By ERIKA ANDERSON, Staff Writer | Published May 27, 2004
It’s a beautiful spring day, the first in over a week that the sun has won the battle over late afternoon rain showers.
Behind the off-white stucco building of St. Andrew’s Church echoes the sound of laughing teenagers.
There is a gravel drive just outside the parking lot that leads down to what the church’s pastor, Father Frank Richardson, calls the parish’s “best kept secret.”
There lie the lazy green waters of the Chattahoochee River, shaded and complemented by massive live oaks and tall Georgia pines, leaning over just enough to lightly dip their leaves in the water.
A dock jutting out into the water from the St. Andrew’s property is the meeting place for a gaggle of teenage girls anxious to get into the water. Laughing and chatting excitedly the four girls, all members of the St. Andrew Rowing Club, have just shouldered a four-person crew boat, weighing over 100 pounds, carrying it from the green-roofed boathouse to the dock. Putting it into the water they each place one foot into the boat and push off the dock with the other.
The group is guided by Laura Summers, the crew’s coxswain. Because she is the smallest of the crew, she is given the position to sit low in the bow of the boat, steering and guiding the rest of the crew. Wearing a small microphone attached to a headband, Summers instructs her crew to begin their practice.
As they begin to row, beads of perspiration form quickly on their red faces, which are set in deep concentration. The crew, members of the varsity women’s team from SARC is training for nationals, which will be held in Cincinnati the second weekend of June.
The St. Andrew Rowing Club was formed in 1988 when the Georgia Tech rowing team and John Hunter, a former rower at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an avid Georgia Tech supporter, approached the church about using its property to build a boathouse.
Hunter approached Father Peter Ludden, then pastor, with the idea, and after consulting with archdiocesesan officials, he agreed, with the condition that Georgia Tech start a youth rowing team. The original members of the youth team named the new rowing club St. Andrew as a way of thanking the church for allowing them to use the property.
Since then, the church and the rowing club have created a bond of mutual respect and admiration. Head coach Dan McNair said that the club is a “welcome guest in (St. Andrew’s) backyard.”
“They’re pretty patient with us,” he said. “They’re very supportive and really good to us.”
Father Richardson said that it’s easy to be supportive of a club made up of such determined young people.
“I think what’s going on down there is amazing,” he said. “It’s a wonderful sport because it’s a team sport. I have been down there to watch them train and have just really admired them.”
He also appreciates the fact that it’s a sport that almost anyone can do.
“I think it’s great for kids who might not be able to play football or basketball, that they can find their niche in the rowing club,” he said.
SARC has four squads—a novice men’s and women’s squad and a varsity men’s and women’s squad. The club is open to rowers in grades 8-12. No experience is necessary, just a desire to learn. In fact, 90 percent of those who turn out for crew have no previous rowing experience.
There are 85 teens on the roster, representing 20 different schools.
St. Andrew has a winter, spring and fall competitive season each year. The fall season generally starts the last week in August and runs through the second week in November. During the fall, the club practices five days a week and competes in four head races, which are 3-mile-long timed races.
During the winter season, which typically runs from the mid-November through the end of January, the team does the majority of its four weekly practices on land. The crew practices on erg machines, which are simulated rowing machines, and competes in the Atlanta Erg Sprints. They also compete in one on-the-water race.
The spring season runs from February to May and the team again practices five days a week. The team competes in four to five 2000-meter races, where the boats start out together and race to the finish line.
Normally St. Andrew’s competes against other crews in the Southeast, and they also host their own regatta—the John Hunter Regatta—in April. They sponsor the regatta along with the Georgia Tech and Lake Lanier Rowing Clubs.
McNair and assistant coach Kelly Gower, who was a member of the SARC for four years, both work with the varsity women’s team. Riding alongside the crew in a launch boat, the coaches call out instructions to the crew and encourage them in their fatigue as they gracefully glide through the water.
McNair, 26, rowed in high school, and later founded the rowing team at Wake Forest University. Though he loves the sport itself, he also loves the aspect of coaching.
“I just love being outside and being active in a sport like this,” he said. “But I especially love the chance to mentor these kids.”
As Gower, 21, rides along in the launch, her miniature poodle, Ginger, in her lap, she talks about her own experience with rowing. Now a Georgia Tech student, Gower rowed for a year at Clemson University before returning to Atlanta. She first became involved because of the encouragement of her best friend, who was two years older and a rower.
“My favorite part is racing, but the great thing is that rowing is repetitive, but it doesn’t get boring,” she said. “It’s really competitive and it takes so much discipline.”
Crew has the highest academic rating in any sport, and many rowers from SARC have gone onto prestigious schools, several of them with crew scholarships.
As a freshman at Blessed Trinity High School in Roswell, Elizabeth Robb has a while before she must decide about college. She has been rowing with SARC since she was in eighth grade and is currently the youngest member of the varsity women’s team. Robb, a parishioner at St. Brigid Church in Alpharetta, is an alternate for the women’s boat that will go to nationals.
“My mom rowed in college and she always wanted me to row,” she said.
At first, she said, she was unsure if she liked the sport, but gradually became addicted.
“I really like being around the water and I have never been good at ball sports,” she said. “I love that we actually move an object—the boat—and you can actually see that. I also really like the people I have met.”
Bridget Fowler is a junior at Marist School in Atlanta and a parishioner at St. Ann’s Church in Marietta. She has been rowing since the spring of her eighth-grade year and started because of the encouragement of a friend.
“I really love the people I’ve met here,” she said. “And I love race days and the adrenaline rush you get. It’s great that it’s a team sport. It’s really cool when your boat just comes together. Everyone is always in search of the perfect row.”
Though not all the teens are Catholic, they try to come together before races to pray, Fowler said, echoing the sentiments others have said about the relationship between the club and the church.
“They’re really good to us,” she said. “We have a lot of gratitude toward them.”
Bridget’s father, Dean Fowler, said that he enjoys coming out to watch his daughter train and race.
“I love it because she loves it,” he said. “It gets you in great shape, and it’s great for mental discipline.”
He also thinks it’s “nice that the church lets the club exist.”
“I can’t think of a better use for the property,” he said.
And neither can Father Richardson.
“This property is the best kept secret,” he said. “And the (rowing club) adds a unique dimension to the church. We’re happy to support them.”
SARC sponsors “learn to row” camps during the summer. For more information about the camps or joining the team, call (770) 447-5433 and leave a message. More information can also be found at www.standrewrowing.com.