Head Coach Isake Smith (center) of Harlem River Community Rowing, with four of her masters rowers.
Head Coach Isake Smith (center) of Harlem River Community Rowing, with four of her masters rowers.

Updated June 4, 2020

To understand the current state of diversity in rowing – or lack thereof – we have to look back at the origins of the modern sport of rowing.*

For centuries, England’s River Thames was well-traveled by royals and private individuals who hired waterman (think “on-water chauffeurs”) to transport them along the waterway. But by the 1870s, new bridges crossing the Thames meant easier transportation for individuals, and less work for the watermen. Racing among watermen for prizes became popular as a means of earning supplementary income.

In 1872, the National Association of Amateur Oarsmen (the predecessor to USRowing) was established in the United States to help formalize the relatively nascent racing scene. It was the first national sports governing body to establish the definition of an amateur in an effort to “eliminat(e) the corruption of commercialism and make sure rowing could take place for rowing’s sake.” In August of that year, it was adopted that an amateur would be “One who does not … compete with or against a professional for any prize, and who… (among a long list of other stipulations) … has never been employed in any occupation involving the use of oar or paddle.”

Despite its best intentions, the new American amateur rule inadvertently led to class prejudice in England, where professional rowers were not allowed to earn their living by working in any manual labor trade. It was argued that such workers would have an unfair advantage over gentlemen in athletic competition.

As racing in England continued to allow betting on outcomes, and giving prizes and money to the winners, rowing thrived. Races often drew crowds in the tens of thousands, and simultaneously created a class divide that has defined the sport ever since. For two and a half centuries, rowing has been nearly exclusively defined by white men of privilege.

Boathouse Row Controversy Opens up the Conversation

In early 1994, Philadelphia’s Boathouse Row – established in 1858 – found itself in the middle of a controversy after Fairmount Park Commissioner Richard Gibson accused the clubs of discriminatory conduct in their membership policies. He also lambasted the annual collegiate Dad Vail Regatta, suggesting the event was “segregated.” It was time, said then-City Council President John F. Street, “for the Dad Vail – and for Boathouse Row clubs – to change their ways or leave town.” According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the issue had been smoldering at The Fairmount Park Commission for months, resulting in the adoption of minority participation and anti-discrimination guidelines for all of its leaseholders.

The backlash from Gibson’s comments was swift and mighty. In just one week, Dad Vail received “a boost from the mayor – who, it turns out, loves the event. A $100,000 corporate sponsorship came with a commitment to develop rowing outreach programs for city youths, a commitment to recruit black colleges to the event, and a newly named weekend festival,” the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

What the Schuylkill Navy, the umbrella organization of Boathouse Row, went through at that time sparked a conversation about diversity in rowing and minority community outreach. And it raised a lot of questions: Who is responsible for increasing minority membership? For clubs on park property, are local government initiatives imperative? If the key is starting rowers young, do all-volunteer run clubs have the manpower to organize, fundraise for, and coach youth programs? How diverse is diverse enough? How do you recruit and retain minority rowers?

Breaking the Barriers to Entry

Unlike field or court sports that need little more than a ball and some imagination, rowing is a sport with massive barriers to entry for minorities, urban youth, and the economically disadvantaged. Most high schools don’t have boathouses at the edge of their property. Transportation is expensive. Equipment costs can begin in the tens of thousands dollars just to get an 8, complete with hardware, shoes, and oars. When I coached an introductory program for underserved teens in D.C., many of the kids didn’t own gym shorts and sneakers. They would arrive to each practice in their rumpled school uniforms: khaki pants with belts, and polo shirts.

Despite the challenges, the face of rowing in the United States is slowly changing, with involvement numbers skyrocketing beginning at the scholastic level, and new masters rowing clubs proliferating across the country. Programs like America Rows, Riverfront Recapture, Baltimore’s Reach High program, and Row New York are creating opportunities for under-resourced communities. The numbers might seem dismal now, but hopefully these kids are the beginning of a new era in rowing.

