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First Row first class program

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By Pamela Diana

Point Park News Service

Pearl Mackey was one of the first recruits in the rowing program which helped her learn discipline, motivation and teamwork.

The only recruit from Oliver High School, Alchemy Kimbo, attributes her higher grades to skills she’s learned in the program.

Forming a closer bond with her father was an unlikely outcome of the rowing program for Kenyatta Shackelford.

First Row is a free rowing program offered to inner city girls to help them develop healthy lifestyle habits, gain confidence and discipline, and participate in team-building.

“It’s gotten me in shape; it’s been my sport throughout high school. It’s helped me with motivation, determination and telling myself I can do it,” said Pearl Mackey, a senior from City Charter High School. “It’s pushing yourself when you think there is nothing left and it actually helps me with a lot of things in life.”

The First Row program is run by the Three Rivers Rowing Association (TRRA) and is offered to girls attending Pittsburgh public and charter high schools.

They learn rowing techniques, team-building, discipline and get plenty of physical activity; and free transportation is provided from select schools, said Joy Nix, director of outreach and coach for the team.

“The three things that I focus on are character, fitness and their choices,” Nix siad.

She targets those three things because those are the things that will last throughout their lives.

“The program teaches healthy living and life skills, and that healthy living is something they are missing,” said Nix, who started rowing in 1996 while a freshman in high school and rowed throughout high school and college.

Nix attended college on a rowing scholarship and after graduation, worked as a fundraiser and a trainer.  She was hired at TRRA when they created the First Row program in 2009.

Nix said she recruits students in September by visiting schools during lunchtime, bringing a rowing machine to the school and talking to girls who may be interested. At each school, she gets about 20 girls interested, with only about five girls actually joining and staying with the program.

“City [Charter] High [School] is a little different,” Nix said. “Teachers select the students who they think the program would benefit. They are actually hand-picked and that has worked very well.”

Sophomores join the program in September and freshmen are selected in January.

“By that time, the teachers get to know them and it works out better,” Nix said.

In other city schools Nix recruits in the 9th and 10th grade in order to have a sustainable program.

“It’s best to get them early, although, we won’t turn away an 11th or 12th grade girl,” Nix said.

Her hope is that by getting the girls early, the program will be able to have a greater effect on their lives.

Mackey, a senior at City Charter High School, was recruited as a freshman.  According to her. the discipline she has learned through the program helps her with schoolwork.

“Every year I seem to improve,” she said.

Her proudest moment was when she did the 2K under 10 minutes on the ergonomics rowing machine at the indoor races in the winter season.

“I worked so hard last winter and I actually ended up with a [time of] 9 minutes and 30 seconds,” Mackey said.

Mackey is also a member of a steel drum band and attributes the dedication, discipline and teamwork she has learned from rowing to her performance as member of the band.

“In a successful band performance, as in rowing, everyone has to work together as a team,” Mackey said.

It is the aspect of teamwork that also attracts Jamaka Beverly, a senior from City Charter High School.

“The new girls come in every year, and we all have to learn how to work with each other on the boat with rowing and teamwork,” Beverly said. “We all get blisters, but in the end it’s great because we all work together.”

The varsity team mentors the novice team and teaches them what they learned. Beverly hopes they do not make the same mistakes as she and her teammates did when they first started.

Nix, or Coach Joy, as the girls call her, encourages the girls to accept each others quirks.

“They’re all coming from different neighborhoods and schools, and they have to be patient with each other’s characters and personalities and they have to get to know them,” Nix said.

Kimbo, a sophomore from Oliver High School, was the only one from her school to join the group. She said at first the problem was that she did not know anyone, but now she feels more comfortable and has made friends.

Kimbo has tried to recruit some friends from her school. She said that First Row teaches dedication with hard work, and she has been able to apply that to her schoolwork and her grades have gone up.

“Being able to improve in the short amount of time, I’ve been here — I’ve gone from not remembering anything — to getting praise and it feels good,” Kimbo said.

A big part of what Alex Battista, a junior at City Charter High School, learned from the program is learning how to trust people. Before coming to the program, she wanted to do things by herself, but by rowing, she learned that she have to work with her team and trust what everyone else is doing in the boat.

“I’ve definitely learned to get along with people. Teamwork is a big portion of First Row,” Battista said.

The varsity team is on the river until mid-November, while the novice team finishes the end of October. They get back on the river at the end of March through May.

For their training, the girls are switched between rowers and coxswains to have the experience of being both so they can appreciate each position, plus the experienced girls are paired with the novice girls so they can learn from one another.

Physical training includes swimming, working out on the exercise equipment that include rowing machines, the indoor rowing tank, running, jogging, sprint work, core work, anaerobic activity, and participation in the Central Catholic triathlon.

Nix also requires an additional 30-45 minutes of running on days off from practice.

“It not always easy, but we have traditions and we have our team dynamic and it works,” Nix said.

Some girls feel more comfortable in big boats or small boats, but Nix makes sure that when their comfort level is secure, she will take them to next step so her students will advance in their rowing skills.

“I’m constantly trying to challenge them, but as their coach, I’m also trying to build their confidence,” she said.

Shackelford, a sophomore from City Charter High School said the training helps her to focus and to push herself like never before.

“I’ve learned if I can push myself physically, then I can push myself mentally,” she said.

An unexpected outcome of the program was forming a bond with her father.

“Before I joined the team, I didn’t do a lot of athletics, and me and my dad didn’t have anything in common and really didn’t talk,” Shackelford said.

Her father had just recently come into her life and it was awkward, but when she started rowing, it was something they could talk about and their relationship blossomed.

“He started coming to my races and doing a lot of stuff with me, so it really helped improve my father-daughter relationship,” she said.

Shackelford said she’s even motivated her younger brother to participate in sports.

“Rowing is so great — because it’s so complex — you break it down bit by bit and they can gain more confidence over time, and then that gives them more ability to try new things and go out and do things,” Nix said.

According to Nix, this year the team is a sponsored charity in the Pittsburgh Marathon, so people can raise money by running for First Row.

Brana Hill, a senior at Pittsburgh CAPA High School, wants the organizations and private donors who fund the First Row program to know that she appreciates the opportunity to participate in the program. Her plan is to continue on to college and make her family proud.

“We wouldn’t get this opportunity they’re [providing funding] for us to do it, and we’re going to show them that we can do it because we love it,” Hill said.

For more information about First Row, go to




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