South Side rowing club keeps its oars in the water, despite financial uncertainty

On a scorching weekday afternoon in Chicago, a group of teenagers from the South Side and their coach meet at Chicago's oldest boating club, in Lincoln Park, to practice single boat sculling.

The students of the Chicago Training Center are getting ready for an upcoming competition on the same lagoon, and a chance for months of training to pay off.

The center's free rowing instruction, tutoring and fitness testing have opened sculling, a staple of elite East Coast prep schools, to a diverse group of disadvantaged students from Bronzeville, Little Village and other South Side neighborhoods.

Able Duran is a Little Village high school freshman and the first student to join the program in 2007. He attends every practice.

A soccer coach first introduced the idea to him. "Since it was new to me, I wanted to try it," Duran says.

Now he is hooked. "Each year it gets more challenging, our races grow," he says. "Last year we used to row in 2Ks only and now this year we race 5Ks and in teams."

Duran has participated twice in rowing competitions, most recently at the 28th Annual Chicago Sprints Regatta, held at the LPBC on July 12 and 13.

The center has sparked the interest of community groups, city officials, other rowing clubs and athletes across Chicago, who have participated in fundraisers and helped to get the word out about the program.

The exposure has brought more participants to the program, which brings more expenses. The group's founder and chief executive says the organization's future will depend on its ability to attract financial support.

At the Lincoln Park Boat Club (LPBC), the temporary site for the program's rowing practices, members are afforded a stunning view of the city and access to the oldest boating club in Chicago.

The facility, though well equipped for the group's needs, is miles away from most of the rowers' homes on the South Side. Despite the inconvenience, teenagers in grades 8 through 12 make the commute to Lincoln Park up to four times a week.

Other training sessions, on rowing machines called "ergs," are held at the New Life Community Center at 5101 S. Keeler Ave. Participants first learn to row on ergs, and once they've passed a swimming test, move on to sculling - rowing with an oar in each hand - in the water.

Coach and CTC founder Montana Butsch shouted encouragement throughout a recent afternoon practice, trailing Duran in a small motorboat as he sculled up the lagoon. Butsch says that while the rowers don't always place when they compete, the best way to learn how to row is to be challenged in competition.

Butsch began rowing in 1994 at Loyola Academy, where he was part of a crew that won the Midwest Championship and placed ninth nationally. He was a member of the varsity crew at the University of Pennsylvania, and competed on both the junior and senior U.S. national teams.

He went to Oxford for graduate studies and participated in the famous Oxford vs. Cambridge Boat Race, winning in the pair in 2003, and the eight in 2004.

He has trained under world-renowned coaches and coached at several universities, including the Lincoln College at Oxford.

"It's kind of like learning a language," Butsch says of the sport.

Butsch says he wanted to start something like the CTC since he was in high school. He began planning the program in 2005, along with treasurer Patrick Slattery, and help from the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race Dining Club of Chicago (OCBRDC), the mayor's office, and U.S. Rowing.

Today, he serves as the CTC's head coach and executive director. He exudes confidence in his rowers, but speaks soberly about the program's financial setbacks.

"The big issue for us is exactly that we don't have enough funds to make this work on the level that we want," he says, while watching the rowers do laps and issuing occasional instructions.

According to Slattery, it takes about $2,500 to support one rower year round. With the program expected to grow soon to 150 participants, the organization will need an operating budget of at least $375,000, he says.

Slattery also said that the organization needs $50,000 to complete its temporary rowing center on the river, and that a new boathouse to be used by the CTC and other junior rowing teams in the city could cost between $2 million and $4 million.

The program receives local support from organizations such as the United Neighborhood Organization and After School Matters. ASM sponsors the CTC and the program uses the ASM model for different levels of participation, like "apprentice" and "pre-apprentice" for varsity and novice rowers.

The group's main source of financing is corporate sponsors and private donations.

Currently about 50 students participate, but the Center hopes to double in size this year, with a future goal of 200 students.

Butsch says the cost of equipment, insurance and entry fees  for each rower in the program keeps the program in constant financial need.

"It makes it difficult to provide everything that we want, but we had to get started."

The CTC has been working with the city's park district, planning department and the mayor's office to gain access to a permanent location on the South Branch of the Chicago River - a move that would end the rowers' long commutes.

The CTC is waiting for a move-in date, and in the meantime continues to use the Lincoln Park site for practices.

"It's taken a long time to build up relationships." Butsch says  The group also plans to move their main office from the New Life Community Center to Englewood, with the hope that they'll reach more students from that community.

Slattery, the group's treasurer, is optimistic.

"We do want to build a large enough program to field an internationally competitive team and we will achieve that goal," he said.  "It really is a community effort."

Butsch and Slattery's confidence in the face of the financial uncertainty is reflected in their rowers.

After an exhausting practice, they joke around with each other and their coach on the dock, discussing the upcoming competition.

"I'm excited," said Cassanova Redmon, a senior at Phoenix Military Academy who is preparing to compete after only his fourth time on the water. "I want to see how I compete against other people, if I'm any good."