Bruce Smith wants to take rowing to a new level
Calls "quintessential American sport" a way of changing lives
FOR BRUCE SMITH, rowing is more than just a sport. It’s a way of life, or a way of changing lives. He admits few people view rowing the way he does, but he wants to change that. He insists rowing is built into America’s DNA, carrying with it values and skills that can be used to improve health, combat obesity, instill discipline, and help anyone succeed.
Community Rowing Inc., the Brighton nonprofit where Smith is the executive director, practices what he preaches. CRI charges for about two-thirds of its programming, but gives another third away for free. It spends more than $4 million a year, according to its latest tax return, and runs programs targeting children in the Boston Public Schools, veterans, and people with disabilities. Smith says the results are phenomenal.
CRI today is the biggest rowing club in the world based on the number of hours its rowers are on the water each year, but Smith gets testy when I ask him how many members the club has. “We don’t have members,” he says. “You’re part of the community when you walk through the door.” Smith then amends that earlier statement to say CRI doesn’t have many doors, either. The sides of the building just roll up. “It’s just a giant welcoming space,” he says.
Smith now wants to expand. He is looking to open a new boathouse next year on the upper Charles River in Waltham and, if that works, grow at an even faster pace. He wants to return rowing to its glory days when, believe it or not, it was America’s pastime.
In 2003, Smith moved to Vermont, coached crew at Dartmouth for a couple years, and then started commuting to Boston to coach at the Riverside Boat Club on the Charles River. He began coaching lightweight men’s eight boats, and over the years took eight teams to the world championships, building a name for himself in the rowing community.
Smith joined Community Rowing in 2008 when its Brighton boathouse was half finished. It was a giant undertaking because the building was so expensive. The state invested $2 million in the project and CRI raised another $15 million. “If I had been in charge, I definitely would not have had the stomach to pay for it,” Smith says. “But it was such a great idea that it inspired the whole community to come together and support it. We paid off the bills early.”
The boathouse is named after Harry Parker, a legendary Harvard University rowing coach who Smith says had the highest winning percentage of any collegiate coach in history over his 50-year career. Yet Parker’s name on the top of the building doesn’t mean Community Rowing is an Ivy League spinoff. Smith, in fact, says he is the perfect person to break down the preppy image of rowing.
“Rowing is full of people who know secret handshakes and I don’t know any of them at all. I’m an outsider. I’m always the Canadian,” he says. “I would say I’m an entrepreneur in the rowing community.”
We talked in Smith’s office at CRI in mid-March. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
COMMONWEALTH: How do you think most people view rowing?
CW: What do you think it is?
SMITH: It’s the quintessential American sport.
CW: Why do you say that?
SMITH: No. 1, it was the original professional sport and the most popular sport in the United States from the mid-1800s to around 1920. At that time, 75,000 people would watch a race. It was just extraordinary. You would have tens of thousands of people show up regularly on a Sunday afternoon to watch boats race on the river. No. 2, rowing embodies the values that make America a great country. It’s cooperation and helping each individual achieve their personal best. That’s what this sport is really about. It’s in distinct contrast to other violence-based sports.
CW: What was rowing like in its heyday?
SMITH: Almost every company in 1840 or 1850 had workers who on a Sunday afternoon would come down to the water’s edge and people would go out and race in rowing shells. That was their recreation. It was deeply woven into the fabric of every city or town in the United States because nearly every city in the United States was built on a body of water. It was something people came together around. Here in Boston on the Charles River, there were 20 or 30 boat clubs that would be out on the water on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon. The first intercollegiate rivalry was between rowing teams from Harvard and Yale. There were no other sports. This is how people learned to compete. Rowing is in America’s DNA. The crew cut haircut is a good example. It’s called that because the oarsmen on campus got their hair cut short because they’d get sweaty on the water and wanted to dry off really fast.
CW: I had no idea.
SMITH: There’s a really popular book right now called The Boys in the Boat. It captures the last great moment in rowing. It’s about a crew from the University of Washington taking on the eastern rowing powers back in the day. Tens of thousands of people watched these young men compete and then go on and take on the Germans in 1936 at the Olympics, where they won a gold medal. It electrified the world. It was a moment when a sport made a political statement about what America stood for and how we did things. It was bringing young men of great character together, teaching them how to live and work together and push themselves to the limit to see what was possible against the Nazis.
