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Springfield rowing club seeks to diversify sport by offering free program for local kids

Ana Diaz Santizo, a 7th grader from Chestnut Talented and Gifted Middle School hopped on a special exercise bike connected to a blender. She pedaled as fast as she could to turn some fruits into a smoothie.

The drink was a post-workout treat for a group of the four Springfield, Massachusetts, middle schoolers to enjoy.

"I never saw that type of thing, because you can just exercise and then get a present after you exercise," said Cindi Suastegui, another 7th grader.

She said she’s learned a lot about nutrition in the program so far.

"We learned that eating different types of fruit after a workout can actually help you," Cindi said. "If you actually want to work out and do it good, you have to eat foods that help you."

This group of girls actually got an extra day of practice.

"We have two groups of students that walk up the street to come to the boathouse to work out and to learn what it means to be part of a crew team," school counselor Emily Harrison said. "Unfortunately, today being Wednesday, our Wednesday students are mostly out sick. So we brought our Monday group back."

Harrison said the girls they brought are three 7th graders who were just inducted into the National Junior Honor Society and an 8th grader, already inducted, who read a welcoming speech in English and Spanish for them.

Harrison said the program, now helped by a grant from the Hampden district attorney’s office, has been going on for a decade.

It’s just meant to introduce kids to the basics. The club has other programs if a students wants to continue, and actually row on the Connecticut River.

There are also free or reduced price community youth rowing programs in Holyoke and Northampton.

But Harrison said this program through the middle school is a great opportunity for kids in the Brightwood neighborhood to learn about the sport. About 90% of Chestnut’s students are African American, Asian or Hispanic.

Harrison said there’s generally little access to this sport for people of color.

"The boathouse is passionate about partnering with people from the neighborhood and not having this just be a predominantly white sport, but really diversifying the sport of rowing," Harrison said.

Their coach, Charlotte Berry, was introduced to rowing when she was an undergrad at Harvard University. Berry said most of her teammates came from prep schools and trained at private rowing clubs.

"They are sometimes prohibitively expensive to join. And it's not always offered through public school sports," Berry said.

When Berry graduated in May, she moved back to her parent’s home in Longmeadow and said she started working part-time at the Pioneer Valley Riverfront Club.

Berry said she became interested in this program because it gave more students access to a sport that’s helped her grow.

"Rowing was a way I learned so many things about life and how to challenge myself and how to take on things that scared me," Berry said. "That's something I want to bring to all the athletes I work with, whether they're middle school athletes or high school athletes."

Berry said their session was a mixed practice to get the kids prepped for the rowing machine.

"The past few sessions, we've been doing a few more circuits and a little bit of weightlifting. [We're] trying to introduce that because that strength is going to really help them on a rowing machine," Berry said. "But also my goal with their sessions is to make fitness fun and give them fitness tools that will help them in their day-to-day life."

After weightlifting, bike riding and simulated rowing, 7th grader Cindi said the view of the river is always the best end to her day.

"Sometimes when I get out of here, I get to see a good view and I'm like, 'Oh, my God, I love that,'" Cindi said. "And then I just, like, take a quick picture [and think] I got to show this to my mom."

Nirvani Williams covers socioeconomic disparities for New England Public Media, joining the news team in June 2021 through Report for America.
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