Boys' Latin team rows against the current

Out on the Schuylkill: Four Boys Latin of Philadelphia Charter School rowers  (from left) Jerell Maddrey, Brian Solomon, Eric Young, and Jared Smith  head for the start line at the April 19 Manny Flick regatta. Their boat, the Darth Vader, finished second in the race, their first competition.
Out on the Schuylkill: Four Boys Latin of Philadelphia Charter School rowers (from left) Jerell Maddrey, Brian Solomon, Eric Young, and Jared Smith head for the start line at the April 19 Manny Flick regatta. Their boat, the Darth Vader, finished second in the race, their first competition.
Posted: April 27, 2009

The cheers and shouts rang across the water as the Boys' Latin crew team rounded the bend in the Schuylkill.

The four rowers glanced over and ripped their blades through the current, speeding their boat - the 40-foot jet-black Darth Vader - to a second-place finish in the race.

It was their first competition. They were the only team of Philadelphia public school students rowing April 19 at the Philadelphia Scholastic Rowing Association's fifth Manny Flick regatta this year. They were also the only Philadelphia public school crew team in recent memory to row in an official school-sponsored program.

Boys' Latin of Philadelphia Charter School, which emphasizes a classical education and four years of Latin, is the only publicly funded high school in Philadelphia with a varsity crew program. They will compete again Sunday.

The team - freshmen Jared Smith, Brian Solomon, and Scott Fields and sophomores Eric Young, Jerell Maddrey, and Jordan Wright - had come a long way since its first practice in January. Then, only one of the team's six active rowers passed the program's requisite swim test.

"Everything was new to them," said coach Tim Godfrey, a 6-foot-5 lanky 31-year-old who rowed competitively during his time at Trinity College and afterward in Boston and Philadelphia. "They had a hard time getting down their terminology - but it's been amazing to see them progress so quickly."

The rowers spent hours on rowing machines - ergometers - blistering their palms. In mid-March, a month before their first regatta, they finally started training on the river, Godfrey said.

"I was so nervous," said Solomon of the April 19 event. "On Saturday, I went to sleep at 12, woke up at 1, fell asleep, woke up at 3, and couldn't go back to sleep for the rest of the night."

When he and his teammates launched out onto the Schuylkill, his anxiety dissipated.

"As soon as I got on the water and saw my family, I sucked that nervousness up and did what I had to do."

The team rows out of the Penn Athletic Club, rising for 5:30 a.m. practices five days a week. On Saturdays, the rowers sleep in: Practice does not start until 6:30 a.m.

While they row efficiently now, that was not always the case. "About three to four weeks before the race, I wasn't even sure they would be ready for the race, but they really turned it around in the last week," Godfrey said.

To supplement their training, Godfrey put his athletes through four-mile runs, stairs workouts, and weight circuits.

"I thought I wasn't going to make it," said Smith, recalling the initial practices.

This was not the first time Philadelphia public or charter school students have rowed competitively, said Philadelphia Scholastic Rowing Association president Paul Horvat.

"[But] the kids who have competed at the varsity level have done so pretty much independently," Horvat said.

Some Philadelphia middle schools have small crew programs, and the Philadelphia School District has plans for varsity programs at some high schools, said spokesman Vincent Thompson.

The camaraderie of the boathouse has also helped the students' training. "They practiced at the same time as the elite rowers, who pushed them to work harder," Godfrey said.

The decision to create a crew team was a no-brainer for David Hardy, Boys Latin chief executive officer.

Crew "demands a lot of time, preparation, conditioning, teamwork, and when you plop that down into a rigorous high school program, it really forces students to be organized and efficient with their time in order to make it all work," Hardy said.

Before the April 19 race, the fans were optimistic, yet ready for the possibility of a shaky first performance.

"We just wanted to get them in the water and get their jitters off," said Maurice Watson, the school's disciplinarian. "This is very exciting."

Remembering her son's first days at practice, Hope Mikell, Smith's mother, said: "I think the most exciting thing to him was how to dock - how to bring the boat in straight and not crashing."

April 19, however, was a different story. "With their form and everything," Mikell said, "they looked like they were rowing a long time."

That first race meant more than just a successful competition for some onlookers.

When Maddrey first told his father about the program, Gerald Maddrey pushed him to join. "Crew is a very elite sport," he said.

"You never see inner-city kids down on the river," he said.

Solomon, a 15-year-old from West Philadelphia, had been in boats before, but never a racing scull. "I decided to go out for crew . . . because it's a challenge and I like challenging sports."

Before deciding to join, he did research online, watching videos of professional crew regattas.

Solomon, who hopes to go to Villanova some day and become an electrician or a lawyer, said crew had taught him how to work as part of a team.

He and his teammates feel like seasoned rowers now. He shrugs off any suggestion that he might be tired. "I woke up at 4, so I'm fine."


Contact staff writer St. John Barned-Smith at 215-854-5614 or sbarned-smith@phillynews.com.

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