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Libby Peters rowing with renewed purpose
Libby Peters had a tough battle on her hands.
She had been an outstanding athlete at Columbia University, captain and two-time MVP of the crew team, twice a world indoor champion and a bronze medal winner in the World Rowing Championships.
She was headed for a shot at Olympic competition and, maybe, law school.
Then, in the spring of 2009, at age 25, she was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma.
So what did she do? She went through the chemotherapy, fought the good fight, and … founded Philadelphia City Rowing, which has a mission to empower public school students through the sport of rowing.
“It’s been very successful, and I’m grateful for that,” said Peters, a New Hartford native who took up rowing with fierce passion while a student at The Gunnery School in Connecticut.
PCR has been a hit in Philadelphia, which has a long and cherished history in the sport. Boathouse Row on the Schuylkill River is one of the most recognizable urban landmarks in America, both for its striking architecture and the tradition it represents that dates to the 1830s.
The unusual thing about PCR is that it is aimed at inner city youth, a segment of the population that has absent from a sport that, on the scholastic level, long has been the preserve of parochial and private schools.
“I’ve kind of always been involved with working with inner city kids,” said Peters, who volunteered with a variety of New York City agencies when she was in college. “There is a great need out there. If these kids have the same opportunities as other kids, will they achieve the same results? You look around, and the answer is a resounding yes.
“These kids are under-served. They need more opportunities. There is this really wonderful, vibrant rowing community, and there are these kids in Philly who suffer from high dropout rates, a lot of crime, single or no parents. Coming from New Hartford, none of us can imagine what that is like. You want to give them opportunities.”
That wasn’t easy at first. Water sports are foreign to most inner-city youngsters, 60 percent of whom can’t swim. In canvassing city schools, PCR reached more than 1,000 kids, and 75 showed up for the summer program to form the city’s first-ever public school team.
“That’s part of the challenge,” Peters said. “It’s a white, preppy sport. It takes place on water.”
But those kids did show up, and the people at the city’s recreation department and schools were more than pleased.
“It’s about time!” said Ed Fagan, Director of the Development Division of the Philadelphia Department of Parks and Recreation.
Fagan, delighted with Peters’ energy and initiative, said a recent merger of his department with the Fairmount Park System has provided an opportunity “to give kids new experiences and new opportunities.”
“We wanted to utilize our facilities and this was a great fit,” he said. “We had the resources. We had land, access, and facilities to work a partnership with Libby to give those kids access.”
Why rowing for inner-city youngsters?
“Anybody who believes in sports, that it builds character, structure, teamwork, that they can accomplish something that is bigger than themselves (knows the benefits),” Peters said. “It’s really a direct payoff. In rowing, if you work hard, you will get faster. What I’m hoping for these kids, is that they see their friends dropping out, getting pregnant, and they’re getting faster, beating other schools; that they see that, if they put something into it, they’ll get something out of it; that they, as individuals, have the power to change their outcomes, that they are the master of the ship.”
Peters’ own love of the sport came late. She had played junior varsity softball at New Hartford. After her junior year, she went to The Gunnery, where she was told she had the physique to be good rower. After spending a season cleaning up the boathouse, going on long runs, and using the rowing machines, she proved she was, setting a school record in winter time testing.
She ended up being captain of the team the next year.
“I love being on the water,” she said. “It’s a beautiful sport, especially up in Connecticut. It’s really, really picturesque. There is always a challenge, pushing yourself and the people around you. You really see the return on the investment you put it. In rowing, the hardest workers are the ones who do the best.”
Peters went on to Columbia, where she rowed on the varsity for four years. Her most memorable races there were winning a meet against Northeastern in memory of former Columbia rower who had been killed in an auto accident – “We got to the grandstand, we surged ahead, and won the race, and we had this beautiful cup,” she said – and her last race in college, in the Northeastern Sprints.
“I remember putting it all out there,” she said. “Not thinking anything, pushing my limits. We were third. I regret that, but you put everything out there, you put your heart into it.”
Peters went on to the Olympic trials, finishing second in lightweight double sculls. She won world collegiate championships in indoor rowing in 2005 and 2006, and earned a bronze medal in the world championships in the lightweight quadruple scull.
She returned to The Gunnery School to coach the girls team to an unprecedented 26-2 record, then headed to Philadelphia to train at the legendary Vesper Boat Club, which was founded in 1865, and to the University of Pennsylvania’s prestigious Wharton School.
Then, the cancer struck. It’s something Peters doesn’t dwell on, but the care she got inspired her to take care of others, most prominently through PCR.
“When I was going through my most intense treatment, I had a lot of good people taking care of me,” she said.
Her mother, Linda Peters, pretty much expected that attitude.
“She’s revved up,” she said. “Whatever she does, she’s a 110-percent kid. They’re (the PCR members) are lucky to have her, and she’s lucky to have them. It’s very important to give back.”
Linda Peters said Libby’s fitness as a top-flight rower helped her through her treatments last year.
“She was making jokes; she was great,” she said. “She cried a few times, and came home and stayed with me all summer. It got to her a few times. It was rough, but she was an inspiration to all of us. She handled it with grace, integrity, and strength.”
Peters also has shown great ability to recruit support and sponsors. In addition to the parks department and school system, she enlisted the Schuylkill Navy, the Foundation for Rowing Education, and U.S. Rowing as partners. She also enlisted a top-flight group of distinguished Philadelphians for PCR’s board of directors.
PCR has started its fall programs, which will include competition in several regattas, then will move to indoor training for the winter. Is the program a success? A lot of people in Philadelphia think so. Mayor Michael Nutter paid a visit to the club in July, and Karen Hamilton wrote glowingly of the program and her son Ben’s involvement in it in a recent editorial in the Philadelphia Inquirer.
And, in July, Philadelphia Magazine named PCR “The Best Volunteering Opportunity” in the city.
Source: "Libby Peters Rowing with Renewed Purpose," John Pitaressi, Utica Observer-Dispatch. September 2010. http://www.uticaod.com/topstories/x907386419/Libby-Peters-rowing-with-renewed-purpose