The Milwaukee Rowing Club Members are Pulling Together to Honor Our City’s Diversity

For the first time in the Milwaukee Rowing Club’s 104-year history, its youth teams might be as diverse as the city they compete for.

When I first met Will Bott and Roger Huffman at the Milwaukee Rowing Club’s Pleasant Street boathouse, shortly after a brutal April snowstorm, they were preparing to carry one of the club’s 30-foot-long sculls into the Milwaukee River, seemingly unfazed by the cold, or the ice floes they’d have to navigate once they hit the water.

They’re applying a similar degree of determination to another task: integrating their club.

Karl Hoffmann (left) and Jamir Williams (right) practice with the middle school team; photo by Caleb Vredenbregt

“We wanted the club to be more representative of Milwaukee as a whole,” Huffman, who serves as the director of the club and the head coach of its high school girls’ team, says. He and Bott are well aware that Milwaukee is one of the most segregated cities in the United States, and that their club has historically skewed wealthy, white and suburban.

Conversely, the student body of the Fifty-Third Street School, where Bott works when he isn’t coaching for the club, is 94 percent black and 92 percent low-income. So Bott began reaching out to students there, promising them rides to and from practice and free rowing lessons (covered by a scholarship fund he helped create).

Mary Richards perfects her stroke; photo by Caleb Vredenbregt

At first the kids, and their parents, were skeptical. But Bott eventually recruited a few students, who began encouraging their friends and neighbors to join up too. Offering swimming lessons also helped.

“What we have now is 10 kids from the central city coming here to row with a bunch of other kids from the suburbs,” Bott says. “And they have each other’s backs, and they work together, and they push each other, and they cheer each other on. They go from being completely separated, in two different worlds, to being in a boat together, moving as one, winning together, losing together, racing together, competing together.”

At a recent strength-training session open to all of the club’s youth teams, I watched 17-year-old George Lawton, of Nicolet High School, pair up with 13-year-old Kyree Fitzgerald, who recently transferred from the Fifty-Third Street School to the Lincoln Center of the Arts. The two boys took turns lifting weights, shouting out words of encouragement like “nice and slow – there you go!” all the while, demonstrating the team camaraderie Bott described.

A lanky kid with a halo of dark-blond hair, Lawton says that he grew up around rowing – he has two older brothers who went through the club – and that he’ll be competing for Brown University next fall. “I actually just committed today,” he says, adding that “there are spots [for rowers] at a lot of great schools.”

Fitzgerald, a compact boy with big brown eyes, didn’t know much about rowing before Bott approached him, and he didn’t learn how to swim until after he started attending practices. But he’s quickly become hooked, and he says he’s made lots of friends through the sport. “I plan on doing it through high school and college, and maybe I’ll even go to the Olympics.”


Summer Scrimmage

The club will be hosting a summer scrimmage on June 23 at its boathouse at 101 W. Pleasant St. Middle and high school students will be racing, and families and community members are encouraged to stop by to cheer them on. “We’ll have food, and everyone’s welcome to come,” Huffman says. “It’s a good time for people who don’t know anything about rowing to watch some races and see what it’s all about.”

‘Making Waves’ appears in the June 2018 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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Lindsey Anderson covers culture for Milwaukee Magazine. Before joining the MilMag team she worked as an editor at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and wrote freelance articles for ArtSlant and Eater.