CHICAGO — Newbies at the Chicago Training Center rowing program need lots of practice and patience before competing against some of the Midwest's top teams.
"It's terribly exciting and fun, but if you have to wait a year to compete you might not stick around," said Montana Butsch, founder of the Bridgeport-based rowing program, which aims to send low-income high school students to college on scholarships.
Enter the "Tiro Cup."
The annual indoor regatta — named for the Latin word for "new soldier" — is designed give Chicago Training Center newcomers a taste of competition against junior varsity crews from schools like St. Ignatius College Prep and New Trier Township High School.
"They kick our a-- but they're nice about it," Butsch said.
Scheduled for March 15, the race is expected to draw more than 100 competitors to the Gage Park Field House, 2911 W. 55th St. Here's how it works:
The high schools and private clubs will bring their squads to the field house basement, which serves as the Chicago Training Center's winter practice facility.
Racers will board individual rowing machines and rapidly row — often to the howls and screams of teammates — until a computer tells them they've reached 2,000 meters.
There are first-, second- and third-place medals for individual competitions. The coveted trophy cup will be awarded to the winners of a "relay" race, in which organizers average the times of four top competitors from a team.
Samantha Reyes, 14, of Archer Heights, will be among the race's first-time participants. She said she's not intimidated by the pedigree of the other teams. Why?
"Because I'm confident," she said.
Coaches for the Chicago Training Center say that type of poise is one of the program's main goals.
It's what brought Isaac Sanchez to the rowing team as a high school freshman, and it's what will bring the 18-year-old University of Illinois student back to Gage Park to help cheer on his former team.
"You want teammates to be there with you even if they're not racing. It definitely kept me motivated to row and get along with the team," he said.
New this year, the Tiro Cup is expected to be broadcast online to the West Coast, where participants from a Los Angeles rowing club will also participate.
For Butsch, the race is yet another chance to introduce the sport of competitive rowing to local high school students who don't hail from affluent backgrounds. He's also hoping it can draw interest from the parents of the program's Southwest Side rowers.
"The fact that it's in their own backyard, hopefully it’s easy for them to attend," he said.
The Tiro Cup is the second event hosted by the Chicago Training Center throughout the year. The group also hosts the Tough Cup, which brings rowing teams from across the city to compete in an industrial stretch of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal.
That location, surrounded on each side by factories, is a far cry from the idyllic banks of the river's north branch where other teams practice, but Butsch said the city's plans for a boathouse near Bridgeport's Canal Origins Park can help bring more attention to the river's south branch, and to the team.
For more information about the Chicago Training Center, see the group's official website.