CW: Wasn’t the 1936 Olympics the same one where Jesse Owens won a gold medal?
SMITH: The same one.
CW: Everyone remembers Owens, but I bet few people remember the rowing gold medal.
SMITH: Yeah, everybody remembers Jesse Owens. After two world wars and untold amounts of pollution in the rivers of the United States, people just turned away from the water. It reached its nadir in Cleveland when the river, the Cuyahoga, caught on fire. You can also see it in Chicago. People used to build their houses facing the water. By the 1920s and 1930s, the river smelled terrible. It was full of terrible stuff. So everybody’s yard backed up to a fence and on the other side of the fence was an invisible cesspool. So there was this huge cultural shift in the United States. I think the polarity and the conflict that happened in those world wars changed people’s minds about what they wanted to dream about and what they wanted to see in their sports teams. We started watching military maneuvers on the field. To me, that’s the wrong kind of play. I want my kids to grow up learning how to cooperate, learning how to work together, learning how to make their boat mates get across the finish line faster.
CW: You mentioned watching military maneuvers on the field. Are you talking about football?
SMITH: Yes, I am. I think rowing should be more popular than football, which is a little heretical to say here in Titletown, USA. But when you look at the values rowing embodies — cooperation, everybody working together, connection to the environment, lifetime health—compare those to the values that football players have to live to be successful. My heart breaks every time I see these guys go out on the field because I know that one-third of them are going to suffer from Alzheimer’s at age 55. And I know all of them suffer from head injuries that make them measurably less confident in their daily life. It completely blows my mind that that happens and we know it happens. And we’re still watching it. I understand that people love their football, but it’s not healthy.
CW: Why do you believe rowing is so good for people?
SMITH: It is fascinating to hear rowers who’ve rowed a little bit talk about the impact that it has on them. When you’re in an eight-person boat, there’s one person steering and they’re the only person who’s allowed to talk. It’s a seriously important lesson. Everyone has to pay attention to one person and you have to work together. As soon as you have eight people with opinions in a boat, you’re in for truly a rough ride. The eight people in the boat have to mirror the movement of the person in front of them and the person behind them. And they get to push themselves to their absolute physical limit. That ability to cooperate and also test your own boundaries creates a bond with people and an environment that causes human beings to thrive. In the United States, we want to believe that if we have more power we’re going to be successful. But when you look at our history, and you look at how things actually work in the world, the communities that are really successful are the ones who know how to cooperate and how to help each other and have individuals who try their best. That is the definition of rowing. It’s not a metaphor. You actually experience it.
CW: That sounds like your Canadian side coming out.
SMITH: Everybody has an intrinsic understanding of this. It resonates. All we have to do is put you in a boat and send you off with seven strangers and you’ll come back, and whether you like it or not, you’ll feel joy and relief and some sense of connection to those seven strangers after 45 minutes. You do that with kids over the course of nine months and the impact is really profound. Those kids come out of here better citizens with stronger motivation and a support network that makes them want to live a better, longer, healthier life.
CW: What about people who row alone?
SMITH: There’s a real characterological difference between people who gravitate toward a single scull. Not to apply broad generalizations, but older professional men tend to be much more comfortable in single sculls. We’re about 60 percent women, 40 percent men, and the women are much more comfortable in team situations. I should say we have larger women’s teams. On the men’s side, the teams tend to be smaller and there are more men who row alone.
CW: What skills do you need to be a rower?
SMITH: One of the beautiful things about this sport is that everyone is on a level playing field when they start. It’s not like basketball or hockey, where you have to start by age five or you’re never going to be any good. Anyone can row well. It’s accessible to everybody from age 12 to 85 or 90 years old. It’s accessible to people of all shapes and sizes. It’s accessible to people with all types of mental and physical disabilities. From that perspective, it’s an every person’s sport. Olympian rowers are the most fit athletes at the Olympics. They burn as many calories in a six-minute contest as an NBA player burns in two basketball games. This is the outside limit of a human being’s aerobic and muscular capacity.
