Paddles poised above the murky Schuylkill, the students were ready. When their teacher gave the word, the 40 young people moved as one, slicing the water with decisive strokes.
Many were not gifted athletes, and some had not been on the water until recently.
But there they were, members of a dragon boat team practicing for their first regatta, and that felt important.
"It feels good — working together, being a team," said Abdullah Conway, a seventh grader at Mifflin School in East Falls. "I love all the different techniques."
The students, all from the Philadelphia School District, are part of the Healthy Dragons, a youth team formed a decade ago to promote active lifestyles, to give students lessons in teamwork, and to show children what they are capable of. The Philadelphia Flying Phoenix, a competitive dragon boat team, sponsors the Healthy Dragons, and the school district provides support, but the bulk of the $15,000 it takes to run the kids' short spring season comes from grant funding.
Emilia Rastrick, the physical education teacher at Lingelbach Elementary and a Healthy Dragons coach for most of the program's history, loves what it does for the sixth, seventh and eighth graders who participate. (Students come from Lingelbach in Germantown, Mifflin, Henry in West Mount Airy, and Bethune in North Philadelphia.)
"Kids are focused in a way they've never had to focus before," said Rastrick. "You can't sit there and chat with your friends when you're on the water; you have to channel that into productivity to make the boat move faster."
On Wednesday, at one of the final practices before the regatta, the students were loose as they strapped on life jackets and lined up before piling into two boats, making jokes, bragging, sighing about exercise. Once they were on the water, their demeanor changed, their energy transformed into making their boats go faster.
They paid close attention to the coaches – teachers and members of the Flying Phoenix club who called out instructions, watching their form carefully, correcting an errant hand here, a wandering eye there. One paddler, Zora Stewart, was so eager to be on the water that she boarded the boat with a newly broken foot, given special permission by her doctor to participate.
"When we say sit up, it's not about, 'Let's have tea and sit up proper,' " said Rastrick from her mid-boat perch. "It's about sitting up so you can engage your whole body."
Although the students are new to dragon boat racing – in which 20 paddlers sit in rows of two plus someone steering the boat from the back and a drummer keeping time in the front – they have absorbed it quickly.
"If you're going to paddle, there's a certain way you have to hold it," said Jasmen Widamen, 12, a seventh grader at Lingelbach.
"Your body has to rotate so your arms don't hurt," said her classmate Deana Pringle, 12. Deana's grandmother was scared for her to try a water sport, she said, but is now glad that she has.
Fudayl Hopkins pronounced it a "hard workout" but even so, he was glad he chose to paddle — to push himself, to see the city in a very different way.
"Sometimes you stop, and you look up, and you say, 'Wow, that's a nice view,' " Fudayl said, motioning to the Center City skyline set against a perfect blue sky. Cyclists and people walking stopped to watch the students practice.
Bettyann Creighton, executive director of health and physical education, said the school system aims to introduce students to as many nontraditional activities as possible — archery, ice skating, even cup stacking — to appeal to a wide range of students.
"The biggest success is that we take that leap of faith," said Creighton. "It's risky to do something like dragon boating – and we have found it to be so profoundly important in kids' lives."
Rastrick agrees. Some Healthy Dragon alumni have gone on to row crew in high school, and others have paddled internationally for Team USA. But for some, it's just about confidence and trying something that they previously thought wasn't open to them.
"Getting on the water is a big class divide, a big race divide in Philly. But now, they're in the water, not just next to the water," said Rastrick, who will spend part of her summer searching for grant funding to keep the program viable.
Maxine Coker, the guidance counselor at Mifflin, brought the sport to the school because she wanted more opportunities for her students. As with most Philadelphia schools, Mifflin's extracurricular activities have been hit hard by budget cuts over the last decade.
"Their confidence has just blossomed," Coker said. And, she continued, they are champing at the bit to go every week. "They're so proud."
From the riverbank, Coker, who is new to the sport herself, watched the students propel themselves forward confidently.