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Changing the Face of the Sport

By Sarah Barber
Posted on October 21, 2023
Changing the Face of the Sport

Rowing in Color’s all Latina eight.

Rowing in Color is living up to their name.

A non-profit podcast dedicated to amplifying voices of color within the sport of rowing, the group made headlines at last year’s Head of the Charles Regatta when they launched the first all-Black women’s club eight and the first all-BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) mixed eight crews in Regatta history.

Rowing in Color was founded in 2020 by Denise Aquino and Patricia Destine, two former coxswains interested in giving voices of color a platform within the sport. The teams they put together are rowers of color from various communities, who they often connect with via their Instagram profile, which means they get to practice only when they come together for a regatta.

Their first regatta was last year’s Head of the Charles, and this year they’re back and bigger with three crews: an all-Latina women’s club eight, all-Black men’s club eight and a BIPOC Director’s Challenge mixed quad.

“It all feels absolutely unreal,” said Aquino. “The goal has always been to amplify voices of color in rowing, because you have a bigger impact when there are more voices at the table.”

Many athletes from last year’s crews returned to race again, including Sebastiana Lopez. A senior coxswain at Temple University competing in the all-Latina women’s club eight. Lopez was the coxswain in last year’s Director’s Challenge mixed eight, and is happy to be back.

“I’m very excited to row with other Latinas from different countries. I was worried about finding eight because there aren’t very many of us,” Lopez said.

It took about a week and a half to put the team together, and it wasn’t always smooth, but the benefits far outweighed the challenges.

“For me it means a lot, I won’t have to explain my accent or why I look the way I do. It’s finally getting out there that people of color have been in this sport, and now we get to show what that means,” Lopez expressed. “It’s for the rowers who look around and wonder ‘where are my people?’ We’re here.”

Sebastina Lopez (L) and Corin Wiggins, coxswains for the two Rowing in Color boats that raced Saturday.

Samantha Reyes, a senior from the University of Illinois at Chicago, is the only other returning athlete from last year in the all-Latina women’s club eight. Reyes explained why she works with the group as she set up a Mexican flag to display under the Rowing in Color tent.

“It feels very exciting to be in an all-Latina boat. You don’t see it too often. It’s a huge privilege to row with each and every one of them,” Reyes said. “We don’t come because it’s a big and nice race, we want to represent who we are and where we come from.”

Reyes’s sentiment was echoed amongst the athletes in the all-Black men’s club eight as well. Corin Wiggins is returning for her second year as a Rowing in Color coxswain, on the mic for the men’s club eight.

“I’m super excited for round two, I’m really fired up. We’re here to rewrite history,” Wiggins smiled. “[Our progress] means the glass ceiling is breaking and cracking, we’re showing others that they have a place in this sport.”

Among the rowers Wiggins steered up the river on Saturday was Kameron Lovelady, a student at Canisius University in Buffalo, a school without a men’s crew team. Lovelady isn’t able to row as much as he’d like—last year’s Head of the Charles was his first time in competition—a but increasing representation in the sport is why he keeps coming back with Rowing in Color.

“We’re here for a reason, to show we’re capable of performing,” Lovelady said. “It’s our job to be the representation. Just because you’re a person of color doesn’t mean you can’t do this.”

Rutgers University freshman and Regatta first-timer John Allen IV chimed in:

“It means the world to me to be here. This is my first Head of the Charles and I’m really grateful and thankful. Not too many people like us are represented in rowing, this gives us the ability to present the opportunity to other Black men and kids,” Allen said.

And for Lawrence Lopez, it’s a different kind of first:

“This is my first time not being the only Black person in the boat,” Lopez said.

It means a lot to Lopez, who has been rowing since 2006, to see opportunities increase for younger generations of Black rowers.

“The trajectory of rowing is changing, we’re making progress, there are more rowers of color and Black rowers,” Lopez said.

This year, the non-profit brought not only enough athletes to fill three boats, but also two sisters from Oklahoma City, Lakota and Nialisa Longhorn.

The Longhorn sisters are proud Native American rowers, and members of the Absentee Shawnee, Northern Arapaho and Cheyenne River Sioux indigenous tribes. Lakota, 17, and Nialisa, 14, decided to try their hand at the sport four years ago, after seeing boats on the river once they had moved to Oklahoma. Rowing in Color invited the sisters to participate in the awards ceremony on the organization’s behalf.

“The whole experience is really opening my eyes,” Lakota said. “I feel seen, I feel like there’s more visibility for the less represented nations of rowing.”

Both Rowing in Color boats raced in the club eights Saturday afternoon. The all-Black men’s eight was bow #31, finishing 34th with a time of 18:29.453, while the all-Latina women’s eight was bow #23 and finished 38th with a time of 20:57.647.

In addition to the club eights, Rowing in Color will compete in the Director’s Challenge Mixed Quad race on Sunday at 4:05 p.m., bearing bow #11 in event 74.

By Sarah Barber
Posted on October 21, 2023