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Gracie Bonds Staples, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Published July 27 2012

Athletes learn life lessons through rowing: Demanding sport requires teamwork, endurance

ATLANTA – When Barbara Cheng watched Sarah Zelenka and Sara Hendershot row their way into the 2012 Olympics the other day, she couldn’t help but think of her daughter Katherine.

Zelenka and Hendershot had fallen a full boat length behind in the women’s pair event, but then overtook five-time national team members Jamie Redman and Amanda Polk in the final 300 meters.

As a member of the Atlanta Junior Rowing Association, Katherine had been there. More than once.

“Being a lightweight, she often rows against the odds,” Barbara Cheng said.

When Zelenka and Hendershot crossed the finish line, Barbara Cheng, a Marietta, Ga., mother of three, nearly shouted.

“I loved how they pull ahead in the end,” she said. “I’ll definitely be cheering them on July 28 – probably jumping up and down in my living room just like I usually do.” Today the day the pair will compete in the first heat in London. It is also the day the Atlanta Junior Rowing Association will mark its 25th anniversary.

Although rowing has not caught on much in the South overall, Barbara Cheng and other AJRA members say its popularity in metro Atlanta rivals that in the Northeast, where rowers have been racing for nearly 150 years. The club is one of at least three in metro Atlanta, including the St. Andrews and Atlanta Rowing clubs.

Since the AJRA was founded in 1988, its membership has grown from 35 to nearly 200 middle and high school students. An additional 200 kids participate each summer in its Learn-to-Row camp. The sport is also popular at Georgia Tech, Emory and Georgia State.

John Pearson, who grew up in Marietta, remembers seeing the boats and having no idea what was happening.

“I went through high school without ever hearing about rowing,” Pearson said recently as he talked about the sport with Barbara Cheng and fellow AJRA board member Jean Veeneman of Johns Creek.

That changed, he said, the day he stepped off a bus at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., in 1998.

A coach stationed there to greet incoming freshmen spotted Pearson. At over 6 feet, Pearson had the long arms that serve rowers well. He walked onto the team that fall as a novice, and within three years he was competing in the U.S. and England against some of the best programs in the world.

When he returned to Atlanta after college, he was named AJRA’s coach, a position he held for nearly 10 years. After that, he became a member of the board of directors.

“After seeing the difference rowing made in my life, I wanted to help give kids the opportunity to have the same experience,” Pearson said. “I get to see firsthand the confidence and determination that this sports teaches kids.” Veeneman agrees.

The 58-year-old mother of two happened upon a newspaper article about AJRA one day while looking for an extracurricular activity for her daughter, who had grown tired of soccer, softball and swimming.

“I didn’t like that I had a 14-year-old sitting around doing nothing,” Veeneman said. “I gave her an ultimatum: Find something else to do or we’re going rowing.” Soon after, they attended a meeting and signed up.

Like many other AJRA rowers, Veeneman’s daughter, Jessica, went on to row in college, earning a full scholarship at the University of Central Florida, where she graduated in 2009.

Veeneman, who participates each year in a parents’ class that the club offers, said AJRA made such a difference in her children’s lives that she wanted to give back.

“It helped them set goals, gave them discipline and camaraderie,” she said.

Katherine Cheng, 17, said the first two days were “really bad” as she tried to learn a sport that was totally new and physically demanding.

On day three, however, she was singing its praises. “This is the best,” she told her parents.

The rising Pope High School senior said rowing is mostly about being responsible, working as a team and learning to face challenges without fear.

“The most important thing is that everyone in your boat has worked just as hard as you have to be in that race, and they all want it just as much as you do,” she said. “There is nothing better than feeling on top of the world after winning a race with your boat … or accomplishing a team goal.”