By Jonathan Gault
If you've been checking out the Merrimack River weekday mornings this summer, you may have noticed a fresh set of faces on the water. Those would belong to the members of UMass Lowell's youth rowing program, which is aimed toward middle-school students and has become increasingly popular among area teenagers.
The first-year program is the brainchild of UMass Lowell women's crew coach and Bellegarde Boathouse director Veronika Platzer, who teamed with Cheryl Saba, athletic director at the Ste. Jeanne d'Arc School, to spread the word to local middle schools. David Cormier, the president of the Riverhawks' men's crew team, serves as the program's coach.
"It's about establishing a long-term relationship," Platzer said. "It's a sport that doesn't require a lot of experience and for me, the best part is being able to have 100 kids walk into our boathouse and say, 'Yeah, I know how to row.'"
The program is one of many ways Platzer has begun to revive the UMass Lowell crew team after arriving here in 2008 after a coaching stop at the University of Michigan. After receiving $1 million in state funding in 2007 for renovations to Bellegarde Boathouse, the women's crew program made the leap to varsity sport last season, competing at the NCAA Division II level.
In previous years, Platzer had also attempted to run a high-school summer rowing program, but was never able to attract as many kids as she would have liked.
"I could barely get people to sign up, and it was because people didn't understand the sport. It has a perception as an elitist sport," Platzer said.
So, after a suggestion from UMass Lowell AD Dana Skinner, Platzer began a new program this summer that would serve as an introduction to the sport, stressing the fundamentals of rowing. Platzer's main goal was to make the program affordable and accessible, something that was made easier by her partnership with Saba. Platzer hopes that after being exposed to the sport, the program's participants will be able to continue rowing, either at Lowell High, or one of the area's rowing clubs.
"Every week, most of the kids come up and ask me how they can continue, if there's a high school team or a club they can join," Cormier said. "Some of them even said they'd come and row for UMass Lowell someday," he added jokingly.
Cormier, a rising senior at the university, serves as the teacher for the group of approximately 10 students, who spend most of the each 90-minute session in an oversized flat bottom craft known as a barge. The barge mimics the environment of a racing boat, but its flat bottom ensures that it is near-impossible for anyone to lose their balance on the relatively calm waters of the Merrimack.
After spending the first two days of each week teaching the rowers the basics, Cormier takes the group out a longer distance on the third day, followed by a scavenger hunt on the program's final day.
Karen Joslyn, whose daughter, Olivia, participated in the program, was very happy with the results.
"She absolutely loves it," Joslyn said. "She's found it very easy to maneuver. We're very pleased with the program." Olivia, a rising freshman, plans to join the crew team when she enters Lowell High this fall.
"It's been unbelievable," Cormier said. "I continue to be impressed by the caliber of the kids we're getting. They're great kids, all really, really enthusiastic. I like being able to share the sport with people who might not usually get the opportunity. I know growing up, I never got the opportunity to look at oars or anything like that. It really is an amazing sport."