Rowing Against the Tide of a Segregated City

Sep 15, 2017

Torpedo-shaped boats raced along the Menomonee and Milwaukee Rivers this weekend, as rowing teams competed in the annual regatta. It was the 17th Annual Milwaukee River Challenge.


Proceeds from a weekend benefit will sponsor a new program to help diversify the Milwaukee Rowing Club. Race and Ethnicity Reporter Aisha Turner visited the Rowing Club's middle school team over the summer to learn about its efforts to bring new participants into the sport.


On the Water

Three boats of adolescents clad in reflective neon yellow shirts glide along the Milwaukee River. Each boat holds eight rowers, one coxswain, and a speedboat following alongside with a coach shouting instructions.

Will Bott coaches a boat of middle schoolers.
Credit Aisha Turner

The head coach of the team, Will Bott, looks to the RiverWalk; he shouts out to his assigned group of middle schoolers:

“You guys see that balcony? We gotta get there in 45 seconds!

Ready? 45 seconds on the clock… Here we go, together, one, two…”

The team digs their oars into the water, trying to beat the allotted time. Twelve-year-old Gaston sits in position eight -- the seat closest to the coxswain.


After the final practice, Coach Will reflects: “It's been really cool to see him succeed and thrive in this environment as a leader on this team. It’s just, like, he’s the guy now.”


Gaston is a natural rower, Will says. “He's so sharp, so good at steering and navigating the river. He's got great instincts, great calls, voice, and a great heart.”


Rowing As a Call for Unity

Gaston is black; and before this year, there weren’t a lot of people who looked like him on the team.

“Rowing has been this suburban, wealthier, white sport since the creation,” Will explains. He was one of those white suburban kids; Will grew up in Whitefish Bay and started rowing in high school.


Now, he coaches the Milwaukee Rowing Club’s middle and high school teams and is working to bring more youth of color on board. "In rowing getting started, it was the Ivy League schools -- the Harvard’s and the Yale’s -- those were rowing schools. But when I look at the sport, I see so much more.”

Rowers warm up with team-building exercises.
Credit Aisha Turner

Will sees an opportunity for the city.

“There’s a lot going wrong in our city and I think a lot that stems from the fact that we don’t have access to each other. Our worlds are so separate,” he explains. “Often times all that a suburban kids hears about the inner city is shootings and gun violence and things talked about on the news. Rowing is one way to bring kids together to work to have each others’ backs and to just see people who don’t look like them in a different way.”

Rowing strips away individuality. “You’re one unit moving back and forth, back and forth, and the harder that you pull that just makes your boat better," Will says.


Gliding Past Hurdles

Will originally tried recruiting a diverse crew for the high school team. He tabled at Rufus King, Golda Meir, and Riverside.  

But he ran up against the very barrier he was trying to break down.

A proudly-displayed Rowing Club yard sign.
Credit Aisha Turner

“One of the biggest things was perception of rowing -- it’s not perceived as a ‘city kid’ sport.” Will would see some interest in the high schoolers he spoke to, but little follow-through. “By the time you’re in high school you feel like you know what’s going on and you feel like you know what is for you and what’s not.”

With the middle school team, Will thought he had a shot. And so far he’s found that to be true -- the pre-teens’ sense of the world and its barriers isn’t quite so “set.”

Plus he had an “in” -- he works as an aide at 53rd Street School, a K3 through Grade 8 school a few blocks south of Capitol Drive. Will held information sessions and spoke to parents. Interested students could sign up for the Milwaukee Rowing Club’s Learn to Row program free of charge.

Once students completed Learn to Row, they became eligible to join the team. Now, a third of the middle school team is black or Latino.

Getting There

Will has succeeded in keeping their interest, but there are still hurdles…

The Rowing Club’s boathouse is located on North Commerce Street, a good twenty-minute drive from the northside of town, where his new players live.

“Transportation is a huge issue,” Will explains. The parents of his suburban kids have flexible schedules and can arrange rides to the mid-day practices. That isn’t the case for their new teammates.


To help the program succeed, Will turned to someone he knew could get the job done: his mom. Twice a week, Heather Bott would swing by Urban Underground to get a van. Then she would pick up Gaston, then Kyrie, then Anthony, then on and on until the van was full.


In trying to diversify his team, Coach Will Bott realized his new rowers would need swimming practice.
Credit Aisha Turner

Once she had everyone, she headed to the YMCA on North Avenue for swim practice. Many of the kids Will recruited from 53rd Street School couldn’t swim confidently. In order to join the team, they have to learn. Heather Bott then drove the students to rowing practice, and back home.

Ultimately, Will wants the teams he coaches to be a reflection of the city. “I mean how can we go to a race and say we are the Milwaukee Rowing Club? And really be the ‘Whitefish Bay Rowing Club’... the ‘Mequon Rowing Club’... the ‘Shorewood Rowing Club’?,” he jokes. “But with our middle school rowing team now we can show up on race day against Chicago or here for our scrimmage and we really - we represent a better picture of what Milwaukee truly is.”

The middle school rowers finishing up practice over the summer.
Credit Aisha Turner


Support for Race & Ethnicity Reporting provided by the Dohmen Company.