Coach Bob Valerian calls crew the perfect high school sport.
“Everybody in high school starts from the same level,” said Valerian, waiting for two busloads of students from Shaker Heights High School at the Cleveland Rowing Foundation boathouse on the Cuyahoga River. “Unlike other high school sports, like soccer or basketball or hockey that kids have been playing since second grade, in crew most of the kids who show up have never seen an eight-oar shell before. It makes the competition much more fun.”
The Shaker program of 52 students is one of only two public high school varsity crew teams in Ohio. The team began in 2006, and now two buses deliver students to the Cleveland Rowing Foundation at 5 p.m. on weekdays, for two-hour practices.
Valerian stands in front of the group in the boathouse, recapping their race performance the past Saturday: “It was an epiphany for me. That’s an SAT word.”
Soon, teenagers in T-shirts, shorts and caps stream across the pavement, chattering and clattering as they grab red-and-black-striped oars and run water bottles to the dock. It’s busy choreography on the pavement as coxswains — the small bosses of each boat — directed their teammates to carry the 60-foot, 240-pound shells to the river.
The nonprofit Rowing Foundation boathouse in Rivergate Park, next to Merwin’s Wharf, is home to the St. Ignatius and Shaker Heights high school crew teams, as well as John Carroll, Cleveland State and Case Western Reserve universities.
Most Shaker students have been practicing since school started, rowing on the river all fall, then training on erg rowing machines through the winter. On this Monday evening — a boys varsity eight, girls varsity eight and girls novice eight, rowed — while other students ran and did core exercises.
Genni Fortin is a senior now. Her eight-person boat has made it to the national competition the last two years. And the girls’ team has grown from about 15 people when she was a freshman to more than 30 now.
“I think we’re starting to be appreciated more,” Fortin said.
More about the Cleveland Rowing Foundation: