Written by: Joshua Rafferty


Last summer, I had the privilege of attending the Black Student-Athlete Summit in Los Angeles, CA. At the conference, there were over 500 varsity student-athletes across all NCAA divisions. I had the honor of meeting the most talented, hard-working, smart, and kind people with whom I have ever interacted. As I met track runner after track runner, I began to wonder where the rowers were. There were probably five of us in total. I was the only person to represent men’s rowing, and the other few were women rowing in the NCAA. On the first day, I sat in a seminar that discussed athletes finding their identities after sports. Towards the end, we began to talk about the communities in our sports, and how relying on those can help us with our identities after our careers. This was when my hand shot up. I inquired about oftentimes being the only Black face at the boathouse and asked for ways I could try and connect with other Black rowers. Before any panelist could speak, a Loyola Marymount administrator, Bobby Thompson, asked everyone to pause for a moment. He then said, “Who here was surprised when they heard Josh did rowing as his sport?” Every person in the room raised their hand.

Photo Credit: Loyola University Maryland


When sitting down to think about what I wanted to highlight this year for Black History Month, I knew I wanted it to be something impactful. Continuing from my article last year about Black rowers in the history of the sport, this year I want to talk about Black rowers in the future of the sport. In 2020, the death of George Floyd prompted conversations across the country and in the rowing community about diversity. However, women’s rowing is still the 4th least diverse sport in the NCAA out of the 24 sports with sponsored championships. Collegiate rowing is the pinnacle of the sport for young men and women in the US, with the IRA and NCAA being some of the most competitive leagues in the world. Frankly though, since 2020, we haven’t seen much of an increase in the number of Black rowers competing at high levels despite the push for DEI in the sport. For that reason, I would like to focus on college recruiting of Black kids in this article.

I got my start in rowing when I first began college online in the fall of 2020. Before the start of classes, I got an email from the Loyola rowing coach looking for novice walk-ons. Growing up in the Princeton area, rowing is one of the largest youth sports. While I had a very good idea of the sport before attending Loyola, I was not recruited in the way many people think when it comes it becoming a varsity collegiate athlete. Because of this, I wanted to gain a full picture of what recruiting looks and feels like outside myself. I spoke to five current and former athletes and coaches with experience ranging from high school to the Olympics to hear their thoughts.


Corin Wiggins

Also known as TheBlackCoxwain to many of her followers, Corin is the varsity eight coxswain at Hobart College, an IRA school. Men’s varsity college programs compete at this level with schools like Yale, Drexel, Loyola, and roughly 60 other teams across all divisions of the NCAA. Corin’s rowing journey started in Atlanta when she joined a youth development program focusing on rowing training, rather than on-water practice. After moving to the Atlanta suburbs, Corin joined the Atlanta Junior Rowing Association. While rowing with her club, she was constantly pushed to take rowing to the next level and decided to try an Olympic Development Program. Despite having an all-white coaching staff at Atlanta Juniors, five out of six of her ODP coaches were Black with one of them as her future Hobart coach. Corin noted that most things were the same as her white teammates when it came to getting recruited as a Black athlete in the sport. However, a big part of her recruiting journey was her Instagram page, TheBlackCoxswain, along with some mentorship from Arshay Cooper. Corin’s page allowed her to share her narrative about being black in rowing while highlighting the accomplishments of other black athletes. Through this medium, she was able to get her name out and build a solid support system. Arshay helped her reach her goals by coaching her through the process of emailing coaches and finding the right words to say on the phone when they called.


