BALTIMORE — The gray of the murky water meets the gray of the horizon, with the gray of a dreary, drizzly sky pushing down, as Amaris Hinton and Diana Lowitt lift their 30-foot pairs shell from the dock and drop it into the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River, just south of downtown. Behind them, on this chilly June afternoon, I-95 is buzzing at the start of rush hour, and behind that, the Ravens and Orioles stadiums frame the city skyline. With all the shades of gray engulfing Hinton and Lowitt, their bright yellow racing suits glow like little suns.
It’s another after-school practice for the kids of the Baltimore Rowing Club, one of four such sessions this week, and another critical day of preparation for Hinton and Lowitt, the club’s top female rowers. In a matter of days, they will fly to Sarasota, Fla., for the U.S. Rowing Youth National Championships, Friday through Sunday, which will represent both a sweet beginning and a bitter ending for these Baltimore high schoolers.
It will be their first exposures on an elite national level in the sport of rowing — and a milestone in pursuit of their nascent Olympic dreams — but it also will mark the dissolution, at least temporarily, of their fruitful partnership in the girls’ pairs. In the fall, Lowitt, 18, will head off to row for Georgetown University, while Hinton, 15, stays back and tries to forge a new working relationship. Neither can be certain of finding another partnership as good as the one they are leaving behind.
So here, at this transitional moment, it is worth looking back and celebrating the remarkable and unlikely rise of Hinton and Lowitt — the former a black freshman from public Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, the latter a white senior from the exclusive Roland Park Country School. And it is also worth placing their story in the context of all that Baltimore has endured in the past six weeks, a period that coincides with the girls’ rapid ascension.
Since the late April unrest that followed the death of Freddie Gray in police custody, many have undertaken an examination of the worst aspects of Baltimore. But what has happened here, where the Patapsco, the Chesapeake Bay and the Inner Harbor come together and produce a calm and isolated waterway perfectly suited for rowing, may just represent the best of Baltimore.
“This is the epitome of what it means to come together and break down barriers,” said Natalie Beglau-Pueyo, the BRC’s girls head coach. “To have this traditionally elite sport, and to have kids not seeing each other for their differences, but for how they can come together and make a boat move as fast as they can, is an amazing thing to watch.”
When the BRC coaches made the decision in early April to put Hinton and Lowitt together in pairs — a two-person “sweeps” discipline in which each rower has just one oar — it wasn’t their different races that gave them pause. It was the three-year gap in their ages. “A freshman and a senior in rowing,” said Judd Anderson, BRC’s director of youth rowing, “are light years apart.”
What the coaches could see clearly was that the girls were perfectly paired in other critical ways. Both are 6 feet tall, with similar builds — lean, with strong shoulders and long arms — and their “erg” scores, speed and efficiency measurements on special rowing machines (or ergometers), were eerily similar. The staff also noted their shared sense of competitiveness and resolve.
So the decision was made to put them together, and when Hinton and Lowitt, in just their second time in the same pairs shell, beat two teammates in a doubles shell — typically a faster discipline than pairs, because each rower has two oars — it signaled the possibility of something special.
Then, on May 10 in West Windsor, N.J., after a little more than a month as partners, Hinton and Lowitt took third place in the girls’ pairs at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Youth Championships to qualify for this month’s national championship — a remarkable accomplishment for such a new pairing.
“For two people to get into the most difficult boat to row — it’s a very small, very narrow boat, with just the two of you to make it go — and to get down the course in a time that qualifies them to go to the national championships, after only a month together, that’s a very, very big deal,” said Beglau-Pueyo.
The forging of a successful rowing partnership is as much a matter of metaphysics as regular physics. Rowers speak of being “in sync” with each other in ways that go beyond the simultaneous dropping of oars in water.
“This boat is a very sensitive thing,” Beglau-Pueyo said. “When you look at them from far away, they should look graceful and easy. But what’s really happening is very intense. It’s this struggle between using every muscle fiber you can muster and ripping your hands apart, while also finding relaxation. And if two people are in harmony as people, as human beings, it’s going to be easier to find that harmony as teammates, especially in a small boat. You can’t manufacture it.”
Could Hinton and Lowitt reach that level of harmony? Based on a surface-level glance at their backgrounds, it might seem unlikely. Lowitt came into the sport four years earlier as a freshman at Roland Park, where tuition is nearly $27,000 per year and where rowing is offered as a club sport. Hinton was also introduced to it four years ago, when Anderson showed up at her middle school on a recruiting mission for his Reach High outreach program, which seeks to bring inner-city kids into the sport.
