Row New York’s Amanda Kraus

Amanda Kraus is Executive Director & Founder of Row New York. Row New York was founded in 2002 with the belief that a sport that teaches the invaluable lessons of teamwork, tenacity, and commitment to self and to others should be available to the young people of New York City. After beginning with one borrowed boat and eight rowers the program now provides new opportunities for over 2,000 participants each year. The program operates out of the boathouses in Flushing Meadows Corona Park  in Queens and the Harlem River in Manhattan. 

Tell us about your background.

I grew up in New York City (East Village) for the early part of my childhood and then moved to East Hampton for high school. I studied English at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and it’s there that I began my rowing career.  I didn’t know much about rowing the first time I got into a boat and, to be honest, it wasn’t love at first row. The boats were ridiculously heavy and awkward to carry and row. It was hard to imagine ever being able to make them go fast. With time, though, I fell in love with the sport and formed friendships with some incredible women that have lasted to this day.

I had very little idea of what I wanted to do after I graduated from college. I enjoyed writing, was drawn to education, to rowing, and to working with young people. It was hard to imagine how these pieces could ever form a job so I moved to Boston and dabbled a bit in writing for a magazine and doing some coaching at Community Rowing. I also worked at a school for kids who had been asked to leave the Boston public school system because of severe behavioral problems. I eventually began a job coaching in a new program called Girls Row Boston. The goal of the program was to make rowing accessible to girls from Boston’s under-resourced communities. Within about two weeks of working with my group of girls, I was hooked.  It was my job to recruit students from a low performing Boston high school, teach them to row, and get them racing. This was no small task, but I approached it with zeal. I had about 15 girls in my charge and I knew we were going to learn a lot across our time together. Not just them, but me too.

That spring, after months of training (running, rowing, swimming, lifting weights) and practicing on the river, that group of girls won the Mother’s Day Regatta on the Charles River. I think there were about four teams there. This was no large athletic affair, but I will never forget that moment for the rest of my life. When my girls came rowing back to the dock, they were sobbing with happiness, and so was I. I was in the Division II national championship boat in college and the bronze medalist boat at the IRA, but those victories did not match this one. This one was about so much more than making a boat go down a course faster than the other boats. This was about a group of girls who had trusted me to push them beyond what they thought they were capable of, on the water, with their schoolwork, and even at home. They had taken these risks and found success together. I wasn’t sure how this was going to turn into a career for me, but I knew we were onto something really powerful here.

 

What brought you back to NYC?

My boyfriend at the time (he’s now my husband) and I had both finished graduate school and I wanted to move back to New York to be near my family.

 

It must have been hard to leave Girls Row Boston.

It was hard leaving Girls Row Boston. I adored those girls and I admired the program, but I also knew that I didn’t see settling down in Boston.

 

What is the history of Row New York?  

 

Row New York started ten years ago with a pilot program on Meadow Lake in Queens. I had no money to get the organization started so I bought a book on fundraising and asked everyone I knew if they would help me get it going. I got old ergs donated from Vermont, my dad bought outboard motor for me, my old rowing coach drove down two boats from Amherst that we could use for the pilot program.

I started the organization because, based on the experience I had had at Girls Row Boston, I knew the model had the ability to be transformative. I knew New York City lacked opportunities for kids to be outside, to be on the water, to get fit. Girls, especially, were very much left out of the picture.

There are other good sports organizations out there that I admire, but I think Row New York is unique in that rowing truly is the ultimate team sport. There are no heroes. There is no success without everyone in that boat working together in perfect synch. There are so many great lessons that are learned through rowing.

Also, Row New York is what we call a “high dosage” program. Our high school kids are with us six days a week, practically year round. They are either training on the water with us, getting fit at the gym with us, or participating in our academic programs (tutoring, SAT prep, college planning).

We have grown tremendously from when we started ten years ago with two borrowed boats and about 10 girls. Today, we run programs at two boathouses in New York City and we serve 220 kids every single afternoon. In total, we serve over 2,000 people a year through our many programs for kids, adults, and people with disabilities.

 

What were some of the challenges of getting Row New York going?

There were so many challenges involved with getting Row New York going. I was about 26 years old when I started working on the idea and didn’t have much “real world” experience. More importantly, I didn’t have any money. So, I really had to find my way through starting a non-profit, raising money, finding a body of water to use in New York City, recruiting kids, getting insurance, securing non-profit status from the IRS,  buying equipment, etc.. There wasn’t a day that went buy during that first year when I didn’t think I was making a mistake or that I would fail.

 

In addition to the athletics side of Row New York you also work with students to improve their academics. Tell us about that part of the program.

We provide a really comprehensive academic program at Row New York. The idea is to be holistic. It’s great to have a really strong kid breaking records on the rowing machine or loving rowing, but if she or he isn’t doing well in school, than we’re really not doing enough in my opinion.

So, we provide small group tutoring, we collect report cards so we know how our kids are doing, we run Regents prep, SAT prep, and really comprehensive support of the college application process.

 

You also have programs for children and adults with special needs.

