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A look into a high school indoor rowing competition


The Center City Slam is an indoor rowing competition in Philadelphia. Young rowers go all-out for 2,000 meters. For some, this is their moment. If they do well, they get off the rowing machine and onto the Schuylkill River just in time for spring. Buffy Gorrilla reports from Philadelphia.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We're about seven minutes away from our first event.

BUFFY GORRILLA, BYLINE: It's all happening in a rec center in West Philly. High school rowers are everywhere - boys and girls - some stretching or warming up, others lounging in groups, distracting themselves with their phones. You can smell the high school gym.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We are starting on time.

GORRILLA: On one side of the room is the competition zone, where long lines of rowing machines are waiting, packed so close together you can reach out and touch your opponent.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Please find your erg if you are in our first event.

GORRILLA: Fourteen-year-old Sam Wallace is a freshman at LaSalle College High School. He's entirely focused on his first rowing competition. Sam's dressed in a white T-shirt and navy shorts. He's buzzing, talking fast.

SAM WALLACE: So I started in the winter. I played soccer in the fall. And I saw crew as one of the sports that LaSalle offered, and I was interested.

GORRILLA: Coach Meg Kennedy from Mount Saint Joseph Academy considers this event the unofficial end of the indoor training season.

MEG KENNEDY: It's a great opportunity to come out of that winter training mode and to get that feeling of the starting line again.

GORRILLA: All competitors race the 2,000 meters on an erg, aka a rowing machine.

KENNEDY: It doesn't sound long until you're a rower and trying to do that on the machine. It is really a battle. It's you versus the machine.

GORRILLA: Sam remembers his first day giving that distance a whirl.

SAM: I honestly felt terrible. My arms were killing me. My legs hurt, and I was out of breath.

GORRILLA: But he kept coming back. And now Sam's one pressure-filled row from securing a spot on the team.

SAM: Yeah. I'm pretty confident. I think I put in enough work, so fingers crossed.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Men's high school novice on the A and the B erg.

GORRILLA: There's no starting pistol, but with a faint whoosh, flywheels spin and gangly teen-boy arms start flying. It's on.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Go, go, go, go, go.


GORRILLA: The guy a couple ergs down from Sam went out too fast and vomits into a trash can. Not Sam. He's hanging in there. There's a big screen showing everyone's progress, and Sam's computer boat slides in first. He placed 10th in his event.


SAM: Thank you.

GORRILLA: How do you feel?

SAM: Tired.

GORRILLA: Sam grabs a soft pretzel from a concessions table. He's pretty confident he's made the team.

SAM: We're getting in the water next weekend, actually. So, yeah, that'd be my first time on the boat, so I'm kind of excited.

GORRILLA: And he should be. Sam's results did earn him a spot in the first freshman boat for LaSalle College High School. For NPR News, this is Buffy Gorrilla in Philadelphia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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