At any given time, the Princeton University boathouse erg facility buzzes with the activity of spinning fans, sliding seats and collective breathing. Sunday afternoons are no exception, and the room is full of athletes striving to improve their technique and chase their goals with every stroke. However, what sets Sundays at the boathouse apart from most other days is that the group includes not only Princeton rowers but also Special Olympics athletes from all over New Jersey.
The collaboration started last fall when the Special Olympics of New Jersey contacted Princeton heavyweight crew’s head coach Greg Hughes ’96 to discuss starting a program that would introduce Special Olympics athletes to rowing. A program of this nature had never been undertaken before, and Princeton was selected as a pilot location partially due to its proximity to the Special Olympics of New Jersey headquarters in Lawrenceville, N.J., and also because of crew's extensive resources. Over the course of 10 Sunday sessions from November to March, a group of about 30 Special Olympics athletes worked one on one with rowers from the Princeton heavyweight men’s team. The practices took place at both the Princeton boathouse and at the Lawrenceville headquarters. The program was geared toward engendering a love for the sport while developing the athletes so that they could compete in a Special Olympics flight alongside their student coaches at the Crash P —an annual indoor rowing event at Princeton’s boathouse in March.
This year’s program looks to operate on a larger scale. More interest from both Special Olympics athletes and Princeton rowers has allowed the program to expand beyond the men’s heavyweight team to include the other men's and women’s lightweight and open crews. Plans are in the works to expand the project to additional boathouses in southern and northern New Jersey, with the hopes that any athlete can find a venue within 30 minutes of his home. The 2014-15 iteration of the program kicked off this past weekend in order to allow time to bring the Special Olympics athletes out on the water with their Princeton mentors.
Last year, the athletes ranged from about 10 years old to college-aged, and each possessed some degree of learning disabilities. Hughes said, “Every kid that we work with has a different way of learning, and that’s been the fun part.”
Representatives of the Special Olympics and some parents attended the training sessions to assist the Princeton rowers with establishing communication and forging relationships with the athletes.
These training sessions focused on teaching the basic motion of rowing on an ergometer with the hope of eventually giving the athletes an opportunity to row in a boat, where erg technique meets the subtleties of balance and teamwork. Princeton students attended the sessions as their schedules allowed, which, according to sophomore Alex Michael, “really contributed to the sense that this was a team project.”
The athletes developed remarkably over the course of the winter. Senior Dave Octeau said, “Some kids who wouldn’t even talk at the beginning were all over us by the end of the year, so it was pretty cool.”
For some athletes, it took time to inspire an interest in the sport.Octeau noted about a particular athlete: “He had so much trouble just taking a stroke, and we had so much trouble getting him interested in it, but, when we would allow him to just go after it and start racing people, he would just open up and was so happy. When he finished his piece at Crash P’s, he just got up and put his arms in the air. It was just awesome to see.”
Beyond rowing, the program taught focus and dedication as well as fostered a healthy competitive side in the athletes. “Sometimes people assume that these athletes don’t have the same need for competition, but you give them the chance and they love it as much as anyone else on our team,” Octeau said.
The experience has proved a remarkable service opportunity for crew. Hughes said, “It allows us the opportunity to work with people outside of Princeton and outside of the boathouse. This allows us to get out into the community and also show people our world.”
Michael said, “I walked onto the rowing team as a freshman, and it’s changed my life in ways that nothing else has and I really like sharing that with people. These athletes are so enthusiastic about it, and without Princeton’s resources, they would not have the same opportunity.”