Photo Credit: Loyola University Maryland
Grace Prince 

To get more information on the world of NCAA rowing, I spoke with Loyola SAAC President, member of the Loyola Women’s Rowing Team, and my good friend, Grace Prince. Her rowing journey started outside of White Plains, NY as a freshman in high school while looking for a fall sport to gain fitness for the basketball season. Originally from the Midwest, Grace always viewed rowing as an “exclusive” sport, “One of those sports like hockey, fencing, or squash.” After observing a family friend, Gabrielle, at her rowing practice, Grace started taking lessons until her first high school basketball season started. In the spring, she joined a development squad, and that fall she joined the Pelham Community Rowing Association (PCRA) while still playing AAU basketball. “I was the basketball girl,” she said when describing her first season on the rowing team.  She noted that the contrast between the Lululemon workout outfits on the water and her basketball shorts seemed to signify more than just style. Becoming a rower also came with a bit of imposter syndrome. Being mixed race, many of Grace’s Black family members didn’t know anything about the sport, with white members still only having loose knowledge. Additionally, Grace didn’t have any immediate people to whom she could turn for guidance in the sport of rowing. This was a luxury only afforded by her brothers who played football, the sport in which her dad made his living. All of this seemed to make her feel like an outsider at practice and home.

Grace fully committed to rowing when she realized her height would hold her back from reaching a high level in basketball. When it came time to choose a college team, Grace was looking for more than just speed. She wanted a team she knew she could fit into as a Black athlete. She would look at the rosters online, and if a school had none or too few girls of color, it was on to the next. She was also looking for teams with body diversity. Grace doesn’t stand as tall as other rowers and wanted a place where girls of different body types were still able to find success. She noted to me that she would much rather be on a team that is accepting of her, rather than prioritizing coming home with a gold medal every weekend. Some of Grace’s teammates at PCRA had continued to row at Loyola, which opened the idea for Grace. After meeting the Loyola coaching staff at the Independence Day Regatta in Philadelphia, she noticed that the coaches were interested in her as a person more so than her erg scores and race results. When George Floyd was killed, Coach Megan called Grace to ask how she felt and ways that she could be supported. “Coach Megan’s inclusivity was not just for show, but truly cared about each individual rower and the struggles they might be going through,” she said. For Grace, being seen as more than an erg score, height, and weight, paired with the consistent efforts made by Coach Megan to support her, were all signs that Loyola was the place where she could truly be herself as a Black athlete in rowing.


Devin Woodson

Devin Woodson rows for George Washington University in the American Collegiate Rowing Association (ACRA) for club teams. Devin got his start in rowing as an undergraduate at Louisiana State University. He was recruited in one of the school’s gyms and thought it was a cool way to stay fit. After his first practice, one of the guys told him to come back the next day, “and I just kept coming back until six years later” he said. Rowing at LSU was very different than his rowing experience now. In Louisiana, the 4+ was the biggest focus. The club rowed out of the parking lot at the lake and didn’t have a lot of athletes on the team. Devin told me that the team wasn’t looking to go to the ACRA National Championships, but mostly focused on local races and SIRAs. One day a movie studio came to film a movie on their lake. They needed rowers and Devin, alongside his teammates, was asked to help as an extra in the film. Devin was later asked to join the cast of the movie, where he was given a few lines as a supporting character. That movie was “Heart of Champions.” He was glad to have had the opportunity to represent the black community on screen in a movie about college rowing, something he never even thought was a possibility when he started in the sport. Going into 2022, Devin started at The George Washington University School of Law, joining the rowing team right away. This was a bit of a change of scenery from a parking lot next to a southern lake. Now, he was rowing for a performance club on the Potomac. This now meant a training plan for the ergs, more water time, and a higher level of competition between athletes on the team. Devin knew this would be the case joining a recently former IRA program. Through his hard work, Devin was able to climb his way to GW’s varsity eight last fall, where I first saw him from the bow of my boat at the starting lines of multiple head races. I’m glad I finally got to chat with him.


Aquil Abdullah

Aquil Abdullah was the first African American man on the US Olympic rowing team.  His rowing career started his senior year of high school after being a starting player on his high school football team. He originally played football because of his father, but rowing provided an opportunity to forge his path in athletics. One day while on the dock at Thompson Boat Center, he was approached by the George Washington University men’s coach, and went on to receive an offer to join the team. While on the team, Aquil was the only Black man. After college, Aquil trained at the club level and became the first African-American male to win at the US Rowing National Championships. He moved to Boston shortly after to step up his training, and it was there that he was invited to train with the US National Team. In 1999, he won silver in the single at the Pan American Games. A year later, despite much hype and anticipation, Aquil lost his race to make the Sydney Olympics by .3 seconds. He thought he was done rowing until Mike Teiti, the National Team coach at the time, told him the National Rowing Foundation wanted to support him on a Henley campaign that summer. He then went on to become the first African-American man to win the Diamond Challenge Sculls. “Winning that was sort of that sign that I was going to keep rowing for the next few years,” Aquil said. After competing in multiple World Championships, Aquil hopped in the double with Henry Nuzum and the two went on to punch their tickets to the Olympics. Aquil’s Olympic journey came together when he raced in the grand finale at the Olympics in 2004, finishing in 6th place.