CW: Speaking of the Olympics, are you in favor of a Boston Olympics in 2024?
SMITH: I love the Olympics for Boston. I can’t wait. I have a lot of confidence in [Boston 2024 chairman] John Fish’s ability to build consensus in the community. When people understand the benefits of a well-run Olympics, and if we can demonstrate that this is going to be well-run, then the opposition is going to melt away.
CW: How do you get the message out about rowing?
SMITH: We have a TV show that will be on NESN we hope in early May. It’s a one-time special featuring kids from the Boston Public Schools competing at the indoor world rowing championships, called the CRASH Bs. Long-term, we want to have the American Rowing and Sculling League. We really want there to be a league where people have their favorite rowers that they root for and follow their stories. When people go to ESPN.com, there should be a tab for rowing.
CW: That’s all well and good, but isn’t rowing on TV pretty boring?
SMITH: The leadership of the rowing community is a hidebound bunch who tell the story as if cameras don’t move and as if the digital revolution never happened. People who are writing about rowing and covering rowing use conventions that were established in 1910 by newspapers. What we need to do is smash those conventions and establish new conventions that communicate to people the excitement of this sport. In most races we’ve got six boats, 48 rowers, six coxswains yelling obscenities in six different languages. There’s a lot of stuff going on. As soon as you move the camera around and tell the story properly it gets super exciting.
CW: How would the camera angles improve my appreciation of rowing?
SMITH: You can communicate the speed and drama of what’s happening in the shell by moving the camera around and capturing the motion the same way they do with sailboats. Drones are cheap and easy to operate, so moving that camera is No. 1. And No. 2 is creating channels for that story to happen over the course of a year and create a narrative arc that starts at the beginning here in Boston at the indoor world rowing championships and ends here in Boston with the Head of the Charles. Over the course of the season, rowers would compete at eight different locations in eight different races and accumulate a series of points. The goal is to have the most points by the end of the season, just like Formula One.
CW: So you think rowing can catch on?
SMITH: It’s definitely more exciting than golf. It’s probably more exciting than watching cars drive in a circle for three hours and definitely better for the environment. If we tell the story right, I think it will be just as exciting as watching Tom Brady win the Super Bowl. When we get to Tokyo in 2020, there will be a boat out there competing to represent the United States and we will know the story of every person in that boat, their triumphs and tribulations. We will watch that six-minute race with bated breath and Vegas will be making long odds on America.
CW: Should state and municipal policymakers be getting behind rowing?
SMITH: They already are. Waterways are a public benefit, but, generally speaking, they are nothing more than ornamental in most cities. We can access hundreds of thousands of acres of what amounts to public space if we make rowing part of the mix when we design parks, schools, and physical recreation programs for the community. Rowing has to be a key player at that table. Every town should have a CRI. Every town should have five CRIs. Every kid in high school should be able to choose between soccer and rowing. It shouldn’t be something that’s exclusive. It should be something that’s generally available for every American. It should be part of our daily lifestyle.
CW: Is it happening?
SMITH: It is. Sarasota, Florida, just spent $60 million on public rowing facilities. New Haven, Connecticut, has a contract to build another $25 million boathouse that is modeled on Community Rowing. We just completed a consulting contract for the Albany Rowing Club so they could move their program in this direction. Oklahoma City bonded out $80 million of investment in public infrastructure for rowing. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has already built one new boathouse, another is under construction, and two more are planned. Everywhere we explain what’s possible, a light bulb goes off.
CW: Let’s talk about CRI. Where does your organization fit in?
SMITH: We’re the biggest boat club in the world by an order of magnitude. CRI rowers rowed a total of 220,000 hours in 2014. There’s nothing like us in the world. We serve anyone within an hour’s drive. We have people that drive from New Hampshire. We have people who drive from Providence. As far as public access boathouses go, we’re it in Boston. There are some small community boathouses that all function on membership structures. We don’t have members. You’re part of the community when you walk through the door. Community Rowing is a social enterprise. We’re supported by foundations and philanthropy and the corporate education program we run. We run really great half-day and full-day programs for businesses and we have a business league for local companies. Those programs generate a surplus and we use that surplus to pay for programs that serve the community.
