by Tom Utescher
From the northwestern edge of the Germantown Friends School campus, it’s easy to travel down School House Lane until it ends at Ridge Ave., and find oneself just a few minutes from the historic rowing racecourse along Philadelphia’s Kelly Drive. For GFS rowers looking to officially establish the sport at their school, the journey was a little more involved.
Nevertheless, in a five-year span the number of Tigers competing on the Schuylkill has gone from one to more than 20, and this year they were accorded interscholastic varsity team status by the athletic department.
They had already been winning medals at the annual Philadelphia City Championships for several seasons, and this spring one of the GFS boats medaled at the prestigious Stotesbury Cup Regatta. In addition, Germantown Friends was represented down in Florida last weekend at the most challenging of all the “national” regattas for high schoolers, the U.S. Rowing Youth National Championships.
The first head coach of the Tigers’ program is Aaron Preetam, a middle school faculty member at GFS. A collegiate and international competitor himself, Preetam also brought a wealth of coaching experience, having worked with male and female rowers at the high school, college, and club levels.
“It’s extremely exciting that we have this program and that we did so well in our inaugural year,” remarked Dana Weeks, who has just finished her second year as GFS Head of School. “It’s a very exciting sport and it’s such a Philadelphia sport. Germantown Friends School is so committed to the City of Philadelphia and being a presence in the City of Philadelphia that it makes sense for our kids to be rowing on the Schuylkill.”
In the modern day era, the first GFS stirrings on the Schuylkill occurred in 2006. Chestnut Hill native Annie Query had played lacrosse as her spring sport up through her sophomore year, then in the summer of 2005, she accompanied a friend to a one-week rowing camp in Boston.
Immediately drawn to the sport, she trained an entered a few off-season races, sometimes staffing a double along with a friend from the old Springside School. She began working out of the Bachelors Barge Club, which would continue to play an important role for developing Germantown Friends rowers.
Bachelors, sometimes colloquially called the “Orphans’ Home,” plays a very important role on boathouse row, taking in and mentoring aspiring scholastic rowers who have no crew program at their school. Rowing in a single, Query entered a number of races during the regular high school season in the spring of 2006.
After she graduated in 2007, the next Tiger ripples on the river didn’t appear for several more years. For Andrew Bair, as for Query before him, a rowing camp ignited an interest in the activity, and he began formal training at Bachelors.
As a freshman in the spring of 2010 he raced in the gig/novice single category, a class for first-year solo scullers. Late in the season, he not only won Germantown Friends’ first medal at the Philadelphia City Championships, he took the gold.
Bair was slender and always had to labor to add muscle to his frame, but he had the height looked for in the sport. Already well over six feet when he started, he eventually grew to 6’5”. He would collect three more City Champs medals, silver and then gold in the JV single as a sophomore and junior, and bronze in the varsity single in his senior season.
In the varsity single category, Bair would reach the semifinal round of the Stotesbury Cup Regatta three times. He is currently a member of the crew at Columbia University, where he has just finished his sophomore year.
Back when he was a sophomore at GFS, Bair was joined at Bachelors by two freshmen from the school who would go on to row together in a double for three seasons.
Greg Goldstein had come up through the middle school, and had an older sister who was a tennis standout for the Tigers. Ethan Genyk was a new student at Germantown Friends, but he brought sculling experience with him. He lived in Fairmount, hard by Boathouse Row, and his mother, Daphne Klausner, had rowed in a lightweight double at Penn along with the current, highly-regarded Episcopal Academy coach, Molly Konopka.
Winning the City Championships bronze medal as ninth-graders, Genyk and Goldstein raced together for the next two seasons in a JV double. Before they could launch their senior season, Goldstein was confined to dry land by a back injury. Genyk had to go it alone in a varsity single, but was able to end his career with another bronze medal at City Champs.
Following in his mother’s wake, Genyk went on to the University of Pennsylvania, where he rowed in an eight this spring.
