Penn AC and Vesper are neighbors on Boathouse Row in Philadelphia
In the summer of 2001, I found myself sharing a group house in Washington, DC with a handful of scraggly young professionals. We were all New England transplants with half-baked goals that we strived towards in between weekend keggers and late nights dancing at club Heaven and Hell. Growing up with two older brothers I’d considered myself a tomboy and was always into sports, so when my housemate Abby told me she was signing up for a learn to row program at a local boathouse, I jumped on the bandwagon.
I was 5’2″ and – having recently broken up with a longtime boyfriend – was subsisting on Ramen noodles and broccoli, and weighed in at about 112lbs.
I didn’t know thing one about rowing when I showed up at the Anacostia Community Boathouse that summer day. I didn’t know that elite programs preferred women 5’9″ and taller, and that I was better suited to be a coxswain. I do know now, looking back, that I am incredibly grateful for a program, and a coaching staff, that didn’t steer me towards the coxswain seat, but instead supported my drive to learn to row, and squeeze as much power as I could out of my lightweight frame.
In the years since, I’ve worn a lot of hats – as coxswain, rower, and am now into my fifth season as a coach. I launched RowSource as a platform to reach masters rowers, coaches, and coxswains, and to support the ongoing research for a book I’m writing about the sport. My knowledge of rowing has grown, and my confidence within the rowing world expands. I’ve met and networked with high school, collegiate, and masters coaches, Olympic rowers and coxswains, team physicians and trainers. But in 15 years, I’d never set foot in any of Philadelphia’s prestigious clubs on Boathouse Row. “I’m an outsider,” I’ve always thought. “Who the heck would let me in?”
Outside Looking In
A tight-knit community of 14 clubhouses on Philadelphia’s Kelly Drive, Boathouse Row holds a certain mystique. The rich history of rowing on the Schuylkill dates back to the early 19th century, with the construction of permanent boathouses gaining speed in the second half of that century. Many of those Victorian boathouses with stone façades still stand, their boat bays, locker rooms, and social rooms heavy with the years’ must and memories.
Home to clubs like Vesper and Penn AC that foster the development of national and international champions, the boathouses on Kelly Drive always seemed out of reach. How could someone like me, raised within the masters rowing framework, connect with rowers and coaches along Boathouse Row?
Turns out, I just needed to ask.
I reached out to the Women Rowers Professional Network: “I’ll be in Philly for a couple of days after Masters Nationals and am interested in visiting Boathouse Row. I’d like to meet up with rowers from any of the Schuylkill Navy clubs to talk shop and club/clubhouse history.”
Karen Agersborg, a member of Penn AC since 1980, and hot off a successful trip to Masters Nationals, met me at the front door of #12 Boathouse Row in the middle of a Tuesday afternoon. At 53, Karen has decades of rowing experience under her belt, including a run at the 1988 National Team. When I thanked her for meeting with me, she admitted that she’s always interested in supporting women in the sport, and was glad to give me a tour of Penn AC’s clubhouse. We made our way through a front gate and entered through a boat bay at the back with a view of the Schuylkill River. It was smaller than I expected. Suddenly I felt 15 years of self-imposed outsider status begin to crumble.
We looked at lots of images of Penn AC crews, with faces among them that Karen pointed out as folks that went on to become members of National Teams and Olympic squads. People that she knew – and still knows. Rowers that, as she said, are always willing to talk rowing. We scurried around a fence and wandered into the University of Pennsylvania’s boathouse, where veteran rigger Shep was covered in sawdust and favoring a swollen knee. After 30 years of keeping Penn’s boats in good working order, it was obvious the boathouse was Shep’s second home as his clear blue eyes scanned trophy cases overflowing with silver cups, and fading photographs. Varsity letter oarsmen rosters dating back 100 years stared out from behind frames, and old spoon oars decked the walls.
At the Philadelphia Girls’ Rowing Club (#14 Boathouse Row), longtime member, newsletter editor, and preservation campaign leader Diana Post welcomed me with an apology. PGRC’s clubhouse is undergoing massive renovations (yippee! good news!) which meant none of the historic memorabilia was up on the walls. But walking through the boat bays and onto the docks, it was easy to imagine a May day in 1938 when PGRC was founded. It was a time when no other Schuylkill boathouses offered membership to those of the “weaker sex.”
PGRC members trained diligently over the following decades, and can lay claim to a historic win at the first National Women’s Rowing Championships in 1966. It also was the first American women’s club to compete in the European Rowing Championships, and was permitted to join the Schuylkill Navy in the 1960s. It’s now the oldest active women’s club in the United States, offering juniors, novice, and masters programs.
The history within the walls of Boathouse Row clubhouses is palpable; something I’ve never experienced in the younger boathouses I’ve belonged to. When I told Karen that I was glad to see all of this after years of thinking these boathouses were completely inaccessible to me since I lacked an impressive rowing pedigree, she smiled and said simply: “All you have to do is knock.”
“Knock? On the front door?” I said, astonished.
“Yeah,” Karen said nonchalantly. “If someone’s around they’ll let you in.”