Stonington High School crew
Stonington High School crew
John Thornell

A Connecticut town asks: what happens when we all pull together?

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In the sport of crew, rowers talk about finding their “swing”—the blissful state when every athlete in the boat is working together in perfect unison. Teams spend hours out on the water working toward that feeling: every oar hitting the water at the same speed and the same angle, pull after pull, propelling the boat smoothly forward.

At the public high school in Stonington, Connecticut, the crew team knows a thing or two about swing. The team is nationally competitive—unusual in a sport dominated by private schools—and welcomes students regardless of their families’ ability to cover the costs. “This sport creates so many opportunities for the athletes,” says Mike O’Neill, the program’s director of rowing. He’s seen crew help kids build strength, confidence, focus, and the ability to work as part of a team.

And for many Stonington rowers, the boat is their ride to college. “A female rower coming out of high school has a 50 percent chance of getting a scholarship to row in college,” O’Neil says. “For a male, it’s 17 percent. Compare that to sports like baseball or football, where it’s like 1 or 3 percent.” Since the Stonington High School program’s inception 17 years ago, dozens of graduates have earned scholarships to row in college.

Stonington High School crew“This sport creates so many opportunities for the athletes,” says Mike O’Neill, the program’s director of rowing. He’s seen crew help kids build strength, confidence, focus, and the ability to work as part of a team.Photo credit: John Thornell

But unlike most of their competition, the Stonington rowers don’t have their own boathouse. They keep their gear in a janitor’s closet on campus and spend valuable practice time each day lugging the equipment back and forth from storage to the Mystic River, a slow-moving tidal estuary of the Long Island Sound.

So when a waterfront property in the heart of the Mystic River historic district came up for sale two years ago, the Stonington High crew team took note. “It’s a perfect spot for a boathouse,” says O’Neill. “We’ve had our eyes on it for a few years, but we were never able to raise near enough money ourselves to buy it for a public facility.”

O’Neill and his rowers weren’t the only ones with a vision for a better waterfront. The site up for sale—currently home to a motley collection of tumbledown structures—is the first thing that people see as they drive into the historic district. For Steve White, president of the Mystic Seaport maritime history museum, it’s no way to attract visitors. “As it is, it’s a pretty unappealing welcome mat,” White says. “That property forms the museum’s northern border, so for a long time we’ve wanted to see it improved and open for the public to enjoy. But we’re a nonprofit, and we couldn’t fund this project alone, either.”

Stonington High School crew“Our kids went to town meetings, stood out front of local shops and talked to people, and held fundraisers,” O’Neill says of the team's effort to help secure the future park site.Photo credit: John Thornell

To get their idea afloat, the Stonington crew team, Mystic Seaport museum, and members of the Stonington Board of Selectmen called on The Trust for Public Land. We helped the town purchase the property to transform into Mystic River Boathouse Park—a town-wide effort that benefitted from the dedication and discipline of the Stonington High rowers. “Our kids went to town council meetings, stood out front of local shops and talked to people, and held fundraisers,” O’Neill says. “When it came time for the town to vote on the bond that would fund the buying of the property, we wanted to be sure it passed.” Their hard work paid off: at a town meeting in 2016, when the votes were counted, 99 percent of the townspeople voted in favor.

Over the next few years, the town will remove the decaying structures on the site and create a natural shoreline, while the rowers continue fundraising for their future boathouse. “The park will be a great thing for the team and it’ll be a great thing for us at Mystic Seaport,” says White. “It’ll be a great thing for anyone who wants to get down to the shore—to have a picnic, launch a kayak, or just be near the water’s edge.”

For O’Neill, successful protection of the waterfront is both a testament to teamwork and a relief. “We’re so glad it didn’t turn into condos or a strip mall. This will be just one of the few parks that our town has,” he says. “There aren’t a lot of opportunities to do something like this, and it was a success only because so many people worked together to see it through. We want our kids to see that if they can dedicate themselves to finding their swing on the water, those lessons carry beyond the boat.” 

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