Patricia Destine

Patricia Destine is the co-host of the “Rowing in Color” podcast and a current coach for Row New York. Patricia started rowing for Row New York as a freshman in high school. Due to injury, she switched to coxing her last two years of grade school. It was around that time she started volunteer coaching for Row New York’s middle school program. Towards the tail end of her high school career, she knew she wanted to stop rowing in some capacity. “Building my life around it as an athlete was not for me,” she said. After high school, she was offered the middle school assistant job, which ended up reminding her why she loved the sport, and she took over full-time shortly after. Patricia mentioned that Row New York focuses on building well-rounded individuals and preparing kids to be student-athletes. The kids attend programming sessions on time management, emotional development, and tutoring. Kids in the program are from various racial and socioeconomic backgrounds, which reflects being in a big city like New York, in contrast to the dominant view of the sport as rich, white, and suburban. The contrast between the two rowing environments is precisely what prompted her and podcast co-host Denise Aquino, to start “Rowing in Color.” Too often, they would see athletes come back from rowing on college or club teams with horror stories of ignorance and racism from their boatmates, and even being kicked out of eating establishments when with their white teammates. “Rowing in Color” is a place for people to share their experiences in the sport without fear of being shut down or diminished. The podcast has gained popularity in the rowing world, consolidating the stories of Black people in the sport into a single channel for the community to tap into.


After hearing all of the interviewee’s stories, it was clear that there is no one singular path to collegiate rowing. However, with the future of the sport in mind, I asked them all one main question, intending to challenge the rowing community to think differently as to how we can diversify our sport at the higher levels: How can we get more Black kids into college boats? After asking the interviewees this question, I was able to determine three areas of improvement: 

What can colleges and universities do to bring in more Black rowers?

Grace began by posing some of the key questions athletes and administrators need to ask. For example, what steps have been taken as a department to make Black athletes feel more comfortable? Do you have Black representation in your Student-Athlete Support Services (SASS)? Are the only Black people in your department in basketball? At Loyola, one Black person is working in SASS, and unfortunately, the only Black head coaches of all 18 teams at Loyola are the basketball coaches, all with no Black administrators. While my experience in sports at Loyola has been overwhelmingly positive, the lack of diversity in athletics could highlight the extent to which a school may lift or undervalue its black athletes. Corin emphasized this point, adding that not having proper representation of Black people in an athletic department can make it hard for Black athletes to imagine themselves being celebrated, and building a community at the school. This advice to universities goes beyond rowing and can be used to diversify all varsity sports on campus.

At the club level, the important questions brought up by David were, “Are you advertising to the Black student union? Where are we physically located when doing our recruiting?” When trying to recruit more Black athletes, it’s important to figure out where to find them. The school gym is ideal for those who may work out regularly, but reaching out to the Black student organization on campus is an effective way to connect with those who may not be found at school fitness centers. In my experience at a PWI, a lot of Black students want to be involved in something but sometimes don’t know where to start, or are intimidated by the number of mostly white clubs that show up to the club fair. Establishing a relationship with your school’s Black student organization, allows clubs to directly reach Black students, rather than recruiting solely from the school gym or the club fair.


What can the rowing community do?