CW: Is there room for growth on the Charles? I’ve heard the Charles River is the busiest waterway in the world.
SMITH: It’s the busiest water sheet in the United States. I don’t think we’re up to the Bosphorus yet. We put about 4,000 rowers a day out there, along with sailboats and motorboats and kayakers and standup paddle boarders. That’s the contingent that makes it busy.
CW: You want to expand, right?
SMITH: We don’t want to take over the rowing world, we want rowing to take over the world. But we hope that there will be five more of these places in the next five years.
CW: Where’s your first expansion?
SMITH: There’s room on the upper Charles and we hope we’ll have a temporary location on the upper Charles in September or next May. If Waltham works, that’s our beta.
CW: CRI rents land from the state Department of Conservation and Recreation. How much do you pay?
SMITH: We pay $6,000 a year, roughly.
CW: Is DCR a good landlord?
SMITH: I love the guys at the DCR. They work really hard and they have almost no resources to work with. They have a massive, massive amount of responsibility in the state and they stretch a dollar about as far as it can be stretched. I wish we were in a position to quadruple their funding and give them the staff that they need to do their job because right now our parks are abominably managed and left to decay. So many things slip through the cracks that hurt people in a real way. There are probably 15 things up and down the river that need to be managed better. People would enjoy themselves more, they’d be healthier, and they’d be safer. But the DCR just doesn’t have the resources to do it.
CW: Tell me about one of those 15 things on the river.
SMITH: There is a sandbar just downstream of here that cuts the width of the river down to about one-third of its real width. That sand has been deposited there over many years from a culvert that runs two or three miles from the top of a hill all the way down through multiple communities underneath the highway and into the Charles River. The water there is about 4 inches deep and it poses a real safety hazard. It’s like coming to a place where there’s construction in a street. It’s just a matter of time until someone gets a boat through their back.
CW: Is DCR going to do something about the sand?
SMITH: We saw a press release recently that DCR has filed permits to vacuum up that sand.
CW: Will that solve the problem?
SMITH: These combined sewer overflows are really well designed. They have a catch basin that catches all of the sand. They just have to be maintained. They have to be vacuumed out every year. Vacuuming out the combined sewer overflows is an expensive job and nobody’s been doing it because the budget for the DCR has been gutted to such degree.
CW: Beyond the sandbar, what else should be done?
SMITH: The bottom of the Charles River is lined with the accumulation of horrible, horrible chemicals from the last three centuries that are processed into the weeds and eaten by the fish and eventually make their way into the ecosystem in all sorts of terrible ways. The water in the Charles is actually pretty high quality now, but the bottom of the Charles is just a toxic sludge. If we really want to take care of this river, we need to clean up that sludge. We need to spend the money, dredge the river, and make it so that any kid can come down and go for a swim.
CW: How much will that cost?
SMITH: The numbers that float around are $200 million, $250 million. It’s short money when you look at the next century because you’d be able to go for a swim and be confident that you’re going to be healthy when you get out of the water. Or the ability to go fishing and catch a fish and take it home and eat it without being worried that it’s going to poison your children.
CW: Tell me about your program with the Boston Public Schools.
SMITH: We have a really great relationship with the BPS. It starts at the middle school level and it follows the kids through high school. At the middle school level, we bring rowing machines to all of the schools in Boston. Currently we’re in 18 or 19 middle schools. In those schools, we run a program during gym class which introduces kids to this sport for the first time. Kids burn more calories on a rowing machine than they do on anything else. So instead of phys ed being a kid standing in one place and dodging a ball occasionally, they’re actively engaged. When they go back to class, they’re ready to learn. We work closely with the phys ed teachers and we have our own teachers who go in to facilitate those programs. That program is supported at a high level by a lot of philanthropists here in Boston because it has such a positive impact. Most of the kids in those programs have a field trip down to Community Rowing at some point so they see what the next step is in the sport.
CW: What is the next step?
