About a year ago, Akeem Smith was a 220-pound football player at Cherry Hill's New Era Academy with slipping grades and a knack for getting into fights.
An administrator at the charter school encouraged the teenager to join an experimental program that initiates city youths into competitive rowing.
Today, Smith is 30 pounds leaner and a better student, and he hopes to attend college on a crew scholarship. "It keeps me out of trouble, believe it or not," the 17-year-old says with a bemused smile.
Success stories like these have prompted the nonprofit Baltimore Rowing Club to expand its pilot scholarship program for students at the Cherry Hill school - which is near the club's boathouse - to needy youths around the city.
Scholarship recipients become members of the rowing club's juniors team of 14- to 18-year-olds, joining paying students - whose parents shell out about $700 a year - from private and public schools in the region. The juniors compete against school teams and similar clubs across the East Coast.
At its summer regatta at Middle Branch Park yesterday, the club announced a $100,000 donation that will allow it to increase the number of rowing scholarships from 10 to 25 for the next three years, as well as buy additional boats, oars and uniforms and to pay for student visits to colleges with crew programs.
As members of the current juniors team celebrated their scholarship announcement, about 400 adult rowers from 14 teams around the Mid-Atlantic enjoyed warm air, calm waters and a slight tailwind throughout the daylong competition.
"Light breeze, no chop. It was very nice out there," said Robert Vocke III, a University of Maryland, College Park student in striped shorts, after winning a 1,000-meter individual men's race.
While competitive rowing - with its preppy image and $40,000 boats - might seem an unlikely pastime for city youths, crew adherents say the sport's extreme physical and disciplinary demands can have a transformative effect on young rowers.
"When you're in a boat with eight other people, it is the ultimate team sport," said Aly Covino, head coach of the juniors team. "You have to be in sync with each other or your boat is not going to move."
The scholarship money comes from New Jersey-based manufacturing company Honeywell International and local developer Patrick Turner, who is planning a huge development on the Middle Branch in nearby Westport.
"People don't mind giving money to causes as long as there's a result," said Turner, who also funded the first 10 scholarships. "This is one of the few programs where you see immediate results. Within a year, these kids had discipline, they were working together, training together."
For Turner, the rowing initiative is partly a goodwill gesture to the poor communities that abut his planned $1.3 billion development of high-end waterfront homes and stores, which is scheduled to break ground next year. The development is the first major investment along the shores of the Middle Branch in years, but Turner says the rowing club is the true pioneer.
"They were the only people down here on the waterfront when we first came in," he said. "So when we met with them and we heard about the juniors program and how they wanted to expand it to urban kids, we said that's something we want to get involved in."
The club was established in 1979 and its boathouse near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Bridge is also used by local college and high school crew teams. There are several other rowing clubs on the East Coast that field youth teams with needy students, but Covino said that scholarship students and paying rowers are often separated into different squads.
She was determined that her 26-member team would be truly diverse, though the going was rough at first.
"Getting a competitive rowing team off the ground is a difficult endeavor," Covino said. "Especially working with kids who have never been involved in water sports."
At first, the Cherry Hill students "were literally afraid of the water," Covino said. "Just getting them down on the dock and getting them to step in the boat, it took a lot of coaxing."
The young rowers also self-segregated according to their backgrounds in the beginning, but they eventually formed fast friendships, team members said.
"Once we started winning races, we all became as one," said James Freeman, 16, a New Era Academy junior from Park Heights who will continue with the team this year.
Covino said the juniors team won about half of its races in its second season together, and she expects the group to become more competitive. One of its members is now being scouted by the U.S. national team, a first since the Baltimore team was established in 2002.
For the Cherry Hill students, one of the challenges was not only mastering a rigorous sport, but also explaining it to others. Freeman, who is black, said he was asked by friends at home and at school why he was spending three to five days a week training for a "white sport."
"They said, 'Why don't you quit this, it's a dumb sport. It's a white sport,'" he said. "But I say every sport is for everybody."
Freeman said he hopes to row crew at UCLA when he graduates from high school - though he thinks that to be competitive, he needs to get his rowing machine 2,000-meter time below the seven-minute mark. It now stands at 7:43.
Even with the three-year scholarship commitment, Covino expects recruiting city students to the unfamiliar sport will remain a challenge in coming years.
That's largely because city parents are often concerned about their children drowning - though Covino says the skinny "shells" rarely capsize, even with novice rowers aboard. All team members must know how to swim, and coaches monitor practices from the water in powerboats.
Covino, who will start teaching music this fall at Digital Harbor High School, said she is focusing her recruiting efforts there but will also reach out to other city schools.
Turner said that if in three years the rowing scholarship program continues to show promise, the city's public school system should consider incorporating crew into its sports curriculum.
"We put the initial money up to show that it works," said the developer, who is not a rower. "If we've proven it, it'll be hard for educators to say that it doesn't work, when we've got three or four years of progress."