Rowing has taken Chicago native Montana Butsch to high places. From the confines of a lonely Chicago lagoon this sport led him to the hyper competitive Schuylkill river and eventually concluded on the world’s largest stage – the river Thames. This former student athlete has earned several prestigious wins – and multiple degrees in the process.
Only when he returned home, did he fully appreciate the physical fitness, resilience and academic opportunities he had gained from rowing. Growing up blocks away the Cabrini Green housing projects, he realized that rowing could provide the same opportunities for impoverished students, too.
In 2007 after his time at the University of Pennsylvania and Oxford University, he established the Chicago Training Center, which provides free rowing instruction and academic mentoring to high school students from the South and West sides, who are typically underserved by athletic and extracurricular programs.
In partnership with the many, including the City of Chicago and After School Matters, CTC subsidizes all costs of a year-round rowing season – the largest such fully free rowing program in the country. Programming includes year-round practices with volunteer coaches along with paid alumni staff, all of whom also serve as mentors on an individual basis. During the warm months, they row on the South Branch of the Chicago River after school and on weekend mornings, up to five times per week. This month, they’ll train indoors at the Gage Park Fieldhouse as they transition to winter training.
Throughout the year, students test their strength against the Midwest’s top competition at regattas from Crystal Lake to Culver IN. CTC also hosts several regattas of its own, including the Tough Cup, a fall regatta on the Chicago River featuring the region’s top competitors. In the winter, the CTC’s Tiro Cup, an indoor 2,000-meter ERG competition, gives newcomers a chance to prove their prowess.
The program doesn’t require students to be involved year-round, but it does demand full physical and mental investment when the athlete commits. A standard spring race lasts eight minutes, requiring both the explosive power of a sprint and the physical and mental endurance of a cross country race.
To Butsch, the magic of rowing, and the program, lies in its unique mindset. Unlike traditional sports – which reward specific physical characteristics like height, weight, quickness, and vision – rowing demands “dedication, focus, teamwork and camaraderie in extreme measure,” Butsch says.
He also says rowing is especially rewarding for self-described “non-athletes.”
“A lot of people who consider themselves athletes, don’t pan out,” he adds.
But many inexperienced athletes thrive under the program’s consistent, intimate training. When they commit to the training, their teammates and themselves, they see rapid improvement. The CTC team is becoming increasingly competitive against the Midwest’s top clubs and this is due more kids understanding this fact.
Results aside, students develop discipline and perseverance that transfers from the boat to the classroom, as several of the program’s 300 alumni have rowed in college. Through their love of rowing, they have forged an extended family, Butsch says. The family continues to grow every year, too; from its beginnings in 2007, the annual roster has doubled to 60 rowers, aged 12 to 18. With visits to South and West side elementary schools, the CTC is spreading the love and benefits of rowing to the next generation, too.