Gio Caruso wasn’t sure why anybody would like rowing.
“It’s like, you’re going to sit there and it’s usually really uncomfortable, for hours on end,” he said. “And you’re going to get soaked, and you’re going to be freezing, and you’re probably not going to win.”
But the Latin Academy junior was persuaded to get out on the water once, and he was hooked. On Saturdays, he wakes up at 4 a.m. to get to the Harry Parker Boathouse in Brighton, where he opens the doors for the day and will work a morning shift before hitting the river for another practice.
Caruso discovered his passion when he joined Row Boston as a freshman. The team gives students within the Boston Public Schools system the opportunity to row on middle school, novice, and varsity level crews and compete against teams across the state in the spring and fall seasons.
Here are five things to know about Row Boston:
A diverse group
Row Boston is open to students from Boston Public Schools, with the exception of Boston Latin, which has its own crew. With the chance to pull from more than 20 high schools and even more to build the middle school program, the students of Row Boston reflect an array of different backgrounds and upbringings.
“We’re definitely one of the most diverse teams, and I think that’s pretty apparent in our every day practices,” said Elizabeth Elsbree, a Latin Academy junior who captains the girls’ team. “You get a lot of different people with a lot of different points of view, which is just nice to add to the experience.”
“It’s an urban team, and there’s not a lot of those,” said Darius Drakes, a junior at Urban Science Academy. “[Rowing] is a very stereotypical sport and our team really breaks barriers in terms of diversity. The people you wouldn’t expect to row are doing it.”
In its 21st season, Row Boston hosts around 50 BPS students throughout the year. The program began as a girls-only team and added boys in 2013.
One of those early participants on the boys’ team, Royce Pease, graduated from O’Bryant (and Row Boston) last year. He now rows at Wentworth.
Other Row Boston alums have stayed involved with the program after graduating, working summer jobs at the boathouse, helping out as junior coaches, or coming back as the program coordinator — the path taken by Kasha Ambroise, an O’Bryant graduate and Smith College crew alumna.
“You’re committed,” Drakes said. “You’re put in a mind-set where you have to do something all the time. You have to show up, because you want to do good. Once you do good on one race, it feels amazing, and you want to keep doing it.”
Building the future
The team shares the boathouse with Boston College rowing, and the river with even more.
“It’s so cool to see the different levels of experience within the same boathouse,” Elsbree said. “It makes it a little bit more of a community. Everyone on the Charles [River] is on a different level, but you can see that everyone is there [to row].”
In addition to the competitive high school program, Row Boston also hosts middle school teams and programming, built from its “rowing in a box” program that travels to the middle school physical education classes, reaching more than 5,000 students annually. In April, 1,500 of those students competed at the organization’s indoor rowing championship at the Reggie Lewis Center.
The atmosphere – and the opportunity – offered at Row Boston has paved the way for the future of its current student-athletes while growing the sport for years to come.
“I don’t know anyone who would say no to [rowing] in college,” Drakes said.
Once a week, student-athletes on Row Boston replace half of their practice time with a study hall, where time is set aside to complete homework and tutors are on hand to answer questions. Rowers must report their grades to their coaches. Study halls often include workshops on topics such as résumé building.
“That’s when accountability comes in, in a different way [than on the water],” Elsbree said. “They’re always pushing us to do our best on and off the water, especially in a classroom setting.”
Row Boston was “a saving grace” for Caruso.
“Freshman year and before that, my academics were god-awful,” he said. “[Rowing] has really structured me.”
Coaches shuttle their athletes to and from the Ruggles T station before and after practice, and will pick students up from schools that can’t access the station easily. College visits are also part of the experience.
“They do whatever needs to be done to make this happen,” Caruso said. “That’s the Row Boston difference.”
Anyone can row
Caruso picked up his oars as a freshman in high school, while Elsbree, Drakes, and Latin Academy junior Isobel Healy began as seventh-graders. None of the four had any previous rowing experience, but they are able to hold their own in competition.
Row Boston offers fitness work and swimming lessons in the winter between racing seasons, giving everyone the opportunity to learn and improve their skills on the water.
A new single-person racing shell can sell for less than $10,000, while an eight-person shell goes for around $50,000. When equipment, coaching, and encouragement are all offered free of charge, it provides an incredible opportunity.
“For the vast majority of the population, [rowing] would be impossible,” Caruso said. “It’s great for the sport. You just opened up an ocean of people, an ocean of potential talent. We welcome all, no bias. We’re here to row.”