RowLA gets Girls on the Water and into College

Story by Bonnie Eslinger

Photo by Ted Soqui

Twin sisters Jala and Jalen Rodgers
Photo by Ted Soqui

As her quad cut through the glassy waters of Marina del Rey harbor one recent Saturday morning, Nicole Viviani saw another crew out of the corner of her eye and felt a familiar rush.

“The moment you see a boat and you know you can pass them, that’s my favorite part,” Nicole says later.

But the California Yacht Club-sponsored Head of the Marina Regatta would not be conquered in a burst of adrenaline; the four-girl RowLA crew needed to maintain their swift pace for more than 20 minutes to power through the three-mile course.

As a familiar ache set into her legs and back, Nicole’s inner coach began to push.

“I’m just telling myself they’re in the same pain as you, and you just got to give them no mercy and push the whole way through,” the Santa Monica High School sophomore says. “You want to get off the boat without having any regrets.”

A natural athlete, Nicole used to play basketball, volleyball and soccer, but these days she’s dedicated full-time to rowing, which she discovered through a friend’s recruitment.

“The moment I stepped on the erg [rowing machine], I felt like this is something I could do the rest of my life,” Nicole says.

But through RowLA, Nicole found more than a sport. She also found an awaiting future.

Started in 2009 by three women rowers who see the sport as a conduit for getting girls into college, RowLA focuses on recruiting and nurturing young athletes who may not otherwise find themselves out on the water.

Students from lower- and moderate-income families should have the same access to rowing as their higher-income peers, RowLA founder Liz Greenberger believes.

“There isn’t as much diversity or inclusion in the sport of rowing. It is traditionally very elite,” Greenberger says.

RowLA’s first four girls, recruited through a teacher at Culver City High School, are all now in college on academic or rowing scholarships.

“We felt that rowing opened up higher education opportunities to women,” says Greenberger, a former policy analyst who served on the National Security Council during the Reagan administration. “And there is a lot of scholarship money for women who row.”

Destination: College

Funding for college rowers has increased in recent years along with its popularity, bolstered by high-profile consecutive Olympic gold medal wins by the U.S. women’s eight crew in 2008 and 2012.

When rowing became an NCAA sport in 1997, many universities began growing their programs and offering scholarships, most with federal Title IX dollars.

These days, about half of female rowers attending college benefit from athletic scholarships, according to the nonprofit College Finder. Those odds are a godsend to Nicole’s mother, Vhalia Viviani.

“It’s a great opportunity. They help the girls go to college,” said Viviani, a single mother of three teenagers who works two jobs to support the family. “For me, it’s a great blessing, because otherwise I don’t think I would be able to find the support.”

While college is still a few years off for Nicole, she has set her sights on the East Coast after finishing strong last month at the prestigious Head of the Charles Regatta in Cambridge, Mass., where she rowed in a double with teammate Grace Shumaker.

This was the first time RowLA sent a crew to the two-day competition, which draws more than 11,000 rowers of all ages from across the globe as well as an estimated 400,000 spectators.

Out of 36 women’s youth doubles, Nicole and Grace came in 12th with a time that trailed the winning boat by less than two minutes.

Grace, a senior at Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach, is now being recruited by college rowing coaches. So far, her top choice is Tufts University.

“I’m pretty academically competitive. I’m looking for a school that will push me, and Tufts is going to do that,” Grace says.

Having joined RowLA as a freshman, Grace is considered one of the team leaders, a role she’s pleased to embrace. Grace says Greenberger and others have nurtured a “sense of family” through RowLA.

Grace’s younger sister, a high school freshman, joined RowLA this year. Their parents, Gabrielle and Kent Schumaker, have high praise for Greenberger.

“She’s wonderful. Any kid this age, they’ve got so much on their mind,” Gabrielle Schumaker says. “Liz will get a tutor for you. They really don’t want you to be stressed out about one thing. They want to keep everything in a balance.”

To that end, RowLA stands out as a youth sports program with its own college counselor. Joyce Smith works with the students to keep their focus on higher education — checking on the girls’ grades, looking at college options, helping them apply, filling out financial aid forms.

Some of the girls on RowLA are the first generation in their families to pursue college.

“We draw from high schools up and down the Westside, and at many access to college counselors is limited,” Smith says. “We help the girls organize their time and give them focus. And rowing gives them the self-confidence to be a good student and aim high.”

Competitive Edge

Instilling that winning attitude by giving girls skills they need to compete on the water is the job of RowLA head coach Nick Harding.

Harding said he took the job with RowLA because he admired the founders’ aims. The challenge for him is taking students who do not have years of involvement in competitive rowing programs, as many of his former pupils had, and working with them “from the ground up.”

“They’re pretty motivated, but there’s remedial work that has to be done,” Harding says.

Some of his work involves “coaxing out competitiveness,” he says. That begins with focusing girls on their individual rowing times, which determines the crews they race with.

“Some are apprehensive about competing with other girls for the seats in the boat. You have to say you’re helping other girls by competing against them,” Harding says. “That’s how we improve as a club.”

Or, as Grace puts it, “You’re going to be friendly on the land, but very competitive on the water.”

Even the closest of teammates push each other when they get in the boat. Twin sisters Jala and Jalen Rodgers, freshmen at Environmental Charter High School in Lawndale, both list English as their favorite subject, love to sing R&B and often finish each other’s sentences. But when the 15-year-old siblings are rowing together as a doubles team, Jala’s job as the bow is to keep the energy high — even if that means punching all of Jalen’s competitive buttons.

“She’s shouting, ‘I don’t feel this boat moving,’ and I’m like, ‘I’m trying, I’m tired,’” Jalen says with a smile. “But it’s good.”

It’s been six years since RowLA began with its inaugural team. Since then more than 70 girls in grades 9 through 12 have participated in the program; the current group numbers 23.

Although there is a requested fee of about $2,500 a year, no one is turned away for lack of funds, Greenberger says.

RowLA costs about $100,000 a year to run, she says. In addition to private donors, the program gets grant funding from the LA84 Foundation, the Flora Family Foundation and the Global Sports Foundation.

A Winning Attitude

When the Head of the Marina Regatta is over, Row L.A.’s girls gather in the parking lot for snacks and a review of their races.

They are not signed up to attend the $20-per-head brunch at the California Yacht Club, where competitors will formally receive their medals.

Nicole and Grace placed second in their race, and so did the twins.

More importantly, the teams’ times improved significantly overall from last year, Greenberger reports.

Nicole appreciates that rowing is a race against others, but also about achieving a personal best.

“It’s everything you’ve practiced for, and you go out there and then you do it. You finish it,” she says. “You feel the accomplishment.”