Rowing for opportunities at the Austin Y

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On a recent Friday night at the Austin YMCA, Damien Robinson, 17, and his friends Tazavias Walsh and Damien Jordan, or Little Damien as he is known, left the basketball court for the rowing machines.

Robinson raced Tazarius first and won. Next it was Little Damien’s turn. When he fell behind, he called Robinson to take over. One hundred meters behind, Robinson started rowing swiftly but fluidly. He won the race by half a second.

For Tazarius and Little Damien, rowing races is fun, but Robinson is considering putting his natural talent to use for the Chicago Training Center’s rowing team.

The Chicago Training Center is a 4-year-old rowing organization for city youth in Gage Park. Ninety-six kids from 20 schools are currently involved in the free program.

The student-athletes practice four days a week, and two days a week Loyola University law students tutor them. From early April to late November, they practice on the Chicago River, and in the winter, they use the rowing simulation machines or Ergs.

The rowers also get to compete in out-of-town races and go on club-sponsored college tours; two got to go to London last year to watch the Oxford Cambridge Boat Race. Two more students got to attend the overseas race earlier this month.

Patrick Slattery, the treasurer of Chicago Training Center, and Montana Butsch, executive director and a former Oxford rower, started the program with volunteer coaches because they wanted to teach city kids about healthy living, working a team and networking.

Shortly after Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2009, Slattery and Cyril Nichols, the Austin YMCA’s executive director, started the program’s satellite center at the Y at 501 N. Central, right off of the CTA’s green line. Nichols told Slattery the racquetball courts were not being used, so they decided to try four rowing machines in the space.

Interaction with others, exercise and the occasional trip to London are only a few of the benefits of rowing.

“Do you know what kind of scholarships you can get rowing?” says Nichols.

East Coast Ivy League schools recruit students to row for their schools, often offering scholarships. And Northwestern University and the University of Chicago have teams closer to home.

Robinson, a senior at Best Practice High School on the Near West Side, comes to Austin to practice at the Y. He hopes to get a rowing scholarship at Northwestern, where he would like to study business.

Nichols says part of the reason he wanted to start the program was because of these opportunities city students might not otherwise be able to receive.

Slattery knows inner-city kids are not the usual demographic for rowing and notes that some kids need to learn to swim before they can start rowing. But just learning to swim and row has offered its own set of possibilities.

“We had a kid become a lifeguard last summer,” says Slattery.

After a few more races on the rowing machines, Slattery gives the boys oranges and soda. The snacks are supposed to be for the next day’s practice races, but the boys earned an early treat.

“It’s hard work,” says Slattery, “but it’s all about teamwork.”

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