AS MAURICE SCOTT prepared for the biggest race of his life, he was busy thinking about a friend he'd never see again.

It was early April.

Scott, a West Oak Lane native and Parkway Central grad, was set to race in the men's D Grade quad scull finals in the New South Wales Edward Trickett grade championships. The rowing races take place on Australia's Olympic course in Sydney. It was a huge moment for the Philadelphia rower.

But he couldn't stop thinking about one day in particular, a month and a half earlier.

In late February, his childhood friend, Malik Cox, who was studying accounting at the University of Pittsburgh, had died in his dorm room. Doctors thought it was due to a heart condition. He was only 20.

Cox's death threw Scott for a few days. He'd been gone from home for seven months, rowing with the University of New South Wales, and suddenly he was reminded of his world back home, moving along without him. The hardest part was being halfway around the globe for Cox's funeral.

Before the championship race started, one of his teammates asked Scott to remind the team of Malik's name. They wanted to dedicate the race to Malik.

"Once the race started, we just took off," Scott said.

The New South Wales men's quad boat won the race by 0.66 seconds.

"It was incredible, Scott said. "They felt the pain I felt. They reminded me who I do this for."

Scott started competitively rowing only in 2011, thanks to a program called Philadelphia City Rowing. He parlayed that experience into a year abroad at UNSW, where he became the first African American ever to row for the school.

He formed lifelong bonds, and rowed in a country he never imagined he'd even see. And he had the Schuylkill to thank.

PHILADELPHIA CITY ROWING was founded in 2010 by Libby Peters, a Columbia University grad who rowed in college on scholarship. After graduating, she rowed competitively, including Olympic trials and international competitions, and helped work with Row New York, a program founded in 2002 that taught girls from the city to row competitively.

While rowing with the Philadelphia-based Vesper Boat Club, Peters realized there were no public school rowing teams left. Zero.

There hadn't been many to begin with. Terry Dougherty, who took over as PCR's executive director in 2011, recalls Central had one, and there might have been one or two more programs. But by the time Peters arrived in Philadelphia, there hadn't been a public school rowing program in at least two decades.

There was something, though - a dozen boats.

Libby brought the idea for PCR to Tony Schneider, another Vesper member. He told her he knew the school district had bought some boats from Princeton some years back with a similar idea. School officials, too, wanted to try to create a program to teach city kids how to row. They bought up boats from Princeton and stored them in the Navy Yard, but the money never came together.

"We worked with the school district, and they allowed us to utilize the boats they'd bought," Dougherty said, "and then (Schneider) funded the program basically through his own philanthropic efforts."

The program started with 40 kids from 11 local high schools, dipping their toes into rowing and changing the way they viewed the sport.

WHEN SCOTT WAS in elementary school, his father took him to a regatta on the Schuylkill and asked his son what he saw.

"There weren't a lot of African Americans," Scott remembered.

He'd played competitive before, but rowing was something entirely different.

"It was brand-new," Scott said. "I didn't know anybody that rowed."

During the summer after fifth grade, Scott tried a learn-to-row program at Bachelor's Barge Club on Boathouse Row. It was a two-week session, with not much racing. The program was more of an introduction to rowing, intended to get kids on the water who'd never been there before. Scott liked it, he said, but he was looking for something a little more competitive.

Years passed, and Scott settled into a routine of playing more accessible sports with his friends: basketball, football, and the like.

But in the summer after his sophomore year at Parkway Central, he saw a flier about PCR, and his appetite for rowing came rushing back.

The next school year, he started rowing competitively with PCR, and it turned out he was good, so good, and so athletic, that the Naval Academy came calling. He was the first PCR student to get recruited by a Division I school.

"Through the mentor program that PCR has, my mentor's roommate went to the Academy," Scott explained. "He connected me to the right people. It was something I'd never even thought about."

He started to get more information about the Academy, and decided it could be a fit. He started training, went to summer camps after his junior year, and began to think the Naval Academy could be his future.

Instead, Scott ultimately was turned away because of a medical disqualification that to this day hasn't been fully explained to him.

He wound up at Arcadia University on a full scholarship, and that's where Scott heard about the University of New South Wales. He knew he wanted to study abroad, he said, but he also wanted to row while doing it.

"I wanted to get more from rowing than just the sport itself," Scott said. "I wanted to go beyond the horizons and learn a different culture while learning what I loved."

So, off to Australia he went.

DOUGHERTY JOINED PCR in 2011. She'd recently left a job at Valley Forge Military Academy when the program caught her eye as one that had plenty of room to grow.

"When I came on board," Dougherty said, "my goal was to do additional outreach to reach more kids in the city and really solidify our programs, like our academics."

Because of Dougherty's efforts, PCR isn't only a rowing program anymore. They offer free academic tutoring, SAT prep, and financial aid workshops to students eager to make the leap from high school to college.

After six years, Dougherty said, the program boasts a 100 percent graduation rate from high school, and a 100 percent acceptance rate to four-year colleges.

PCR then focused its efforts on increasing its pool of rowers.

"We realized there were two concerns," Dougherty said. "One, a lot of the inner-city community didn't know about rowing and the advantages for scholarships to college, and (were) just unfamiliar with the sport, because it's kind of viewed as an elitist type of sport.

"And on top of that, a lot of inner-city kids do not know how to swim."

A 2009 study published by the University of Memphis examined swimming ability and variables associated with swimming for inner-city, minority children in the United States. The study used six cities, including Philadelphia, as sources of sample data.

The study's conclusion? Poor minority children, specifically African American and Hispanic children, are at a significant disadvantage concerning swimming ability. Age, race and socioeconomic factors were all significantly associated with low swimming ability.

So, PCR now partners with Temple's College of Public Health to offer free swimming lessons to each would-be rower who needs the help.

Five years after Dougherty joined the PCR team, the program has doubled in size, from 40 to 80 participants.

Yet everything, from access to the boats, to the tutoring sessions, to SEPTA tokens for kids who need them, has remained entirely free.

"It's just all working toward hopefully meaningfully transforming the lives of these kids," Dougherty said.

"They teach you how to row," Scott said, "but they also kind of push you to see what you're capable of. To know that you're good at something so unique, instead of just playing the traditional sports, it really provided a new lane for me."

AFTER HIS TIME ABROAD, Scott said, he has lofty goals for the future.

He's caught on with local Undine Barge Club, a competitive rowing team, and plans on rowing consistently even after he graduates from Arcadia next year.

"I'm just hoping, if I put in the work, I'm hoping one day I'll be able to represent the U.S. down the line," Scott said. He's aiming for Tokyo in 2020.

Even if the Olympic dreams don't come to fruition, Scott said he'll keep rowing on the Schuylkill to his heart's content, and when he has kids, he'll be taking them down to the water, as well.

When he returned from Australia, Scott messaged Dougherty and told her everything about his experience - the people he'd met, the cultural shock he'd experienced, and, of course, the rowing stories.

"He's very proud of the fact that he's an inner-city kid who's used rowing to kind of change his life," Dougherty said.

Sometimes, Scott said, he has to just sit back and take everything in.

"It seems like my whole life is just like a book," he said. "Things keep going into the right place. It's kind of ridiculous. To this day, I honestly sit back and just say, wow."

And so much of his story started way back in high school, with some water and a boat.

@AdamWHermann