“They came home and mentioned the Baltimore Rowing Club was at their school,” recalled Karen Hinton, mother of Amaris and her twin sister, Myca, also a BRC rower. “I said, ‘Baltimore has a rowing club?’ But I went to the parents’ meeting and signed them up, and four years later, here we are.”
The first practices are always at a swimming pool; most of the kids have to be taught to swim before they’re allowed to get in a boat. In Amaris’s first time on the open water, it was pouring rain. “It was the worst experience ever,” she said. “I didn’t want to go out ever again. But for some reason, I kept coming to practice, and pretty soon I started to love it.”
For the first few weeks of Hinton and Lowitt’s partnership this spring, their interactions were limited mostly to practices. Then, Lowitt, who has her own car, realized Hinton’s school, Poly, was on her way to the BRC and began picking her up each day after school to go to practice together. Those half-hour drives became impromptu bonding sessions. They realized they had shared loves on animals and Disney movies. (“She likes ‘Toy Story,’ ” Lowitt said of Hinton. “I like ‘Beauty and the Beast.’”)
Quickly and organically, something clicked between them.
“When they’re [on the water], they become this whole new unit,” said Nancy Lowitt, Diana’s mother. “You watch them walk and stretch and work out, and neither of them is very verbal. They’re probably both on the introverted side. But they get in that boat, and they just communicate beautifully.”
To get from the dock behind the BRC boathouse to the starting line of their practice course on the Patapsco, the rowers sometimes have to navigate massive pools of floating trash, plus an occasional downed tree or partially submerged refrigerator, and on at least two instances, dead bodies. One of those times, the rowers had to alter their course to get around police and EMT boats pulling up a woman’s body.
On the afternoon of April 27, as protestors on Baltimore’s west side amassed for demonstrations that would in some cases turn violent later that night, the BRC rowers went through their usual practice. Some of their parents stood on the shore, trying to discern from the movements of the dozens of police and news helicopters in the air overhead — plus frequent glances at Twitter — what was going on in the city.
Even when Baltimore City Schools canceled classes the next day, practice went on, with some of the Reach High kids taking buses or light rail, as usual, to get there from the city’s west side.
On the Sunday after the unrest, as the BRC hosted a previously scheduled 10-team regatta on a glorious spring day, countless news helicopters buzzed overhead, scanning the city for more unrest while completely missing a more positive story just across the river.
“There was no media here,” said Devon Hinton, Amaris’s father. “They missed a great story, a refreshing story.”
Anderson is fond of calling the club “the most diverse sports team in Baltimore.” Thanks to his Reach High program — one of several dozen around the country affiliated with U.S. Rowing’s “America Rows” outreach — the BRC team has 36 African American and 31 white kids.
“Truthfully, Reach High in Baltimore exemplifies exactly what we’re trying to do in U.S. Rowing,” said Richard Butler, U.S. Rowing’s inclusion manager. “Developing minority kids to be rowing on a national level has been a struggle, because these programs have only been around for five years or so. . . . It won’t be 2016, and it probably won’t be 2020, but eventually you will see boats crossing the finish line in an Olympics that will look like the rest of America.”
The BRC’s racial makeup has helped Amaris Hinton feel comfortable in a sport that has traditionally been overwhelmingly white and upper-class. But as she is already finding out, the higher she progresses up the sport’s ladder, the fewer rowers there are who look like her.
This winter, at a regional U.S. Rowing “identification,” or “ID” camp — where prospects audition for national team coaches — she was the only African American rower present. But partly because of her showing there, Hinton earned an invitation to U.S. Rowing’s junior development camp this summer — a major achievement that places her on an elite track toward future national teams and possibly Olympics contention in 2020 or beyond.
Anderson figures Hinton, a top scholar at Poly, will get snatched up in a few years by one of the elite collegiate programs in the nation. “That means Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Cal,” he said. Top rowers don’t typically become world-class until their 20s, which means Hinton’s Olympic peak may come in 2024, when she will be 24.
“I actually think about it a lot,” Hinton said of the idea of being a future Olympian. “I let myself dream. It’s a goal of mine.”
By then, Lowitt will be 27. So much can happen between now and then — injuries, burnout, new partnerships, real life. It is impossible to say whether nine years from now, Hinton and Lowitt could reunite for the sport’s ultimate prize, an Olympic gold medal.
But such a notion, unlikely as it may be, is probably no more so than what they have already managed to accomplish in these past two months.