Boro girls row way to college, learn discipline

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Ready up!

Slowly down!

With precision, teamwork, direction and discipline, a diverse crew of Queens girls navigated a 200-pound, 60-foot-long, 2-1/2-foot-wide rowing shell out of the boathouse on the docks of Meadow Lake last Thursday.

By Cynthia Koons

These muscular, pierced, athletic and fiercely independent divas of the water in Flushing Meadows Corona Park were a stark contrast to their suburban rowing competitors.

Through a program called Row New York, 25 teenage girls from various Queens neighborhoods (and one from Brooklyn) comprise one of the city's only high school rowing teams.

But that's not all that makes them unusual.

They are a storybook team of girls from urban high schools who are fighting the odds that might keep them from attending college by competing in a sport that teaches them the values of cooperation, balance, dedication and perseverance.

"A lot of these girls have so much chaos in the rest of their lives they can get into a boat and take a stroke and everything is simplified," Row New York's assistant director, Emily Auchincloss, said. "If you can see where they come from, these awkward girls become these confident risk-takers."

At last Thursday's event, Row New York - comprised of girls from St. Agnes, Flushing, Forest Hills, and Frank Sinatra high schools - competed against teams from Pelham and Cold Spring Harbor. In both races, the Queens girls won.

"We like competing," Monique Carter, a 15-year-old freshman at Forest Hills High School, said after the races. "It helps us prove something."

Monica Nina, a 15-year-old from Flushing High School, said she tried out for Row New York because she had heard rowing would help her tone her body. What started as a workout regimen turned into an experience in building lasting friendships and learning how to carry her own weight.

"You see the other people rowing hard. It's your job, it pays off," she said. "They're like my sisters, my family."

Nina said it was hard to relate her experience with Row New York to her other friends at school. On her bag, a patch with a No. 4 symbolizes her spot in the boat.

"They see my bag ... they laugh, they don't know what I go through," she said.

What she and all of her teammates endure is Monday through Thursday practice after school, with one day dedicated to academics and SAT prep. On the weekends they also row or compete in the waterways of Long Island, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania or Connecticut.

Their coach, Previn Chandraratna, picks them up at the train station after school and drives them over to the Flushing Y, where they work out in the pools and weight rooms.

"He just expects so much from them in all great ways," said Amanda Kraus, Row New York's director and founder. "He says, 'Listen, here's the bar and you're going to come up to it,' and they have."

The team has won all but one of its competitions this spring, with the exception of a highly competitive Northeast Regional championship in which they placed what Kraus called an impressive fifth out of 10 teams.

"Some of them will get full rides to college," she said, which is the reason she piloted the program here two years ago, after working with a similar rowing organization in Boston.

This year Row New York is sending its first graduate to Potomac College in West Virginia. During the summer the group also is sending two girls to Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire where they will be scholarship summer students taking classes and rowing in their spare time.

All of this is funded through donations, which Kraus and Auchincloss are perpetually seeking for their grassroots organization. Contributions may come in the form of money or in scholarships or, which is most preferred, in equipment.

"That's usually the most prohibitive thing. Equipment can be so expensive," Auchincloss said. When Row New York started in 2002, the organization had one four-person shell and six girls. Today the boathouse stores one four-person shell as well as two eight-person shells and is home to 25 spirited teammates.

"There are some really obvious things going on here, bringing rowing to underserved communities," Chandraratna said. "The sport of rowing makes you more disciplined. Once you introduce to them what the goals are, it turns into a situation where they want to do more -- look at them."

He motioned toward the dock where the girls were again coordinating an effort, led by one vocal conductor, to carry one of the shells back into the boathouse.

"One of the intrinsic lessons (Row New York) teaches is really working together," Auchincloss said after the race. "They've really blossomed into these tough, dedicated sweethearts."

Reach reporter Cynthia Koons by e-mail at or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 141.

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