To Scull or Not to Scull? The Age Old Crew Dilemma

The GFS crew team is headed by Coach Aaron Preetam,  who is also a tenth and twelfth grade history teacher. Crew rows from the Vesper Boat Club on boathouse row. The team has only recently officially become part of GFS sports, and I interviewed him to get some perspective on how a coach sees their athletes. Crew has been increasing in popularity in the middle school, with more students asking about where they can learn more and what camps they can go to. If you’re wondering any of those, your questions will be answered here.

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What is Crew and how did you get your start?

There are two types of rowing. Much like the difference between tennis and squash both having a racket and a ball. One is sculling where the rower has two oars with an oar in each hand. There’s also sweep rowing where the rower has only one oar. In college you’ll row in either an eight person boat or a four. But in high school and for people training in the olympics, they tend to be scullers. I sculled for the Dominican Republic, so I was in the 2003 Pan American games, and then that same year I raced in the World Championships in Milan. I raced in the 2004 World Championships in Spain, and then 2005 I had walking pneumonia, I was supposed to be in Tokyo. That one hurt. Then 2006 was in England, and that was the same olympic course that was for the 2012 games. Then in 2007 I raced in Rio for the olympic qualifier, I came in seventh and the top six went. It was a good race, and I retired right after that race. Rowing is one of the oldest intercollegiate sports and has been a part of Philly for a long time. Kelly drive is named after one of the famous rowers (John B Kelly who won gold three olympics in a row).

How did you start coaching?

When I graduated, my wife and I moved to Gainesville, Florida, and I was working a job that I hated. I found out they were rowing and I asked if I could help. It was the highlight of my day. I went to this job that I muddled through then I helped people become fast at a sport that I love. And it’s a sport that changed me, changed so much about me as a person that I wanted to share that. I still get that, that same excitement of sharing it and like pushing people well beyond what they think they’re capable of.

Who are your assistant coaches?

Jeff Fetterman, who’s also a 6th grade teacher, rowed at LaSalle and Bachelors Barge Club, and stroked the lightweight four and the lightweight 8 finishing in the top 6 boats in the nation at Dad Vails.   He also stroked a four at the Royal Canadian Henley Regatta. Denise Cirelli is full time, she rowed at Baldwin, then rowed for four years at the University of Delaware. She was the captain of the team I think her junior and senior year. We have a volunteer coach, Allie Hoeltzel who rowed at Hamilton, she also rowed at Baldwin. And there her senior year she ended up coxing the men’s team because she got injured and she was small enough to cox, the coxswain is the one who steers the boat. Emily Burr, who had to leave us rowed at Princeton. She rowed in high school in florida but she rowed at Princeton and won NCAAs at least twice I think three times.

When did GFS start a crew team?

This is the sixth year that GFS has had people row. It started with one guy, Andrew Bair, who rows down at Columbia, I think he’s a junior at Columbia. And Ethan Genyk and Greg Goldstein were the three founders. Their parents contributed money. Actually one of the boats is named after them, the Triumvirate. They were essentially the founding fathers if you will. It started off as one, then three, then the current seniors, three of the current seniors, plus a few girls and I think Olenka Jain who graduated last year with Sophie Bartholomew was technically the first girl. From there it was a program designed for schools that did not have an official rowing program. The program was not asked back to that boat club, and at that point we had a lot of interest I think 19 kids rowing that summer and there was no place to row. The school helped, the parents helped, and we all worked together to get a coveted spot at Vesper Barge Club, which is recognized  as one of the nicest boathouses on boathouse row. This is only our second year as a separate entity.

What is your favorite part of coaching/crew?

There are two parts. When an athlete finally recognizes what they really can do, which is huge. They finish their piece or they win a race and they finally get it. The other part is hanging medals on kids at the end of races. It is recognizing their efforts. And really there are so few medals in rowing that every person who can perform at a high level deserves it.

Where can middle schoolers learn more about crew?

There’s a city program. A number of the boathouses on boathouse row offer summer programs for middle school and high school athletes. I will be offering a program the last two weeks of August. And there’s a Regatta coming up for middle and high school. A lot of our peer schools offer middle school rowing. It’s not as intense or rigorous as upper school. It usually only one day on the water and two or three on the rowing machines. But it’s just to get a sense of what it’s all about.

Also, is it predicted that middle school might have a crew team?

I hope. That’s all I can do, hope.

How many students would you say join crew each year (from what grades)?

Well this year we have 33. We’re the same size as Penn Charter and Germantown Academy. But we just placed eighth out of sixty two schools in the city championship. And we were third in sculling, behind I think Conestoga and Ridgewood, NJ. We do exceptionally well for such a small program.

When is the crew season? Do you row in all weather?

So the official season is the spring, and our last race will be June 11th. There’s actually two happening on the same weekend. US Youth Nationals is the big one, where we’ll be competing with schools from literally across the county. And last year it was in Florida, the first time we went. Andrea Berghella won the C Final. He grew tremendously as a rower there. This year two boats qualified, Addie McKenzie in the single, and Andrea Berghella and James Wright in the mens varsity double. So that’s the spring season. Some people choose on their own to compete in the summer, and theres the fall season, our fall doesn’t start as early as the other programs. We usually start the first week in September and it goes until the first week in November. It’s a different type of racing it’s not sprinting, it’s called head races. Generally they’re between 4000 meters and 5000 meters. Addie raced the head of the Charles last year, which is the biggest head race in the world. The Stotesbury Regatta we’re racing at in two weeks is the world’s largest high school regatta.

How do you feel about how crew is treated as a sport at GFS?

We’re in the middle of a process. We grew a lot, it’s this thing that emerged with all the growers and students who got involved. The school has supported us in many ways, by helping to work and take care of our facilities, but truly the parents are paying for it all. It’s part of the process and you have to go through that process for it to be truly official. You can’t force it either way. If the school chooses to have us as an outside entity that’s okay, but I prefer it to be the other way. We would not have had  a program without the school’s support. The school helped us get the boathouse, and it totally backed us. We also had to acquire some shells, and the school helped with that.

What are some common misconceptions or myths about the sport?

That you need to have strong arms. The stroke is mostly your legs, people don’t realize that there’s a seat that moves back and forth. And they don’t recognize how many hours is takes to do those six minutes. And people always say “Oh it looks so easy” but when it’s done well it looks easy.

Is crew really as difficult as the rumors say?

It can be easy, I have high expectations for the athletes, they rise to them. I think there are programs that you can go out and there is recreational rowing. I just don’t coach in that style. I think the whole point of having athletics is to bring about excellence and that of God in the athlete. I think it’s awesome, with lightweight rowing because even the small rowers can shine. Our lightweights are phenomenal, our heavyweights are doing quite well, so there’s a place for everyone. I think the school as been fantastic. There are always going to be growing pains, but we’re in a good space in terms of a program. Everyone gets to row in regattas, no one warms the bench. Sometimes in other sports you get to play maybe a few moments of a game but in crew you get to be part of a community and a team.