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Sports Outdoors and Recreation

Reach High program sending its first inner-city rowers to youth nationals

On Sunday, Baltimore Rowing Club Director of Youth Rowing Judd Anderson stood up during the service at his church to give an announcement.

But while he began to share the news that 17 of his rowers will attend this weekend's USRowing Youth National Championships in Sacramento, Calif., Anderson began to choke up.

It's the most rowers the club has ever sent, but that's not the only reason Anderson became emotional.

In 2011, he began a program through the club named Reach High Baltimore: Rowers Empowering Baltimore Youth as a way introduce inner-city students from sixth to 11th grade to the sport.

Cori Grainger, Johari Joseph, Laura McDaniel and Julia Bainum were among the first to join the program as middle schoolers. In the three years since, Anderson has watched them dedicate their lives to school and rowing. And now, as underclassmen in high school, their hard work on the water will finally pay off.

As he stood up at St. John's Episcopal Church, Anderson couldn't help but think of those four girls, who were among the 17 who qualified to go to Sacramento. They are the first rowers from the Reach High program to go to nationals and youngest in club history to make the trip.

"I told my priest I couldn't say anything because I knew I would break apart. So she said, 'I'll do it for you,'" Anderson recalled while smiling. "I'm ecstatic. I'm just ecstatic."

Grainger, Joseph and McDaniel each remember being recruited by Anderson to join Reach High, and all say it didn't take much convincing for them to give rowing a chance.

But they all similarly concede that the various demands of rowing took some getting used to, especially after they got the mechanics down pat.

Following what Anderson called a "fiery trial of training" in middle school, the four Reach High girls began competing on the club's junior varsity team once they got to high school and soon met the sport's strenuous grind.

They go to the boathouse every day except Wednesday and Sunday. Practice is from 4:15 p.m. to 6:15 p.m on weekdays, and every Saturday the rowers go out from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. Saturdays were especially hard this spring for Grainger, a 15-year-old sophomore at Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, who had to rush to her weekend Baltimore City Community College classes, which ran from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Just two days before the team left for Sacramento, McDaniel had two final exams, but she wouldn't miss one of the team's last practices before nationals.

"It's really hard," said McDaniel, 14, a freshman at Poly. "Managing rowing and school, it takes a lot.

"But as long as you get things settled out and organized, you can get through the day."

Joseph, 15, takes this concept to the heart. Her days are planned out to the last minute. Her journey to the boathouse for practice requires two buses from school — one of which she says "comes when it wants to come".

"It's a struggle," said Joseph, a freshman at City. "There are times where I want to quit, but the I'll come the next day and it'll be a fresh start for everything."

The dedication of each Reach High rower translated to her strength on the water and caught the eye of Anderson. He also noticed each girl's small stature, which gave him an idea.

Anderson paired the four young Reach High rowers with some of the club's older girls — Bryn Mawr's Raya Hudhud and Sarah Herman, St. Paul's Karrine Fedor and Taylor Welsh and Catholic's Emma Stinson — to make up the team's junior varsity women's lightweight 8-plus boat.

The group meshed immediately and even gave varsity boats a run for their money.

"They had this sort of natural connection with each other and … were just screaming, screaming fast," Anderson said. "They were beating our varsity boat so we just entered them in varsity races this spring and they won everything.

"So we said, 'This is the boat. These guys have it.'"

Anderson said that on any give race date this spring, he'd enter that boat into two or three races as a way to get them more reps and preparation to qualify for nationals.

Then, at regionals in Princeton, N.J., last month, the rowers earned their ticket to California in a race Grainger remembers vividly.

"We knew we had to be one of the top three boats in our heat," Grainger said. "We were neck and neck, fighting, losing hope with every stroke. But our cockswain does a good job of keeping us uplifted and we made it.

"We got off, none of us knew we had made it within third and our coach was like, 'OK, you qualified for nationals.' So we were all just like, 'What! Really!' That was pretty cool."

None of the Reach High rowers have ever been to California. Grainger said she's "beyond" excited for her first voyage out west, while Joseph admitted she's more nervous because she's never been that far away from her family.

The realization of the trip took a while to hit McDaniel. She said that after qualifying she put the thought of nationals in the back of her mind.

But Sunday, when Anderson struggled to find the words at church for his excitement, McDaniel's thrill burst out of her anxiously.

McDaniel spent Sunday packing her suitcase, even though her team's flight to California wasn't until Wednesday.

"The effect is just now hitting me. I'm in between excited and realizing," she said, pausing to let out a big smile, "we're going to California."

adodson@baltsun.com

twitter.com/dodgerthat

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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