For patients in the OWL Program, joining a rowing team makes all the difference

The OWL team rowing at Agganis Arena

When it comes to achieving a healthy weight, nutrition is only one part of the process. Adding exercise to the mix helps build heart health and strength, and—perhaps of equal importance—it also helps build self-confidence.

While regular exercise is paramount, it’s not always easy for a teenager to join their high school’s competitive teams to stay in shape. “It’s hard to tell a kid to join something like soccer if they’ve never done it before, and their peers have been doing it since they were toddlers,” says Sarah Picard, MA, Med, physical activity specialist at Boston Children’s Optimal Weight for Life (OWL) Program.

This year with the help of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center, Picard created a solution to that problem, and established OWL on the Water—a joint program with Community Rowing Inc. that allows OWL patients to form an exclusive rowing team, thereby providing habitual exercise and promoting teamwork.

“Fewer teens row, so there is an opportunity to do something uniquely healthy outside of their peer groups,” says Picard. Rowing combines power and endurance and is also a non-weight-bearing sport, making it easy to begin, even for people who have no athletic history.”

Lydia, after beating her personal record

For 14-year-old Lydia Kelly, OWL on the Water was just the boost she needed. “Rowing is the only sport I have ever latched on to,” she says. “I may not be great at sinking a basket, playing soccer or running bases, but rowing is a rhythm I can really get into.”

Twice a week, Lydia and her teammates meet to practice. When the weather’s good, they’re out on the water, taking in the scenery as they stride along together as a team. Other days, they’re in the boathouse working out with weights, running circuits and rowing on indoor erg machines.

For teammate Alex Weimar, a senior in high school, being part of this team has proven to be as important as the sport itself. “I had never been on a team before,” she says, “so just having this group around me for the first time was awesome. It’s constant support.”

Though Alex’s high school has a rowing team, it—like most rowing organizations—costs much more than OWL on the Water, and requires practice every day after school. This team fit her lifestyle better, making it easier for her to commit. In fact, she’s incorporated the sport so deeply that she’s even looking at colleges that offer rowing clubs.

Last month, the OWL on the Water team was presented with the opportunity to participate in the CRASH-B’s event: an annual, world-renowned indoor rowing championship. The event began during the boycott of the 1980 Olympics, when Olympic rowers in Boston simply got bored with winter training and formed a regatta of 20 rowers to compete and break up winter monotony. (The funny name stands for “Charles River All-Star Has-Beens”). Within a few years, the event became an international phenomenon.

Suddenly, their fun after-school activity became a chance to band together and show the world what they were made of.

The Owl team recently competed with thousands of other rowers at a local Boston arena. Image/flickr/wallyg

On the day of the event, the team was nervous but excited. As they entered Boston University’s Agganis Arena, they were surrounded by international rowers of all ages and all levels, from novice to professional. “It was sort of that moment that made me think, OK, this is really happening for me,” says Lydia. “This was beyond my hopes and dreams.”

“Rowing is an amazing sport, but its also a pretty humbling experience just to even perform a 2,000 meter race at full effort,” says Ellen Mizner, director at Community Rowing Inc. “About halfway through, your legs are screaming, your lungs are burning, and every logical part of your brain is begging you to just stop. But you don’t. Not on your own back at the boathouse, and not in front of 6,000 people at the Agganis Arena.  Once you have done that, you are a rower.”

At one point during her race, Lydia held a top position in her heat, and her name was announced out loud to the arena. She beat her personal record that day, and she and her teammates watched as elite athletes around them competed for their personal records as well.

“At first, I thought this team would be a place for me to get exercise and go home,” says Lydia. ”But now, I’ve realized I’m not just a person who can’t play a sport because I’m not athletic. I know now that I have a special ability, an interesting skill and an amazing group of friends that help each other work toward the same goal.”

Learn more about the New Balance Obesity Prevention Center Boston Children’s Hospital.