In the course of helping transform Haddon Township crew from "nothing to something," Ryan Clark also learned to tap-dance.

Nelson Remetz developed his Ultimate Frisbee game.

Catie Ely sharpened her singing and also overcame her fear that the boat was going to sink.

"My first day, I was terrified the boat was going to tip," Ely said. "But then I fell in love with it."

It has been quite a trip, along the water and into the ranks of highly respected rowers, for the team's three seniors and the rest of the Haddon Township program.

When Clark, Remetz, and Ely decided to try the sport for the first time in their lives in the fall of their freshman year, Haddon Township crew was a sweeps program that was a thin cut above the intramural level.

"We used to finish 30th out of 31 boats," Remetz recalled. "We were so far behind, it was unbelievable."

Now, Haddon Township is a sculling program with an unmistakable aura of competitive success.

The team won eight gold medals and a silver at the Garden State Scholastic Rowing Championships on April 28 on the Cooper River and will be in the hunt for more hardware at the Philadelphia City Championships this weekend and the Stotesbury Cup on May 18 and 19, both on the Schuylkill.

"We used to be nothing and now when other teams see our name on the heat sheet, they freak out," Clark said. "It's kind of cool."

Haddon Township's improvement would be remarkable under any circumstances. But what makes this club team stand out is the way the athletes have managed to make the commitment to the demanding sport - with seven-day-a-week devotion during the season and lots of offseason workouts - while balancing other interests.

Like singing and dancing, for instance.

In a school with a strong performing arts program, more than half the crew team participated in the winter musical, Thoroughly Modern Millie. That includes all the varsity boys, who needed to tap-dance on stage.

"I'm the world's worst dancer to begin with," Clark said. "But trying to tap-dance, that was a new level of struggle for me."

Both of the musical's leads, juniors Cassidy Leyendecker and Evan Taylor, are crew members. They both won gold at the Garden State championships. Ely, who also is involved in the school's chorus, was in the musical, too.

"We're kind of a bunch of misfits," said Ely, who won a gold medal in the senior doubles and plans to continue her rowing career at Ithaca College. "We're just a bunch of different people with different interests who have been brought together by crew."

The program started changing in the spring of 2009, when new coach Scott Wisniewski - who now directs the Vesper Elite Racing program on Philadelphia's fabled Boathouse Row - switched the team from sweeps to sculls and challenged the athletes to bring a more serious approach to the sport.

In sweeps, each rower pulls one oar. In sculls, each rower pulls two oars, creating a greater emphasis on teamwork and technical skill as well as more opportunities for smaller athletes.

Haddon Township coach Greg Francis, who followed Wisniewski and credits assistant Annie Bowler for much of the team's success, ties the program's meteoric rise to the tenacity of the athletes.

"I have been around a lot of hardworking athletes," said Francis, who rowed competitively at Drexel and with the Penn Athletic Club. "These kids may not be the biggest or strongest, but they work as hard as anyone I have ever seen, and they have turned themselves into a very respected and competitive club."

It's quite a thing. These kids aren't physically imposing, many of them like to sing and dance, and they've been known to play a mean game of Ultimate Frisbee.

But they've taken to this most demanding of sports. They've named their boats after character traits they admire - Audacity, Intensity, Independence, Service, Aggression - and they revel in their underdog status and diverse backgrounds.

Nobody appreciates the team's journey more than the seniors who were there at the start.

"We've seen us change from nothing to something," said Clark, who plans to continue his rowing career at Iona College. "We've had so much fun with it. We've learned so much. We've worked so hard. We know the pure struggle we went through to get somewhere better."

Contact Phil Anastasia at 856-779-3223, panastasia@phillynews.com, or @PhilAnastasia on Twitter. Read his blog, "Jersey Side Sports," at www.philly.com/jerseysidesports