The work to bring more black people into the sport needs to be constant. When I was in elementary school I saw Trayvon die, when I was in middle school I saw Freddie Gray die, and when I finished high school, I watched George Floyd die. Each time I saw some sort of reckoning with race, and each time I saw the world outrage, but then forget until the next man that looked like me was dead. Our conversations must continue long after the protests are over. Aquil spoke on this idea, “I think that what is hard, is that the theatre is easy. To say ‘Yeah, we’re going to hire people, we’re going to make changes… and then it goes away. But it’s sort of like this thing of we are always Black. You have to keep working, it doesn’t change. It’s not one of those things where you make policy changes and then issues go away. It’s constant work, it’s people that are constantly thinking about how we can improve the lives of everyone.” For Aquil, growing the community to touch more people is of the utmost importance. He previously didn’t think that it was possible in the sport until he met Arshay Cooper, whose message of rowing as a community sport resonated strongly. Rowing communities like BLJ Community Rowing and Brick City Rowing are programs doing great work to reach athletes of all levels, races, and socioeconomic statuses in their respective cities. Looking to the future, Aquil wants our community to be more intentional about where it’s building the next boathouses. Build a boathouse in a city, make sure people have adequate access and establish performance programs for local high school students. As seen with Patricia from Row New York, introducing accessible rowing to a city will draw all sorts of people to the sport, and enrich countless lives. With the intentional formation of programming, we can serve the kids who want to go fast and push them to the levels of the sport not heavily populated with Black people. As a community, it’s up to us all to make sure that those doing equitable work are brought to the forefront of the sport as we look to attract new rowers.

Lastly, Patricia brought up a great point about the rowing world. Develop Black kids the same way you develop your other athletes. There is no need to “go easy” on the Black kid when pushing them. In my life experience, I've seen coaches soften up on Black athletes, fearing some sort of reaction to criticism. It’s important to remember that Black kids want to be treated like everyone else. Corin and Aquil emphasized the point to push them and hold them accountable the same as your white athletes, and you’ll find that they will generate speed just the same. Lastly, it’s important to remember that Black people are not a monolith. The stories you read today come from privileged individuals. When Grace brought up exclusive sports, I instantly thought of my eight-year hockey career, with squash being a sport I contemplated before lacing up skates. My sister also enjoyed a highly successful 12-year fencing career lasting through her college years. What was “exclusive” to Grace in the Midwest before moving to New York, was “normal” for me in Princeton. It is important that being Black doesn’t limit us from certain experiences, but informs our perception of the world - the same thing goes for being white.


What can the Black community do to push rowing as a sport?

To my Black people: None of this happens without parental involvement. Black parents are statistically more involved in their kid’s lives than any other racial group. For us as a community, parents must get into rowing as a sport to ensure our success. For the last century, sports like basketball, baseball, football, and track have seen young Black athletes show up in droves to participate. As the few sports in which we have been accepted, many of us have come to see these as “Black sports”. Realistically, all these sports had to be integrated, and in times when writing a piece like this could bring me harm. Rowing is no different. It's time for us as Black people to view rowing as something we can do if we want. My mom and dad were highly aware of the sport when I was growing up, and put in my mind that I could do it if I wanted. When I got to college and had the chance to walk on, I was more than confident in my abilities and prepared to step into the mostly white sport. That platform built by my mom and dad, was used to launch me into the most beautiful sport on earth. At the end of the day, rowing is just another sport we as Black people can do if we want. Keeping that in mind when looking for your son or daughter’s next sport, can go a long way in opening the world of possibilities for your child.

  Photo Credit: Jenna Barret


At the Black Student-Athlete Summit, I wasn’t surprised to see how many had raised their hands. After all, confused looks and raised eyebrows from white and Black people alike were common for me growing up playing lacrosse and ice hockey. However, when I saw everyone with their hands raised looking at me, I fully realized that I wasn’t just the odd man out in the locker room, but in this way, the black community. Bobby went on to explain to me that I need to accept that it may just be me for a while where I am and that the community I crave that exists in basketball or football may never exist in my time as an athlete or in life. It hurt but it’s true. A lot of us may be like Aquil and may go our entire careers without having another black teammate. It may not feel like it, but we are trailblazers, and we are changing the sport every day by showing up and pulling (or coxing) hard. I know the sport of rowing needs us as Black people, and I'm going to enjoy my journey helping to change it forever.


 Photo Credit: Loyola University Maryland

Photo Credit: Loyola University Maryland


Blog feature image photo credit: Loyola University Maryland and Jenna Barret

Leave a comment

Please note: comments must be approved before they are published.