CAMBRIDGE - This story begins with a removed rib, just like the biblical tale of Adam and Eve.
It was the hazy summer of 2008. Noam Angrist was just a skinny rower at Brookline High, trying hard to bulk up for his senior year.
He was years away from being co-founder of Amphibious Achievement, a widely creative athletic-academic program for urban Boston youth.
“I was not very good,’’ recalls the MIT junior. “I was short, relative to the team, but I busted my [butt].’’
Lifting weights in the gym, he felt a pop in his right arm. The pain eventually worsened. Doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital discovered a blood clot in his veins, a potentially life-threatening situation. They operated and had to remove his top right rib.
“It was very sad,’’ says Angrist. “I’m in the hospital watching the Head of the Charles out the window. I couldn’t row anymore.’’
The following year, as an MIT freshman, he switched to the short end of the megaphone, helping coach the Brookline High School novice boys’ team. Outgoing and charismatic, he used rogue ideas, techniques and rap music to motivate the student-athletes. Some coaches just laughed at him.
“Noam is very intense and insightful,’’ wrote coach Katy Ruderman in an e-mail.
“He started practice five minutes early sometimes because he had read that high-powered CEOs use that as a tactic to keep employees on their toes.’’
Angrist says he went all out, all the time. “The other coaches thought I was crazy,’’ he said.
But no one was laughing when two of the teams’ boats won gold at the state championships. Meanwhile, MIT student Ron Rosenberg, a similarly extroverted dynamo who coached swimming at the YMCA, was also having great success.
“Noam and I were sitting at lunch and we were talking about our experience at coaching and how parents told us about how their kids had changed,’’ says Rosenberg, who along with Angrist is co-founder of Amphibious Achievement. “They weren’t saying my kid dropped five seconds. They were saying my kid is more disciplined, a harder worker in school, and a happier individual. We decided to create something that melds those two spheres seamlessly.’’
Welcome to Amphibious Achievement, an MIT program that blends swimming and rowing with a rigorous academic component that promotes an environment of achievement for inner-city Boston high school students.
Students start at 9 a.m. each Sunday with two hours of rigorous swimming or rowing. They have lunch, then spend two more hours of learning with an emphasis on friendly competition and fun. There are 30 MIT mentors for 40 students. The tutors all have high energy levels and the Achievers find that is contagious.
“We make learning real for them,’’ says Angrist. “We play Jeopardy games for grammar, rap games for trigonometry, like ‘Get Triggy with it,’ that makes them think, ‘Oh this is cool.’ We’re sneaking in the learning. Like applying fraction problems of the day by dividing platters of food in front of them.’’
Food for thought
Getting Boston inner-city students to sign up for Sunday morning classes proved as difficult as grant and curriculum writing.
In the beginning, the team lugged a 57-pound Ergometer rowing machine into the John D. O’Bryant School of Math and Sciences in Roxbury. Posters were already up all over the school and announcements were made.
“We go into the classroom, and nobody’s there,’’ says Angrist. “We start freaking out.’’
That’s when they unveiled their secret weapon: Pizza. When school ended, Angrist rushed into the crowded hallways.
“I’m yelling at them, ‘Hey, free pizza! We’re going to talk, you don’t have to listen.’ I’m shameless.’’
The program now is in three Boston high schools and has a lottery to fill openings. But some high school teachers had a caveat for the MIT mentors.
“Their teachers tell us [the students] don’t try hard, they aren’t driven, and they won’t work for you,’’ says Lila Fridley, an MIT coach and mentor. “In the beginning, very few made the honor roll, now most make it.’’
Tutors credit their closeness in age, the athletics and the dogged determination and spirit of the Achievers with their success.
“They see how much we care,’’ says Angrist. “But we learn just as much from them as they learn from us.’’
One day after a spirited practice at the MIT boathouse, he told the group they were special. Some of the girls started weeping. Angrist was surprised. Nobody had told them that, they said. Ever.
Today the river is angry, and the sky is a steely gray. The Achievers have been waiting all year to get on the water, preparing by rowing on machines at the MIT Boathouse, blasting music, pushing their times, and staring out at the icy Charles River.
As they carry the boat to the dock for their inaugural run, Angrist nervously keeps checking the boathouse doors.
Carey - not her real name - is a no-show for the first day of river rowing. Angrist knows it is something that she has longed to do.
She’s a sweetheart, he says, a star of the program who turned her life around despite some tough breaks. Sometimes Carey still shows up with the black-and-blue marks of domestic violence. Her mother has seen jail time and Carey has flunked out of school. But when the MIT masterminds start tutoring her, she blossomed into an honor student.
“Where could she be?’’ Angrist mutters before turning his attention to the rowers.
Truth be told, most of the kids look scared, as if they are time travelers boarding the Titanic. And these are tough kids who don’t scare easily. Plus, rowing is foreign to them; it isn’t something found on the streets of Roxbury or Mattapan.
“You can’t play pickup rowing,’’ says Angrist. “It’s not like pickup baseball or basketball. It’s totally one of the most inaccessible things in the world.’’
Out on the river, Angrist yells through his megaphone and sings, poorly, the words to the rap song, “Lean Wit It, Rock Wit It.’’
Everyone moves in the same direction. Eventually, fear melts into fun.
The Achievers have achieved. They may not be able to walk on water, but they can now row. There are a lot of success stories on board.
Dalesha St. Louis, 16, of Mattapan saw her grades plummet after her brother was arrested.
“I felt like I had no support inside of school,’’ she says. “I felt like I was by myself. Then I came here. They really help. If they sense you have a problem they will pull you over to the side, they will call you at home. I didn’t feel they were like strangers, I felt they were like friends.’’
St. Louis is admittedly very nervous. She’s about to conquer one of her demons. As a third-grader, she nearly drowned in a swimming pool and is terrified of the water.
“I went down, and I was screaming and yelling,’’ she says. “Ever since that day I never went back in the pool.’’
She decided to join the MIT group because she loved watching rowing during the Olympics.
Kamala Brown, 17, of the Match Charter Public High School, gets up at 6 every Sunday and takes several buses from Walpole. Her Dorchester home burned down when wrapping paper ignited in a post-Christmas fire last December.
“It’s worth it being around people who push me physically and emotionally,’’ she says. “The secret is always pushing yourself, even when you’re crying. Learn something new. Try it and you may be successful.’’
The Amphibious Achievement team plans to race at a diversity meet in Rochester, N.Y., this summer.
“We’re going to beat everybody,’’ declares Danielle Smith, 15, of Match Charter. She says rowing is very difficult but surprisingly peaceful.
“It clears your mind. You’re eight people rowing as one. You’re basically one person.’’
Inside the MIT boathouse after the successful inaugural run, Angrist addresses the troops.
“Today is the best day of my life,’’ he says. There are high-fives and hugs all around. St. Louis is positively beaming after her short journey on the Charles. She beat back one of her demons, one stroke at a time.
“When I got on the water, I thought, ‘Oh my God, what did I get myself into?’ ’’ she says. “But when I put my hand on the oars I totally forgot about it. Not only did I get over my fear of drowning, but also I finally reached my goal of getting into the water. It was just a great experience. Watching the Olympics on TV, I always wanted to be one of them. Now I am one of them.’’Stan Grossfeld can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.