by Tom Utescher
After officially reinstating crew as a varsity sport in 2009, Penn Charter has made steady progress, and now in 2015 the Quaker rowers feel that they’ve entered an exciting new phase of the program’s development.
A change of boathouses, accompanied by the introduction of an entire fleet of new rowing shells and the debut of a young, enthusiastic head coach has given PC crew a big boost, and has netted some fine racing results.
The school and its rowing community officially dedicated seven new vessels on May 17, the day after the 2015 Stotesbury Cup Regatta concluded. The naming of the new Penn Charter fleet recognized principles and people near and dear to the school and its traditions. The new boats are: “Peace” in honor of Wilbert L. Braxton , “Integrity” in honor of John F. Gummere, “Community” in honor of Richard Knowles, “Equality” in honor of Cheryl Irving, “Stewardship” in honor of Anne M. Caramanico, “John B. Kelly, Jr.” OPC ’45, and Pan American Gold 1967 /Winnipeg, Canada.
“It’s very unusual for a crew to acquire so many new boats at the same time,” said first-year PC head coach Katherine Farrell. “Other coaches are envious. I think it was an extremely important step for us, because racing our own boats and learning to take care of the boats and the other equipment gives the kids a sense of pride and a real sense of ownership.”
Three PC crew members would help the Quakers capture two gold medals at the 2015 Philadelphia City Championships on May 3; 11th-grader Jean Gleason won in the JV Single event and junior Sally Stanley and sophomore Kelsey White were champions in the JV Double.
For Coach Farrell, the success of the double was a good example of a goal achieved through teamwork and a bit of self-sacrifice.
“Sally and Kelsey are in different classes and each of them had other girls on the team who were their best friends,” she noted, “but they showed how you can come together and have success if you’re committed.”
In addition to the achievements of the JV boats, some of Penn Charter’s youngest rowers earned a bronze medal in the girls novice quad at the City Championships.
“I think it was important for other people back at school to see that not only were we racing, but that we were definitely competitive,” Farrell said. “Bringing back those medals gave us more of a presence on campus.”
The two JV girls boats and a varsity double containing seniors Ethan Ashley and Jeremy McDavid all raced over Memorial Day Weekend at the Scholastic Rowing Association of America Regatta, and all three PC boats reached the finals.
Penn Charter, situated just a few minutes from the Kelly Drive race course on the Schuylkill, had operated a thriving crew program back in the middle of the 20th Century. During its heyday, Penn Charter had Olympian John B. Kelly, Jr. (’45) racing in a quad while his equally famous father, John B. Kelly, Sr., served as the crew’s coach. Eventually, though the program dwindled and disappeared. When John B. Kelly III attended Penn Charter (’78), there was no Quakers crew for him to join.
With the encouragement and support of Dr. Darryl J. Ford, who became Head of School in 2007, Penn Charter rowing was revived, piloted by faculty member Hanne Gradinger. It was launched on a club basis, and then became a full-fledged varsity team in 2009.
When Gradinger moved out of the area, assistant coach Ann Marie Kuvic ascended to the top job in the 2012-13 school year, and she brought Katherine Farrell onto the coaching staff.
Farrell grew up outside of Washington, D.C. and rowed at Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School, where her other athletic pursuits included swimming, softball, and cross country running.
“I only began to row in my junior year,” she related. “It’s sort of the typical rower’s story; you try a lot of different sports and then eventually you find your niche in crew.”
Moving on to Georgetown University (’12), she earned a place on the Hoyas’ varsity crew as a walk-on, and later her graduate studies in education brought her to Philadelphia and St. Joseph’s University.
When not in the classroom at St. Joe’s, she was a volunteer teacher at a Philadelphia grade school. There, a co-worker connected her with Kuvik, who was just moving up into the role of head rowing coach at Penn Charter. Farrell would fill the need for an assistant coach nicely.
After the 2014 scholastic season, Kuvik crossed the Schuylkill to head the program at the Academy of Notre Dame, and Farrell was handed the reins (or more accurately, rudder) of the Penn Charter crew.
As an assistant during the 2013 and 2014 campaigns, Farrell said, “I got to know the kids and I was also learning how Boathouse Row worked.”
Partly because of the Kelly family’s connection with both Penn Charter and the Vesper Boat Club on the historic “Row”, Vesper served as the first home for the reborn Quakers crew.
“Vesper also rents out equipment, so that made a lot of sense for a new program,” Farrell related. “Once we became more established, though, the logical thing was to move to a boathouse where we could have more space and more control.”
Prior to the 2015 season, Penn Charter found a new home a few hundred feet upriver at the Undine Barge Club. For expert advice on selecting shells for their new flotilla, the Quakers went next door to the Penn A.C. club, the Philadelphia home base for Riley Rowing and its proprietor, U.S. Rowing Hall of Fame member John Riley. He conducts numerous camps and clinics here and in other locations around the country, and he also happens to be the father of three students in Penn Charter’s lower and middle school.
When ordering the new vessels from Filippi Boats, an Italian concern, Riley helped Athletic Director John Thiel and his coaches select shells appropriate for the kind of events in which Penn Charter tends to participate, and even took into account the body types of the rowers that the Quakers routinely send out onto the water. This process provided a “fit” more akin to bespoke tailoring than an off-the-rack selection.
The program also acquired a second motor launch, so that the coaches could split up to monitor the less experienced rowers and their more seasoned colleagues separately.
A few seasons ago, highly-successful boys’ and girls’ doubles served notice that Penn Charter crew was for real, and the parents’ role in purchasing a team tent (a staple of riverbank spectating and tailgating) and a small cargo trailer reflected the momentum that was building behind the program.
“The school could see the caliber of athletes we were starting to attract, and how supportive the parents were, Farrell said. “The Penn Charter administration and Dr. Ford in particular recognized that and made a big investment in the program.”
Even after the 2015 scholastic season wrapped up, the Quakers’ top rowers continued to excel. At the Independence Day Regatta, Stanley and Gleason raced together in a quad that won a gold medal, and White brought home bronze as part of a different quartet.
As Farrell noted, “The success that some of the rowers are having in the summer will probably inspire others to row in the summer and to put in more work in the off-season in general. That’s how your program grows and moves forward.”
This fall, she plans to introduce a younger set of Penn Charter students to the sport by staging some “learn-to-row” events for middle-schoolers down at the boathouse.
The young coach’s commitment is bound to be contagious. She stated, “Crew has changed my life, and that’s why I love coaching and giving that same opportunity to young people.”