When supporters of the GFS program donated funds to purchase two new boats for the Tigers’ fleet, one of them was named “Triumvirate,” in recognition of Bair, Genyk, and Goldstein’s role in getting the fledgling GFS program off the ground and onto the water.
In Fairmount, Ethan Genyk and his younger sister Becca had grown up next door to the McKenzie family, who had deep roots in GFS athletics. Sons Jake and Gus were very talented distance runners for the Tigers, and the eldest daughter, Lydie, was an accomplished squash player. The younger daughter, Addie, was the same age as Becca Genyk, although the two did not become classmates until Becca entered GFS in the ninth grade in the fall of 2012.
Running and racquet sports didn’t have the same draw for the youngest McKenzie as for her older siblings, but she quickly took to crew when she and Genyk participated in the summer program directed by Coach Konopka at the Fairmount Rowing Association. When school started, they recruited a third classmate, Tessa Curry, along with sophomore Sophie Bartholomew, and – PRESTO! – GFS had itself a quad.
It turned out to be a good one, racing in the novice category in the spring of 2013 and winning a gold medal at the City Championships. The original four female Tigers have moved around between various quads and doubles since then.
This spring, juniors Curry and Genyk joined up with Olenka Jain and Sam Pancoe to capture a silver medal at City Championships in the lightweight quad. Bartholomew (who will attend Boston University) and McKenzie raced a varsity double, placing fifth at City’s and then reaching the finals of the Stotesbury Cup Regatta.
Despite his impressive credentials, Coach Preetam did not work with the GFS oar athletes during his first year at the school in 2011-12. A middle school history teacher (who will move to the upper school this fall) he arrived directly from Bryn Mawr’s Baldwin School. He had been an assistant coach and then head coach of the Bears, and prior to that he had mentored high school and collegiate rowers in New Jersey, Florida, and Illinois.
Originally from South Jersey, Preetam never rowed in high school, but he thrived as a walk-on for the Rutgers University crew. He didn’t compete for several years after that, but then staged a comeback that earned him a spot on the national team for the Dominican Republic (his mother’s birthplace) in 2003. He raced in boats of all sizes that summer, helping power a double, a quad, and an eight at the Pan-Am Games, and then performing in a single at the World Championships in Italy.
He pursued rowing at an international level for another few years, prior to arriving at Baldwin. In his second school year at GFS, he began to work with the Tigers rowers as part of the coaching staff at Bachelors. That year and the next, the Germantown Friends program expanded. Generous supporters helped fund the effort, and used ergometers were purchased from Drexel University.
Addie McKenzie’s mother Mimi, a member of the GFS School Committee, had been among the leading advocates in the effort to have crew upgraded from club status to an official intercollegiate sport. There was slow but steady progress toward this goal. The school began providing the rowers with free shuttle bus transport down to Boathouse Row, and in 2013, the Tigers acquired an organizational membership in U.S. Rowing, the governing body of the sport in the United States.
After taking this step and improving their competitive standing in the 2013 and 2014 seasons, the GFS oarswingers encountered a major obstacle. Late last year, they were forced to part ways with Bachelors Barge Club, and they ranged up and down the Row looking for a new home.
“I was working with the largest group that we’d had out for winter training, and at the same time I had that weight on me of not knowing where we were going to row,” Preetam related.
The Penn Charter crew, which had been stationed at Vesper Boat Club since the school officially revived its program in 2009, was moving elsewhere, and that opened up some space for GFS at Vesper. The Tigers had cleared a significant on-shore hurdle, and went on to have a successful, encouraging 2015 spring season.
Some of the newest members of the crew stroked their girls freshman quad to a bronze medal at Stotebury, and junior Andrea Berghella, a City Championships silver medalist, ended his season racing at the Youth Nationals in Florida.
From seven members just two years ago, the crew roster tripled in size to 21 athletes this year.
“We’ll have at least eight new kids next year, and there are another seven or eight who have expressed interest,” Preetam noted. “We’ll be having our first official fall rowing program this year, and I think GFS crew overall has picked up some serious momentum.”