We do. We started these programs for people with disabilities about four years ago and they have really taken off. We really didn’t know what we were doing in the beginning, but we took the time to learn from other rowing clubs that were offering these programs and now our staff is helping others learn. The athletes themselves have also been invaluable in terms of teaching us about transferring (from dock to boat), adaptive equipment, etc. It’s been a really collaborative experience. We now run open houses every Saturday for any New Yorker with a disability (physical or cognitive) who wants to come down and row. We work with the Department of Education to provide rowing as a gym class for young people in our school system with cognitive disabilities. We also run a competitive adaptive team for those athletes who want to race against other adaptive athletes in the Northeast. Maybe one of them will be at the Paralympics at some point to represent the United States. You never know.

 

What makes you proudest of Row New York?

I’m really proud of the fact that we do what we set out to do and that we don’t cut ourselves any slack. Specifically, what we do isn’t easy. It would be much “easier” to run a more generic rowing club and charge fees to everyone while offering a few scholarships to rowers who could not otherwise afford to row.  There’s nothing wrong with that, but I’m proud of the fact that we have chosen the “harder” road to basically do the opposite of that. The majority of our rowers row for free and we can show up at a regatta and single handedly change the socio-economic and racial demographic of that regatta. There are a lot of details and a lot fundraising behind making this possible, but I believe in our rowers and I’m proud of them, and what we’re doing.

 

 What do you look for when you hire a coach to work with kids?

That’s a good question and one I think more people should be thinking about across all sports. We should never underestimate the huge influence that coaches have on kids they coach. When I first started Row New York I thought that if you had a fancy rowing pedigree, you could make a good coach. I was so wrong. You might be a good coach, but that was no guarantee.

First and foremost, our coaches have to want to work with our kids. If they just like rowing, the boats, the culture of the sport, it won’t work. They have to truly believe that the sport can change a young person’s life. Obviously, they need to understand the stroke and how to coach it and keep kids safe on the water, but there are so many other important parts.

Our coaches need to be patient. They need to be able to listen. They need to be able to feel frustrated and not take it out on the kids.  They need to understand that they are going to face unique challenges with their kids at Row New York, but that their job is to find their way through these challenges with the kids and not run the other way. They need a sense of humor, that’s for sure.

This is sort of hard to explain, but I also think coaches of young people can only be truly successful if the dynamic is about the kid and never, ever about the coach.  They can’t have a desire to put the focus on themselves in this context, it has to always, always go back to the kids. We’re lucky, we have a lot of great coaches at Row New York.

 

You must have lots of great stories from your years working with kids. Tell us about one that inspired you.

I feel like there are too many to list. I’m not sure how I could pick one. I have just seen so many girls (we just added a boy’s program this year) that, in the face of really difficult situations, have just persevered. There is not a year that goes by that there are not at least a couple of girls who really, really inspire me.

 

What was the best advice you got from a coach?

I’ve gotten a lot of great advice from coaches over the years. One of my favorite pieces was from my freshman rowing coach in college. It was actually the beginning of my first year on varsity so she was no longer my coach. In fact, she had moved to Wisconsin to coach out there. The new coach and I weren’t really gelling. I felt like he was always picking on me and, for one practice, he took me out of the first boat and moved me to a lower boat. I was upset and furious (and also 19 so I’m guessing not very mature). I called Mary out in Wisconsin expecting her to have a lot of sympathy for me. After all, I had been one of her best novice rowers, the captain, etc.. She listened to me explain how terrible and unfair things were and then she said, “You need to stop talking Amanda.” I was so surprised and hurt, but then she said, “If you’re so sure this is so unfair, you need to stop talking and feeling sorry for yourself and prove him wrong.” I realized I had been so busy sulking and getting frazzled by his feedback, that I had lost all focus on becoming a better, stronger rower. I had derailed myself. It was a good lesson, and something I think about to this day.

 

Do you still row yourself?

I do. I race a few times a year with some other women on our staff. I can’t decide if it’s ridiculously painful or a blast. Maybe it’s both. I have two young children at home, though, so there isn’t a ton of time for rowing between them and Row New York. I’m more likely to sneak in a run or a yoga class.

 

What can you tell us about rowing that might surprise people unfamiliar with the sport.

It’s much harder than it looks.

 

What is your most treasured sports possession?

When I was rowing in college we were still allowed to bet t-shirts at the starting line. After I graduated, a friend of the family took all of my shirts and sewed them into a quilt. I have to smile every time I look at that quilt.

 

What is your favorite sports venue in New York City and why?

Meadow Lake and the Harlem River, of course! But if you can’t count them, I’d have to choose the Barclays center since I am a proud Brooklynite.

 

Favorite sports book?

The Amateurs by David Halberstam

Favorite sports movie?

I am a sucker for sports movies and so is my husband. We have watched a lot of them and I’m not good at choosing favorites so I’d have to say: The Miracle, Bend it Like Beckham and Vision Quest, and I loved the TV series “Friday Night Lights.”

 

 

 

 

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