Isake Smith didn’t know what she was getting into one fateful day of her freshman year at Lawrence University, when an introduction to the erg at an indoor practice kicked her butt. Other rowers supported her struggle and she returned the next day to beat the erg. “I’ve been hooked on rowing ever since,” Smith says. When I met Smith nearly 10 years after that chance event, she was the head coach of Harlem River Community Rowing, and she opened up about her experiences as a black woman within the rowing community.

Rowers of color mention feeling out of place, even within clubs that boast relatively diverse rosters. This “outsider” status (perceived or actual) often leads rowers to abandon the sport early. But Smith says she remained involved because of the sense of community crew provides. The team keeps her coming back season after season.

Smith thinks that rowing club executive boards and coaching staff can help minority rowers feel more integrated and emotionally connected.

“As someone who has felt uncomfortable, the thing I would have liked is for coaches to check in with me.” She suggests: “Ask what your athletes are looking for, why they joined the sport, and why they want to stay.” 

Rowing in Color podcast co-host Patricia Destine agrees. When I spoke with her and Rowing in Color founder Denise Aquino recently, Destine was passionate about one big idea: coaches need to listen to their athletes of color.

“Listen. Actually listen. Sit down and let them vent. They’ve been supressing these feelings for so long they’re built up like a soda. It’s going to take time to help make them feel equal and respected,” says Destine.

With 13 episodes of Rowing Color in the can, and several more in the editing room, Aquino – a Philipino-American – has been listening, a lot. She says the range of conversations with their guests has been eye-opening. “Every story is something I haven’t gotten used to hearing.”

Smith, Destine, and Aquino all acknowledge the importance of youth programs for underserved communities, but when asked how masters rowers of color can help develop a new culture that opens up rowing to everyone, Smith was honest: “I don’t see much long term improvement in the world of rowing. The (USRowing) diversity initiative began in 2010, so where are all the kids of color? While we have a lot of programs that recruit youth of color, the youth disappear into the ‘real world’ and never come back to rowing. They don’t row in college, they don’t come back and coach, they don’t become referees… After almost 10 years in rowing, I don’t see much of an increase in people of color – adults or children.”

Destine suggests getting your high school rowers to interact with masters teams that row out of your boathouse. “Getting everyone to see each other as individuals, not just rowers in a boat, will help them connect on a bigger level.”

Smith adds, “I think there needs to be a larger conversation about the accessibility of our sport and accountability to someone around recruiting and retaining diverse masters rowers.”

One tactic she thinks helps keep minority rowers around HRCR: code switching. “Code switching is a relatively new concept for a really old behavior pattern,” she says. It’s the practice of shifting the languages you use or the way you express yourself in your conversations. As The Economist defined it in 2013, it’s “a proxy for identity, so code-switching is an apt metaphor for handling more than one identity.”

“As a person of color in America, I do it without thinking,” Smith explains. “It may be the reason that my athletes (both youth and adults) continue in the sport, but I think it’s more about the effort I make to integrate everyone into the culture of rowing and the culture of the team I coach. Be that coaching in Spanish, explaining rowing terms, or giving some rowing historical context.”

How would Smith sum up her perspective on the lack of diversity within the rowing community? “As a black queer womyn, I was often (jokingly) told that I was all the diversity on the team.”

She would like community rowing demographics to reflect the American population – that includes diverse athletes, coaches, and business owners. The recent proliferation of initiatives that provide resources and rowing opportunities for underrepresented youth might, in a generation or two, result in a much more colorful rowing community. We can’t wait for USRowing leadership to make it happen. We all need to step up, listen, and take action.

*Although rowing out of commercial and military necessity dates back to a time when the Egyptians plied the Nile 6,000 years ago, this article focuses on the modern aspects of racing beginning with watermen turned professional rowers in England in the 1800s.

What’s the diversity story where you row? Leave a comment below, or email me at rachel@rowsource.com.