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Philly kids gain exposure to rowing, through PCR

Randell Daniels used to ride his bike across the Girard Avenue Bridge and stop in the middle to watch the rowers on the Schuylkill River.

Randell Daniels used to ride his bike across the Girard Avenue Bridge and stop in the middle to watch the rowers on the Schuylkill River.

"I always wondered what that was like," said Daniels, a senior at Parkway Center City High School.

Thanks to the Philadelphia City Rowing club, Daniels doesn't watch the sport from a distance anymore. The 18-year-old and his teammates were on water Friday at the 85th annual Stotesbury Cup Regatta.

All the tried and true and traditional programs were part of the competition during the rainy first day of the world's oldest and largest high school rowing event.

But the new kids made their mark, too, as Philadelphia City Rowing (PCR) launched boats that competed in the boys' and girls' Junior Four and Senior Four.

"Exhilarating," Eboni Harris, a junior at the High School for Creative and Performing Arts, said of the experience.

It's much more than that, thanks to PCR director Libby Peters, who serves as the girls' coach, as well as boys' coach Dana Schmunk.

These world-class rowers see the wider possibilities of their sport: They're on a mission to inspire city children through exposure to a world that sometimes seems restricted to the privileged sons and daughters of the suburbs.

"It's about developing these kids," said Peters, a 28-year-old who won a bronze medal at the 2008 world championships. "It's about exposing them to something they've never experienced before."

Peters rowed at Columbia and volunteered for "Row New York," a program that exposed inner-city children to the sport. She moved to Philadelphia to train, was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma, and became the passionate force in the formation of PCR.

"It was a wake-up call," Peters said of her illness, which is in remission. "It was like, 'If you're going to make a difference, do it now.' "

PCR is nonprofit and supported through private funding. The club also has received a boost from the Philadelphia department of Parks and Recreation, which supplied land for a boat yard on Boathouse Row, and the Philadelphia school system, which donated boats.

PCR started last summer with a "Learn to Row" program. It's free and open to any Philadelphia public school student, who merely needs to fill out an application on the club's web site (

The Philadelphia Scholastic Rowing Association, which normally restricts clubs to those whose members compete for one school, got behind the idea, as did many members of the rowing community. PCR entered fall events, and was a regular participant this spring at the Manny Flick series and at the City Championship, in which the boys' novice eight won the title.

"They wanted to engrave their names on the trophy like the Stanley Cup," Schmunk said.

There's a mentoring program in which former college rowers work one-on-one with athletes. There are plans for an academic counseling program starting next fall.

"Libby and Dana have inspired these children," said Carla Waite, whose daughter, Danielle, is a sophomore in the program.

There are about 40 kids in the program from schools across the city such as Ben Franklin, Masterman, Girls High, and Engineering & Science. They practice every day after school, plus Saturday mornings.

"What's amazing is that these kids are all like family," said Schmunk, 35, a silver medalist at the 2002 world championships who is training for the 2011 Pan Am Games.

It's a terrific idea. It's also long overdue. The city has this great rowing tradition, and this great rowing venue, and it's high time its public-school students have a chance to experience that.

Peters had the vision: Take determined kids from the city, expose them to the discipline and demands of rowing - as well as the wonders of whisking along the water - and good things will happen.

"I had no idea about rowing," said Daniels, who lives in the Mantua section of the city. "It's a great sport, a lot better than I ever thought. It's made me physically strong and mentally strong."