BRIDGEPORT — The teens' boats drift lazily off toward the canal wall as an enormous barge chugs beneath the Kedzie Avenue bridge, leaving behind a churning froth.
“As soon as this tug gets past us, game on,” Montana Butsch yells to the teens, part of the crew team from the Chicago Training Center, a nonprofit offering free rowing instruction and mentorship to city kids.
The barge eventually lumbers past and the crews near the center of the canal, rowing in rapid, smooth strokes before kicking into high gear.
Started by Butsch in 2007, the Chicago Training Center seeks to give disadvantaged teens from the South and West Sides an attainable athletic pursuit, a skill that’s more marketable to college recruiters and a boost in health, confidence and camaraderie.
“We don’t get natural athletes walking through our doors ... so we’re trying to make athletes out of them,” Butsch said.
Butsch, 34, of Roscoe Village, is a Loyola Academy graduate and former top-tier rower at the University of Pennsylvania and England’s Oxford University. He's also a graduate of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.
It’s a pedigree that’s virtually unthinkable for teens in the city’s roughest neighborhoods. But that’s also been Butsch’s motivation to help bridge the achievement gap, and he's doing it by teaching the otherwise preppy sport of rowing.
This year's program has 43 students classified as low- or extremely low-income. Among training center alums are Kevin Ambrose, the promising 19-year-old Columbia College student gunned down outside an "L" stop last week.
Ambrose wasn’t on the team for long, Butsch said in an email, but he “made a tremendously positive impact on those who knew him.”
The training center's rowing season is 48 weeks long. The teams practice indoors in an Englewood field house during the colder months, then come to the South Branch of the Chicago River four times a week, sometimes five "for those that want to commit,” Butsch said.
In local and regional regattas, they're a force.
During a recent practice, the team assembled near a small dock by Canal Origins Park — a site that’ll soon be home to a city-funded boathouse — before being sent by their volunteer coaches on a warm-up jog.
A few boats, known as racing shells, depart for practice in Bubbly Creek, a stretch of the South Branch so-named for the gasses once emitted by discarded cattle from the nearby stockyards.
Two more shells head toward the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, rowing casually past scrap yards, Port-O-Johns, railcars, silos and stacked pallets on either side of the canal.
Butsch and coach Joe Byrd ride in a small motorboat next to them, clipboards in tow.
Throughout the practice, the coaches jot notes, monitor individual rowers and swap teammates to determine the fastest boats. They’ll use a sea wall adjacent to an oil terminal to measure how far and how fast the teams have rowed.
As practice winded down, the teens looked tired but not winded, a testament to the rigorous conditioning the teens are put through during the year.
"Rowing only rewards consistency,” Byrd said. "What they’re being taught is work ethic. You show up and you do the work.”
Fitness isn’t what brought Richard Martinez to the club.
The 15-year-old UNO Garcia High School student said he joined to make himself more attractive to college recruiters.
“It was kind of a hard training for me because I was a bit fatter back then. They motivated me to keep going, to push myself. That’s what I liked about it,” he said.
The focus on health is a major part of the training center — all of the participants get fitness and nutrition counseling and receive personalized exercise plans — but it’s only the start. Coaches have led the teens through 5K races and team-building obstacles courses, all in an effort to build the concept of teamwork.
They'll take those lessons to various local, regional and out-of-state regattas and indoor rowing competitions.
Ultimately, the program is about getting Chicago teens to college. For that, the coaches offer mentoring and help planning for life after high school.
This year, all four of the program’s seniors will head to college. They are UNO Garcia High School’s Isaac Sanchez and Jonathan Vega, Walter Payton College Prep’s Amanda Ball and Adner “A.J.” Boyce, a student a Gwendolyn Brooks College Preparatory Academy.
Asked his favorite thing about the sport, Boyce said "the fact that it's a battle against your mind and body and that it's really just you against yourself."
The teams are scheduled to compete in the May 18 Culver Parent's Regatta.