By Kate Murphy | The Associated Press

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Five college students wearing hoodies and Crocs approached the dock at Lake Wheeler on a brisk Sunday morning in April.

The women from Saint Augustine’s University cracked jokes as they fumbled with their inflatable lifejacket belts. Then their attention quickly turned to a rowing coach who reviewed coxswain calls and the portside versus starboard side of the boat.

They helped carry a 300-pound, 8-person Vespoli rowing shell down to the water, lifted it over their heads in sync, dropped it in the lake and cautiously stepped in.

They clutched their oars as two rowers with N.C. State’s club crew team took heavy strokes, cutting through the white caps to get to less choppy water. The wind calmed once the group entered a cove.

It was time for the Saint Augustine’s students to take their turn.

Their strokes were small but powerful, like the team itself: A group of five Black women eager to make history while learning to row.

This was the second practice on the water for the Saint Augustine’s club rowing squad — the first historically Black university women’s crew team in history.

“We are trailblazers, we are literally Black history,” sophomore Breanna Dorway said. “I’m just really excited for what’s in store for us.”

‘I WANTED TO BE A PART OF THAT’

Dorway, who came to this small, private HBCU in Raleigh from Orlando, Florida, never thought she would be in crew — “like never.” She was sold after the first practice on the water.

“(People) would never expect a bunch of HBCU students out on the water, especially with the trauma, generational trauma that a lot of Black people face with water,” Dorway said.

She and her teammates embrace the unexpected and the gravity of what this team means to the school and their culture.

Rowing is expensive, with boats costing tens of thousands of dollars. The sport has historically been dominated by white men at Ivy League universities, with the exception of a moment when Howard University men’s crew team “crashed the exclusive ranks of college rowing” in the 1960s.

These women not only want to compete but also to allow other HBCU students to see that they are not limited to the major sports like football and basketball.

“Maybe we can try this and introduce more people that look like us into a sport that’s not made for us,” junior Mikahya Hill said. “I wanted to be a part of that.”

BUILDING THE PROGRAM

For now, the athletes are training in preparation for the fall season, when they will compete against other schools in regattas as part of the American Collegiate Rowing Association.

The team gets out on the water on weekends but mostly trains indoors on campus. Those practices are held in a run-down residence hall, where an old suite-style dorm has been converted into a training room for the rowing and cycling teams.

The women get together about three times a week and take turns on three rowing machines. They connect their phones to the rowers through Bluetooth so they and their coaches can track the workouts and set goals for distances and speeds.

“It’s actually very different rowing on a boat than the Concept 2 machines, but they definitely helped prepare us,” senior Destini “Dee” Vance said. “I would say for myself, it definitely helps with the learning and keeping the memory of the motion.”

Rowing at Saint Aug’s initially started as a virtual sports program in the School of Business, Management & Technology, led by professor Mark Janas. Through his classes, Janas has introduced several new athletic opportunities to the students, including golf, motorsports and one of the first HBCU cycling teams.

“Until you work in the HBCU environment you really don’t realize the opportunities or sports or other activities that might not be a routine part of the HBCU experience,” Janas said.

ACCESSIBILITY FOR HBCU STUDENTS

And often, those sports are inaccessible, he said.

“This opportunity was much bigger and much more important than just launching a single team,” Janas said.

After students were introduced to indoor rowing and competing in virtual races, then Janas took it to the water this spring.

Only these five women showed up on the first day after seeing fliers and talking to school administrators. None of them knew much about rowing at all. And Janas has no live water rowing experience.

But they were eager to change what this sport looks like.

“The biggest thing for me that I’m looking forward to is making history, creating history and keeping the history books open for teams to come,” Vance said.

She wants to show her 9-year-old sister and other young Black girls that they can do whatever they put their minds to, she said. And those girls can grow up to be gymnasts, cyclists or rowers at an HBCU.

COMPETING ALONGSIDE NC STATE ROWERS

This team couldn’t get into the water without N.C. State University, literally. NCSU’s club rowing team provides the boats, oars and other rowing equipment, as well as coaching.

H.T. Slaughter, NCSU’s head coach, primarily manages the logistics for the two teams. Kees Koopman, a 22-year-old former president of the NCSU rowing club, volunteered to coach the Saint Aug’s team.

“It is the opportunity to build something, to build a culture and teach new rowers,” Koopman said. “And this is really about accessibility to the sport.”

The Saint Augustine’s rowers don’t have to pay to participate in this sport or be on the team. They’re testing out a model for a rowing club that’s free and open to anyone, so fundraising will be crucial, Koopman said.

And they hope other collegiate programs follow their lead.

The Saint Aug’s team will be under the wing of NC State’s co-ed club rowing team for at least the first year and likely compete in the same regattas across the South. Teams from all over the nation race in 5 kilometer or 2 kilometer events with anywhere from five to 75 boats.

The Saint Aug’s rowers hope their team grows so they can fill an eight-person boat for regattas in the fall.

“I feel like we as a team, if we continue to grow and continue to learn, and continue to push one another, we will be great at this sport,” Vance said.

WORTH THE RISK

Even before she became a Falcon at Saint Aug’s, Vance lived by the quote: “in order to soar you got to take a risk.”

“I took the risk of trying something completely new and I fell in love with it.” Vance said.

“I will push any and everybody to get on a boat, whether you are afraid of the water or not,” she said. “Just try it. You just never know.”

Vance was admittedly nervous when she stepped into the boat that Sunday morning. The wind was swift, and the current was strong.

But she found a moment of peace when she ran her fingers through the water as the rowing shell glided across the lake.

“I think one of the things that will stick with me for the rest of my life is that I got to do this with people that looked like me.”