Bucking the city trend3/17/12 Chicago-Chicago Training Centers Rachel Collins (center) takes part in a rowing competition with New Triers Natalie Denby (left) and Carina Carr. Stacia Timonere/for the Sun-Times
For a long time, the Public League was seen as all things for all kids.
That was back in the day when tens of thousands of people would pack Soldier Field for the Prep Bowl, when teenagers were content with a range of athletic opportunities that were confined to mainstream sports like football and basketball.
It was also a time when the finances of Chicago and its public schools weren’t stretched to the breaking point. And it was a time when half the population had hardly any sporting outlet at all.
So it’s a different era for sports in the Chicago Public Schools, in some ways worse (with ongoing budget crises) and in others better (with chances not just for boys but girls as well). Moving forward, it’s necessary to remember that the Public League neither can nor should be the only channel for kids to get into sports and stay fit.
The Chicago Park District, though facing its own budget issues, has a role to play in providing our kids a positive outlet for their energy. And so do nonprofit groups like the Chicago Training Center.
CTC has come far from its modest beginnings five years ago as the brainchild of Montana Butsch, a former crew team member at Loyola Academy, the University of Pennsylvania and Oxford University who’s now the group’s executive director. It was his vision that inner-city kids, if given the chance, would take to a sport usually associated with affluent suburbanites.
Not everyone shared that vision. But Butsch has emerged as the Pied Piper of city rowing, bringing around to his cause both adults and kids alike. CTC’s coaches are volunteers, people who competed in the sport themselves in the United States and abroad, and who now want to pay it forward to the next generation.
The group targets public school kids from the South and West Sides. Not only do those kids have no background in rowing, but some of them don’t even know how to swim before they get into CTC’s programs. The numbers speak for themselves: CTC has worked with kids from more than a dozen elementary and high schools in its target area and has had two alumni go on to receive full scholarships and graduate from Phillips Exeter Academy, a prep school in New Hampshire.
But no one tells CTC’s story better than its athletes, many of whom gathered in the basement of the Gage Park Field House last Saturday for CTC’s Tiro Cup, an annual event that caps the indoor portion of the group’s schedule.
Competing in simulated races on rowing machines against athletes from New Trier and Crystal Lake, among other teams, CTC members like A.J. Boyce and Rachel Collins proved that city kids hold their own in sports other than basketball. Both were in the fast heats for their respective genders, and Collins even finished second overall among all the girls competing.
Unlike many CTC athletes, she actually sought out the group because she wanted to row, having seen the sport in the Olympics. The sophomore plays basketball at Payton, but plans to put her hoops career on hold and skip AAU competition this summer in order to concentrate on rowing.
“I like the team component of this sport,” she said. “We’re kind of like a family here at CTC. Everyone supports each other. No one’s really criticizing.”
Though her parents were on hand to offer moral support on Saturday, Collins said, “They don’t really understand why I like rowing so much. I think you have to be a rower to understand why it really works.”
Boyce was drawn to CTC not by the sport but by the chance to soak up knowledge about Oxford – which he hopes to attend – from Butsch and others associated with the group. The other draw? “I like trying things that are different,” said the Brooks junior, whose other activities have included bowling, tennis and musical theater.
Rowing is something he intends to stick with. “It really helps you get physically fit,” he said. “I used to be a bit chubby before. It teaches you about teamwork, dedication, hard work, not giving up.
“It also toughens you up. You’re not afraid of so many things.”
And the rowers at CTC teach us that city kids can achieve great things when given the chance.
For more on the CTC’s programs, including its summer camp and rowing lessons, go to http://chicagotrainingcenter.org.