Nelson Torres had rowed briefly as a youth and seen the rowing-themed movie “Oxford Blues,” so he figured he had suitable qualifications to re-enter the sport last year when a new club formed.
“I went into this thinking I knew something about rowing. I didn’t know anything,” Torres, 50, admitted with a laugh.
What he discovered was an activity requiring considerable stamina and commitment. Early on, he recalled, “I thought I was going to pass out — ‘Where is the ambulance?’”
Yet he also experienced a growing love for the sport: “I’ve got to tell you, the exercise is great. The feeling you get once you do that workout is real nice.”
Torres is a charter member of the Cross Currents rowing team in Rochester. According to organizers, the squad is unique to its region — and, possibly, the entire state and country — due to its emphasis on reaching out to minorities. Since its inception in mid-2006, it has attracted approximately 50 Hispanic, African-American, Asian and Samoan participants to a sport not traditionally populated by people of color.
Team member Lydia Boddie-Rice said that Cross Currents took root after she approached Dennis Money, former executive director of the Genesee Waterways Center, about her desire to get involved in rowing. Money offered to underwrite an adult team if she could get one together.
“I was looking at my own health and wellness. It started out as an individual request and became a collective exercise,” Boddie-Rice remarked.
In June 2006, GWC joined with the City of Rochester and Rochester Gas & Electric — where Boddie-Rice serves as manager of public affairs — in launching the minority rowing program. GWC, a nonprofit center located at 149 Elmwood Ave. in Genesee Valley Park, provides coaches and equipment.
Among Boddie-Rice’s recruits were Torres, whose wife, Ivette, works in her department; and her own husband, Gregory Rice. (The Torreses are Puerto Rican and the Rices are African-American.) Cross Currents started with about a dozen people and has grown steadily to include a variety of professions and economic levels. Ages range from teens through 60s, with most rowers in their 40s and 50s. Boddie-Rice, 53, said the word of mouth has been strong and she even got her OB/GYN to join “because she noted a marked difference in my health.”
Cross Currents wrapped up its 2007 campaign at the Head of the Genesee Regatta in early October; the team’s competitions run from late spring through early fall. Boddie-Rice said that Cross Currents hopes to eventually take part in regattas around the country.
Torres acknowledged that the team’s physical appearance is a bit of a curiosity, but hopes that will change through ongoing recruitment efforts.
“I’d like to see more minority people come in and have it be a natural thing to see us around,” Torres said. He and Boddie-Rice said they strive to encourage other minorities — especially youths — to take up rowing and other water sports and activities.
“We’ve created quite a positive stir. If we can reach the young people, that’s when I’ll know our job is done,” Boddie-Rice said.
Though Boddie-Rice acknowledged that Cross Currents is trying to accomplish for rowing what Tiger Woods has done in drawing minorities to golf, she pointed out that “we’re not Tiger Woods or Jackie Robinson in that we’re not Olympic athletes. We have really had to start at the bottom, trying to learn a sport that is technically very difficult. You have to be in total synch with your teammates or the boat isn’t going anywhere.”
Rowing — also known as crew — features competition in categories of one, two, four or eight rowers. The standard distance for a rowing course is 2,000 meters (1.24 miles), although shorter and longer distances are used as well. Crew is an Olympic sport and thrives in many parts of the northeastern United States as well as in Canada. However, it’s generally considered an elite sport due to the expense of boats and other equipment. So it was with great pride that Cross Currents acquired in July 2007 a Vespoli eight-shell sponsored by RG&E.
Along with the exercise, another huge plus to rowing is the camaraderie. Torres, who serves as cocaptain of Cross Currents along with Gregory Rice, said the club has a retention rate of at least 80 percent.
“It’s a workout,” he said, “but when you’re doing it with other people that makes it a whole lot nicer. It’s almost like family.”
Torres added that the greatest reward for any team member is to be part of an eight-person unit rowing in perfect synch.
“That feeling that the boat is just flying down the river — there’s a timing you get after a while, when the boat feels like silk,” he said. “That’s a beautiful feeling, that feeling of being ‘in the zone.'”