Fairfax rower confronts class barriers with spot on crew team

Maryam Ali, 16, stands out on the West Potomac High School crew team. On a mostly white team, she is black. In a sport dominated by the affluent, she lives in subsidized housing. And unlike her teammates with sports backgrounds, she struggles with health and weight problems. Her presence is a stark reminder of the growing class gap in youth sports.
By Annie Gowen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 13, 2010

Maryam Ali is the most unlikely member of the West Potomac High School crew team.

In a sport dominated by the fit and affluent, Maryam lives in subsidized housing, suffers from asthma and struggles with her weight. She's black while the vast majority of competitive rowers are white. Her mother -- a medical technician and single parent of five -- stretched to pay for her $260 uniform and prayed for the scholarship that is covering part of the club's $750 in fees.

Yet none of that matters to Maryam, a 16-year-old sophomore who has fallen in love with the water. Or to her mother, Tee Dillard.

"She told me she wanted to do this. I told her to go for it," Dillard said. "It's expensive, but what can I do? I'm not going to allow that to hinder" Maryam.

Buying just the bottled water, sports drinks and snacks for Maryam's practices has been a challenge. When they went to a local regatta recently, family members had to choose between a $2-a-head ride on a shuttle bus from the launch site or lunch.

The financial difficulties they've encountered reflect the long-standing divide between haves and have-nots in prep sports -- a gap that is widening as club sports grow ever more expensive and new participation fees are imposed on public school teams by cash-strapped school systems. In Maryam's high school and others in Fairfax County, students might have to pay a $100 fee to participate in any organized sport next year.

For Maryam, the challenges go beyond the financial. Even finding a ride to practice while her mom is at work can sometimes pose a problem.

An 'indescribable' feeling

Maryam had no idea what crew was when two of her friends suggested she join the team last fall. She just thought it might be fun. Better than coming home from school and watching TV.

When winter conditioning started in November, she was shocked by how difficult the workouts were: running and weight lifting and rowing on indoor machines. She could barely walk after the first day and ended up in the trainer's office more than once with an asthma attack. She's had a weight problem since she was 6, about the time her father died of kidney disease, her mother said. Gym class had been the extent of her athletic activity.

"I wasn't expecting it to be as hard as it was," Maryam said. But, she added, "there was a unity. Everybody did everything together. You're working hard, but everyone else is in pain, too. And everybody was really encouraging."

Then she went to her first outdoor practice at a marina south of Mount Vernon. When she pushed off into the water, she was amazed at how peaceful it was as she floated by herons and George Washington's house, sunlight sparkling on the water.

"The feeling of being out on the water, it's indescribable," she said, curled up in a chair at home wearing her blue-and-white crew windbreaker. "It's something you have to experience. It's calming."

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