Philadelphia stars in film about rower's bid to make Olympics

A camera crew at work on the film. Sarah Megan Thomas, its creator, says the seed for it sprang from the experience of her college rowing mentor who, after training endlessly for the Olympics, just missed a slot, being named first alternate.
A camera crew at work on the film. Sarah Megan Thomas, its creator, says the seed for it sprang from the experience of her college rowing mentor who, after training endlessly for the Olympics, just missed a slot, being named first alternate. (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)

Sports, romance, and Philadelphia share billing in the film a former star athlete is shooting about a female rower's sacrifices to make the Olympics.

Posted: August 09, 2011

Her dream is to row in the Olympics.

Twice she has come so close - only to be named an alternate. She has invested eight years of her life in this quest. Now she is 30, a high school crew coach working for her ex-boyfriend. Sparks still fly between them, yet the Olympic flame still flickers. What now?

Such is the predicament of Abi Brooks, the protagonist in Backwards, an independent film being shot in and around Philadelphia, especially Boathouse Row, the epicenter of the city's rowing culture.

The movie is the creation of Sarah Megan Thomas, a Shipley School graduate and former star athlete who wrote the script, raised the money to make the film, and plays Abi, the female lead.

"For the last two years, this has been my life. I spent a year writing it and a year gathering the money," Thomas said one day recently at the Vesper Boat Club.

She has assembled an impressive cast and crew. The director is Ben Hickernell, who earned acclaim last year for his independent movie Lebanon, PA. Playing Abi's boyfriend is James Van Der Beek, of Dawson's Creek fame. The cinematographer, Harlan Bosmajian, shot the rowing sequences for The Social Network.

Thomas describes Backwards as "a sports romance" that focuses on women athletes, a riverine version of Bend It Like Beckham, with oars instead of soccer balls.

"There are tons of female athletes, but not enough women's sports films," says Thomas, tall, lissome, and jade-eyed.

The movie takes its title from the fact that in crew you compete facing backward. But it also has a more metaphorical meaning that speaks to the film's central question and theme.

"What happens when you have a dream and you don't make it?" Thomas asked rhetorically. "Sometimes you have to take a step backward to go forward, to rediscover what counts in life."

The seed of the movie was planted when Thomas was a student at Williams College. Her rowing mentor, a fellow student a year older, left school to train for the 2000 Summer Olympics. After countless hours of work and practice, she literally just missed the boat; she was named first alternate.

"That must suck," Thomas remembers thinking.

"No one talks about how that must feel, to get that far, to be so close," Thomas says. "The story has never been told about all the sacrifice required to compete at that level, the things you miss, the life that gets left behind."

Thomas was never an Olympic-caliber oarswoman herself but she knows about sacrifice and what it takes to be a successful athlete. At the Shipley School in Bryn Mawr, from which she graduated in 1997, she ran cross-country, played basketball, and rowed.

"Simply put, she was and is fabulous," says Steve Piltch, Shipley's head of school. "Bright, talented, motivated, and hard-working, she excelled in virtually every area."

As a basketball player, Thomas was the first Shipley girl to score 1,000 points. She captained all three sports, and her crew team won the Stotesbury Cup Regatta twice and placed second at the Henley Royal Regatta.

"For many years, I trained three hours a day," Thomas recalled. "During freshman year in college, I barely went out because I was rowing all the time."

That experience comes through in the script.

"Something about it felt really authentic," says Van Der Beek. "The fact that Sarah knew this world and grew up in this world and spent years doing it herself, to be part of something from such a real place really appealed to me."

In high school and college, sports was only one dimension of Thomas' life. She also adored theater, and acted in plays both at Shipley and the all-boys Haverford School. At Williams, she majored in theater and spent an intense postgraduate year at the Drama Studio London, acting in a new play every three weeks.

She moved to New York in 2003, sleeping on a couch in her older sister's apartment for two years. She grabbed whatever acting jobs she could, appearing in commercials, the soap opera Guiding Light, and a few films. She also launched the Thirteenth Night Theatre Company to bring relevant theater to people in their 20s and 30s.

Thomas began working on the movie two years ago. She bought a dozen books about screenwriting and taught herself the craft. Then she put on her producer's hat, raising money from supporters of her theater company, "passionate rowers and proud Philadelphians."

"Four CEOs of major companies are investors," she says. "They read the script and loved it."

A major character in the movie is Philadelphia itself. The film was shot not only on the Schuylkill and Boathouse Row but also at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (The Pair-Oared Shell by Thomas Eakins figures prominently), Philadelphia International Airport, Haverford College, Flanigan's Boathouse in Wayne, and at the house of Thomas' parents in Haverford.

"I love that it's set in Philadelphia," says director Hickernell. "There's an amazing rowing culture here, and I love telling a really cool Philadelphia story that will enable people to see inside this world."

After editing is finished in October, Thomas plans to enter the movie in film festivals. She hopes it will be snatched up by a major distributor and shown in theaters in time for next summer's Olympics.

Backwards is "a mainstream sports film at heart with a bit of an indie edge," Hickernell says.

The ending will be surprising and controversial, Thomas promises.

"It's definitely a feel-good film as a whole," she says, "but it's also provocative."

"The perfect date movie," she adds.

"Chicks will like it because it's about women and the tough choices they sometimes have to make."

And men?

"There will be lots of women in tight Spandex."


Sarah Megan Thomas talks about "Backwards," a movie about rowing and romance, at www.philly.com/backwards


Contact staff writer Art Carey at 215-854-5606 or acarey@phillynews.com.

 

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