With New England’s rich history of boating and the Charles River serving as a grand stage for many prestigious events, Boston is one of the country’s largest hubs for rowing.
But according to Ted Benford, the executive director of Brighton-based Community Rowing Inc., there’s a fundamental problem: The city’s own public school students lack access to that bustling rowing scene, even though it’s right in their backyard.
Part of CRI’s effort to bridge that gap is through its annual Youth Erg Trials International event, held Thursday morning at the TRACK at New Balance in Brighton. The YETI, which had not run since 2019 because of the pandemic, featured 1,200 middle school and high school students from 25 Boston public schools — making it the largest turnout in YETI’s history, and the largest event of its kind in the country.
The students competed on indoor rowing machines for the city’s top distances in their respective age groups, but Benford’s primary focus was promoting participation and accessibility of the event.
“The first thing is to let them know that rowing is even a possibility,” said Benford. “Part of the strategy around this event is to give kids a number of opportunities to participate, whether it’s the school system, the free transportation we offer schools to do a field trip at our facility, or just to run around and have a crazy good time.”
CRI introduces the sport to students by bringing rowing machines and specialized coaches directly into schools and physical education classes, and by offering free bus rides to their training facility in Brighton. While CRI charges a fee to outside participants, their services are free for BPS students.
“Bringing the opportunity to people who are already here, that might not have access or might not think this sport is for them, is very important,” said Javier Suarez, who serves as CRI’s liaison with middle schools. “It shows them what else is in their community they can do.”
CRI’s outreach and initial support provided to schools is a necessary first step, but their mission doesn’t work unless teachers are also on board. Greg Dotson, a longtime PE teacher at William Ohrenberger School in West Roxbury, has not only embraced rowing in his curriculum; now, the school is looking to purchase permanent machines for year-round use in the gym.
“These kids are used to basketball and football and soccer, and most of them have never done this,” Dotson said. “If we can add [rowing machines], we hope kids might be able to continue doing it and become more familiar with it.”
The seriousness of the competition itself varied among YETI’s participants. For some, rowing success could mean a future college scholarship. But many students view rowing as a fun and engaging activity they never would have tried otherwise.
“I play some other sports, but I didn’t know anything about [rowing] until they took us on some trips for it,” said Jean, a ninth grader at New Mission. “I’m still not too good at it, but yeah, I’d say it is something I want to try out more and get better at.”