have great capacity, but lacked opportunities to realize it," Teschner said. "Rowing shows them that they can take chances and learn new skills, and in the process teaches them that they can dream big and accomplish what they set out to do."
Through the partnership with Mount Holyoke, participants also gain exposure to a college campus. They come to campus to use the rowing machines at MHC's Kendall Sports and Dance Complex, as well as the rowing tanks on Upper Lake. In addition, they learn that rowing is a lifetime sport and are introduced to a community rowing group in Holyoke.
For the present, though, the young women's focus is on the Young Parents Regatta. "We have shirts made for each team so everyone has a uniform. We also encourage families to come and watch since many of them have never seen an event like this. It also allows the girls to showcase their hard work and be cheered for it. Whether you're watching or rowing, the regatta is incredibly rewarding," Wirsing said.
Despite the scorching temperatures, practices have continued in preparation for the event. Carrying the eight-oared crew shell named Joanne V. Creighton back to the boathouse after a morning on the river, the young women acknowledged that rowing is hard work but also addictive. "It's a way to challenge yourself," Maritza Diaz said. "And you get a free tan." As for the outcome of regatta, all the rowers were in agreement: "We're going to win."