Monday, June 01, 2009

The Summer Of The Orange Life Jackets

(I just came across this and realized it's never been published. Our Y camps begin tomorrow and I'm excited...and terrified. This is a slice of what it was like year one)
It seemed so simple in February when we were putting dates on the calendar..

I would have my regular coaching responsibilities along with the YMCA camp. It would mean one week of three a day coaching. Simple. Yeah.

And so it became the summer of the orange lifejacket. July of 2008 that is…hot and humid beyond belief. A good Midwestern summer. Why we decided July would be a good month to do this for the first time is beyond me. Oh my, it was hot. Sweat running off the tip of your nose hot.

We had arranged to teach rowing to 8-12 year olds as part of an outdoor camp through the YMCA. About 75 kids in two week sessions. Two camps. Four weeks. Yikes.

We had no idea what we were doing.

I mean, we knew how to teach rowing. I’d been coaching for, well, a very long time. And Kenny was a new coach but not new to teaching kids. His coaching instincts were sharp and I knew we could teach the rowing. We’d taught hundreds of Learn To Rows.

But to little kids? And let me tell you some of those kids were dinky…and it was hot.

We decided to teach in eights. They would be required to wear lifejackets and I knew they wouldn’t be big enough to get the necessary clearance in our quads. We had an old shoenbroad and we borrowed an eight from a local college. So, yeah, little kids in eights.


First challenge, getting the boats to the water. The camp was held during the workday and our volunteer crew was very limited. We decided to utilize the camp counselors and teach the kiddos how to carry big heavy boats.

About 16 little kids can pick up an eight, get it to shoulders and with a great deal of help from some grownups get it out of the compound and to the dock. Pretty impressive.

Now we talked to the kids about carrying it on their shoulders. But when the boat was on our shoulders it obviously didn’t touch theirs. The first day we walked the short distance to the dock and I couldn’t figure out why the boat was so dang heavy…day two and I was a little smarter. The kids were trying to get the boat to their shoulders, or their shoulders to the boat, hanging on...pulling down. We were carrying the eight and about 16 little kids. Can I just say HEAVY! And oh yeah…it was hot, really hot.

Kenny and I had a plan for the first day. “Let’s just get them to full slide by fours,” we agreed. Having taught many new adult and high school rowers we felt like this should be a good plan.

We didn’t figure in the crying.

Scared kids. Boats are scary. Big tippy boats are really scary. We loaded them in explaining the getting in and out process, ‘step here, don’t step here.’ ‘Hold on to your oar.’

We let them sit at the dock that first day. Starting up tight to the dock, slowly moving out to sit flat in the water while we held their blade tips. Let them feel how they could control the side to side movement of the boat.

We lost a few to the tears that first day. It had to be a little overwhelming. We’d let them get out. Tell them they could try again tomorrow. Let them watch. Didn’t push.

The last eight of that first day was doing well. I’d learned some things with the earlier groups. I really felt like they could leave the dock, maybe just float out a ways, maybe take strokes one by one. As I began to release the oar tip I was holding one little guy asked in a slightly panicked voice “You’re not coming with us??” Explaining that I would be right with them in the coaches boat we let them go.

And there they were. Nine little kids in a big eight. Sitting with slightly terrified looks on their faces. Oar handles grasped tight to their orange lifejackets.

“Stripe Up!” we’d say. Referring to the striped strap on the life jacket. If all oar handles were held right at the stripe the boat would balance. Unless you were a littler kiddo, then you needed your handle above the stripe. Important stuff.

Slowly they took their first strokes. One and then two at a time. We talked about timing, watching elbows, imagining table tops to slide the oars across, square, feather, feather, square. They laughed at the term ‘weigh enough’ but picked up most rowing lingo quickly. Smart little sponges.

Days two and three of that long, hot first week got progressively easier. We let a few of the bigger kids help lift the boats but the grownups did all of the carrying. We got everyone away from the dock. Most everyone was rowing. There were quarrels over who got to sit in the coxswain seat, who got to ride in the coaching launch. It was fun. And frankly, amazing.

A group of rotten boys, you know the ones, they make the counselors who’ve spent all summer with them crazy, this group of boys stole my heart. Blake and Chris, Michael and Connor, Jeremy and Matt, Troy and Joe. They talked too much. They didn’t pay attention. They goofed around. But they also fell over each other if I asked for help. Wanted to be in the boat I would coach. I liked them, too.

On the final day of their camp they were all put in one boat. Just for me.

We went way out into the lake. The middle of the big lake. Little boys in orange lifejackets.

And they rowed. All the way back to the dock. All eight.

So today we began camp two. 42 new orange life jackets. It’s easier this week.

Our learning curve is not so steep. The counselors know what to expect. Kenny and I know what the kids are capable of learning. We, almost, have a system. It’s still hot and there’s a new group of rotten little boys.

A reporter asked me today what it was that we were teaching. “By watching you might think that we are teaching rowing,” I replied as sweat dripped off my nose. “But actually, we are teaching courage and confidence and team work. It really has very little to do with rowing.”


Kimmy said...

Hope to see lots more pics of those orange life vests and of course hear more stories. You are a great person and they are lucky to have you in their lives even for a short time!

Kathy said...

"We didn't figure in the crying."


I don't know a thing about rowing. But I know kids. And you are absolutely insane. And a hero!

Cindy said...

Great post!