“Two kids and a boat” was the theme uttered over and over as Saint Stephen’s contemplated starting its rowing program in 2015. Six years later, the dock on the McLewis Bayou is awash with activity that includes seven crew boats and more than 20 rowers.
Each October through December the SSES Learn to Row program is open to students in the sixth, seventh, and eighth grades. There is no experience required and three afternoons a week, rowers learn the basics from Coach Amber Davis. Now in her fourth year as coach, Davis looks almost as youthful as her pupils, but she is an experienced and talented rower. During her own high school years, Davis was the four-year captain of the Manatee County Youth Rowing Association (MCYRA).
Her training program starts with two weeks of conditioning on land. The novice rowers need to be strong enough to carry the crew boats over their heads and they begin their training on stationary rowing machines. Next is some time immersed in the bayou, including a mandatory swim test. All of the rowers must be able to swim 50 yards, tread water for three minutes, and then swim 50 yards back to the dock.
When the boats are finally introduced, one of the first lessons again puts the rowers right back in the water. Under Davis’ supervision, the rowers must flip their boats and then successfully maneuver and get back in them. It’s a key part of the safety protocols of the sport.
Single, double, and quad sculls are all available and utilized to give the young rowers a taste of how the boats react and how they must work as a team in order to be successful on the water. Nearly half of the 21 current student rowers are now in their third year with the program. Although it is designed as a fun learning experience and not competitive, some of the SSES rowers have advanced to racing programs – two with the Sarasota Crew at Benderson Park and one with the MCYRA at Fort Hamer Park.
“Obviously, there is great visibility in this area for rowing because of the facility at Benderson, but it’s a growing sport in many places around the country,” SSES Athletic Director Lenny Paoletti said. “It was a natural for us to get involved because we’re the only location north of Cortez with our own dock on the water. And because we’re a college prep school, rowing can be a pathway to a university. We already have had two alumni who have rowed collegiately (Tatiana Esparza at Miami and Caitlin Lynch at Dartmouth).”
The next step in the program’s slow and steady growth will be to one day become part of local competition regattas at the high school level. Because Saint Stephen’s lacks a trailer to properly transport the crew boats, the rowers are now confined to just the small slip of water in the McLewis Bayou. Funding for a trailer is on the to-do list for the program.
Until then, the young Falcon rowers will take the beginning steps through practice on the fundamentals, honing their skills on campus with an eye toward the future.