SMITH: When the kids get to high school, they have the opportunity to row here for free until they graduate. Every single kid who has come through our doors from the BPS, with the exception of five over 16 years, has gone on to a four-year college. The ones who have not gone on to four-year colleges have gone on to a service academy or a nursing school. They come here. They exercise. They get out on the water. They learn a sport. They learn the values that are involved in this sport. And we track their grades and work with them on their homework. For $4,000 or $5,000 per kid per year, we can have a life-changing impact. Nobody else can do that. If you want to do just a straight-up tutoring program, the kids don’t show up consistently enough and they’re not highly motivated. The price if you do it by traveling to the kids in their home community is extremely expensive.
CW: How do the kids get here?
SMITH: Coaches pick them up at school and drive them here in vans that we own. Then they take them out on the water and teach them how to row. We have an academic coordinator who monitors the grades and the coaches bring them inside and make the kids learn a whole host of life skills. When you walk in, those kids are very happy to look you in the eye and shake hands with a strong handshake. They understand how to network. They understand how to make friends and they’re comfortable in an environment that they’re new in.
CW: You get a $75,000 state appropriation for that program, but it looks like you won’t receive it this year. What will be the impact?
SMITH: We will not get to provide the same quality of coaching leadership for the Boston Public School kids.
CW: Where do you get your rowing coaches?
SMITH: We started a coaching school, the Institute for Rowing Leadership, four years ago. We’re about to graduate our fourth class. We had our first alumni gathering at a coaching conference and we got about 25 graduates. They’re doing extraordinary things in the world, starting rowing clubs in Manchester, New Hampshire, and Bend, Oregon. They’re coaching at Harvard, they’re coaching at Princeton, they’re coaching at Fordham. They’re really spreading out all over the place. We get to hire the best two or three out of every class here. People come from all over the country and all over the world to study with us. We see it as a real powerful tool, the point end of the spear in terms of our bricks and mortar expansion strategy.
CW: What do you mean by end of the spear?
SMITH: Many of the coaches go off and start their own rowing clubs around the world. We hope to employ all of them eventually if we open more locations.
CW: From the institute’s name, it sounds like it’s not just about rowing faster.
SMITH: They learn everything needed to be a high quality leader of any rowing group. One of our teachers is Dr. Adam Naylor. He works at BU and runs their sports leadership program. He’s a psychologist who works on leadership skills. Our physiologist is someone who teaches physiology at Brown. Biomechanics — we have people from BU, MIT, Harvard, Northeastern, Brown.
CW: What do you teach?
SMITH: I teach training plan design and advanced rowing technique. Training plan design is a real thing. People didn’t use to understand about how to cycle athletes through the year to achieve their peak results. They kind of did it intuitively, but there’s a lot of science behind it now.
CW: You even build your own coach boats at CRI, don’t you?
SMITH: We have a serious need for safety boats, the boats that coaches use to follow rowers in the water. The Charles is a busy body of water so our boats are designed to throw off a lower wake. It’s like a canoe with a piece of plywood on top. It’s shaped to provide increased stability, increased flotation, and almost no wake. It’s the same design that the military uses for stealth ships.
CW: What do you do with the boats?
SMITH: We need 30 of them here. We can’t afford to pay for 30 so we had to figure out a way to build them. For every boat we keep ourselves, we sell two and we break even. We’ve built eight. We sold two to Tufts for $18,500 apiece. It’s actually cheap for what it is.
CW: Tell me about your program for veterans.
SMITH: We started it because we were at a loss. The war in Iraq was winding down and we had a lot of vets returning to the United States. We didn’t know what we could do to help them reacclimate. We thought we should offer free rowing so we started a program. We discovered this program has a really profound and positive impact on veterans. They’ve left the United States and their social network has largely disappeared. We’re trying to get them back into society, and how do you do that? Rowing is perfectly suited to meeting people and getting healthy. It’s got some of the characteristics of military discipline because you’re cooperating with people. But it’s quiet. There are no loud noises. It’s the opposite of a battle field. The Charles River is an unbelievably soothing and tranquil place to be. It’s physically interesting and challenging so these men and women get together and they find genuine comfort and joy.
CW: And you also have a program for people with mental and physical disabilities. Tell me about that.SMITH: Once you’re out on the water, your boat looks like everybody else’s boat. The physical or the mental disability disappears. You get to be just a regular athlete. There aren’t many sports like that where you can be integrated into a broader community. Rowing is the safety pin for the 21st century. We solve like 14 different problems, and it’s fun.