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Students take part in the TDSB rowing program at the Bayside Rowing Club on April 27, 2011. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
Students take part in the TDSB rowing program at the Bayside Rowing Club on April 27, 2011. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

Rowing

Public schools put oars in the water Add to ...

The teenagers come in groups of three and four on Wednesday afternoon, dropping their book bags outside a portable trailer at the Bayside Rowing Club on Toronto's waterfront. They are high school students showing up for rowing practice, but they aren't wearing private-school uniforms.

Inside the trailer, rowing coach Dominic Kahn checks the weather radar on his smartphone. A squall is approaching from the south, and he is going to have to wait out the weather before letting anyone on the water. He suggests they watch a training video. The problem is, the kids are keen to row.

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About 50 students from a dozen different public high schools have signed up for the Toronto District School Board's fledgling rowing program, a trial that has nearly doubled in size from last year. It includes five weeks of on-water training three times a week and a May 26 regatta.

As the weather clears, Mr. Kahn starts the dockside training. He shouts orders as the kids execute tasks such as launching 10-metre boats and loading oars according to the conventions of this tradition-steeped sport.

"Remember, this is a military sport," he says, with just enough mock in his seriousness that the kids know he is, in part, joking.

"Dominic is a fanatic," says Chick Kennedy, athletic director of the school board. Mr. Kennedy admits that the program exists only because Mr. Kahn wants to get more people involved, especially young people.

The crews launch three quads, a double and a single boat off the barely floating docks. They stand in wet socks and negotiate positions based on unspoken social hierarchy and alliances. They've all done early-morning dry-land training through the winter, and most profess an appreciation for the cardio and strength benefits of rowing, but others are clear about expecting something more rewarding than rowing machine monotony.

"I like the water," says Jayme Stokes, a Grade 9 student from Riverdale Collegiate who says she goes to the Toronto Islands regularly. "I have flat feet and bad knees, so I can't run, but beyond that, as cheesy as it sounds, I just feel free on the water compared to being in a gym."

Andrea Gonsalves, a Grade 9 student from Richview Collegiate in Etobicoke, cites similar motives. "I have terrible hand-eye co-ordination," she confesses. "But I love canoeing, and this was the closest I could get to that through school." She looks out across the litter-strewn water of Toronto harbour's turning basin to the smokestacks of the Portlands Energy Centre. She admits that the scenery doesn't match that of Algonquin Park, but points out that rowing is a much better workout than canoeing.

Jonathan Plytos, in Grade 12 at Riverdale, is sturdily built and doesn't appear to have much holding him back physically. It's his second year in the program, and he got out on the water early in a single and has returned with a vow to do more abdominal crunches. He says he also plays school hockey but gets a more immediate feeling of being part of a team as a rower. "I love the feeling of being in total sync," he says.

The storm that capsized student rowing boats in Hamilton harbour on April 28 is still 14 hours away as the boats from Bayside make their way out from the docks. A coach in a crash boat makes rounds. It's the first time for some students in the unstable rowing shells, and they are soon spread out across the mostly enclosed turning basin.

Mr. Kennedy says the rowing program follows safety guidelines established by a provincial body. All rowers have to pass a swim test, but they don't wear life jackets - which would impede oar movement - nor are flotation devices on board. Coaches check weather reports before heading out in motorboats to supervise on-water activity.

Hypothermia was the most serious consequence of the incident in Hamilton harbour, in which nine students spent up to 20 minutes in water just four degrees above freezing, but Mr. Kennedy acknowledges that had the rescue come just a few minutes later it would have been a different story. "It sounds like a freak storm, but that could have been a disaster."

He says he isn't sure if there will be any repercussions at the board level. Very few public school boards in Canada offer a rowing program - St. Catharines, Ont., and Victoria recognize local rowing traditions. The cost to the board is minimal because rowing, as a trial sport, doesn't receive the funds given to approved sports.

"I have a few trophies left over at the end of the year, so we cover the awards, but that's it," says Mr. Kennedy.

To be part of the program, the kids have to join Bayside Rowing club at a cost of $225 each. Mr. Kahn says that's a relative bargain compared to the rowing programs at private schools, which typically cost more than $4,000. According to Mr. Kahn, the club covers the cost for about a third of the rowers.

His goal for next year is to attract more students from Scarborough schools so the program will draw from across the city, a prerequisite for more financial support. He offers free rowing lessons to any high school teacher who wants to try starting a program.

He hopes to help rowing lose its image as a sport for the physically and financially elite.

As Riverdale Collegiate teacher and rowing coach Mary Nishio says, "We have rowers in burkas and everything now. The kids don't even realize the sport is associated with the upper crust."

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