This is an oar: Phila. U. builds crew from scratch

Posted: May 11, 2007

They came in all shapes and sizes, about 80 strong, men and women, many of whom didn't know bow from stern, an oar from a hockey stick. But they had answered the siren call for the rowing team they were starting up at Philadelphia University.

At that meeting during the first week of September, Chris O'Brien, Philly U's head rowing coach, surveyed the group of the fit and, well, not so fit, and turned to his assistants.

"We have a lot of work on our hands," he told them.

And that was fine by the 27-year-old O'Brien, a Dad Vail Regatta gold medalist as a coxswain on Villanova's lightweight eight in 2001. He had been working tirelessly just to get to this point, walking the halls of the small private university in the city's East Falls section, tapping athletic-looking students on the shoulder and asking them if they were interested in rowing.

"I'd walk around campus, through the dining hall and one building after another," O'Brien recalled yesterday. "If I saw someone who looked like an athlete, I'd say, 'Hey, do you play a sport on campus?' If they said no, I'd ask them if they'd like to row. That was it. I'd say we got eight to 10 people that way."

Thus, the foundation for the fledgling crew program at Philadelphia University was in place, along with five eight-oared shells, one four-oared shell, and a lot of patience from O'Brien, whose first day of instruction to his prospective team was a lesson in Rowing 101. This is a boat. This is how you get into the boat. This is an oar. This is how you stroke an oar.

"Our goal was not to try to go over the top the first year," O'Brien said. "The main thing was to stir up interest. I felt we needed a good number of kids to start the first year of the program, and I thought we did a good job getting 80 to come to that first meeting."

From that 80, 43 remain, mostly because of the demands on time and body such a strenuous sport involves. Among the 43, only two rowers - freshman Maureen Agnew and junior Emily Boruta, both from the Midwest - had experience.

A highlight for the Rams' women came during the Bergen Cup on the Schuylkill the last weekend in April, when they took first place in the freshman eight. The men were runners-up to St. Joseph's in the same event. By design, the crew's fall schedule was light, but it also took part in the Murphy Cup on the Schuylkill and the Knecht Cup on Cooper River.

Today and tomorrow, the Rams' crew, comprising 25 women and 18 men, will take its first turn at the Dad Vail Regatta. The Rams are entered in the men's and women's novice eight; men's and women's novice four; and women's lightweight four. They will compete against at least 40 other colleges and universities in each category with the goal of finishing in the top six to qualify for Saturday's grand finals.

"That would be unbelievable," O'Brien said.

Regardless of the Rams' fortunes on the Schuylkill this weekend, the first year has been a success simply because they've taken the first step toward joining the college rowing fraternity by proving there's enough interest on campus and enough support from the administration to keep building.

If there was an official starting point for Rams rowing, it was the day a student introduced himself to the university president, James P. Gallagher, and asked him why the school had no rowing team even though it was so close to the river. Basically, Gallagher's response was, 'Good question. I'll look into it.'

"The administration has really been supportive," said O'Brien, who left his Citizens Bank job in commercial real estate to start up the program. "Dr. Gallagher wanted rowing. And the timing was right because the university had changed its name [from Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science] and was expanding and adding academic majors."

The crew rows out of the Whitemarsh Boat Club in Conshohocken. "It's not Boathouse Row, but it's still on the Schuylkill," O'Brien said. He added that the women would compete on the NCAA Division II level next season and that the men would have varsity status. Men's rowing is not recognized as an NCAA sport.

"When I came on board, we had no boats, oars, or indoor rowing machines," O'Brien said. "All we had was myself, a start-up budget, and the backing of the administration. We started from the ground up. But I think we're doing it the right way."

In memory. The regatta's organization committee will observe a moment of silence today for Kevin Granata, a Virginia Tech faculty member killed in the April 16 shootings. Granata, a professor of engineering science and mechanics, was a bronze-medal winner for Purdue in the junior-varsity eights at the 1986 Dad Vail.


Contact staff writer Ray Parrillo

at 215-854-2743 or rparrillo@phillynews.com.

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