NISKAYUNA — No one gives out medals for being first to the starting line, but this year Niskayuna Rowing is celebrating just that.
In 1987, Nan Kuntz, at her daughter’s request, set out to establish what would become the area’s first high school crew team.
“It’s what you do for your kid,” Kuntz said with a shrug.
What she and Union College rower-turned-coach Matt Hopkins did was start a program that 30 years later still motivates students to excel and develop a lifelong love of rowing.
Despite the challenges that come with lack of equipment and cash for any new endeavor, Niskayuna Rowing got off the ground and into the river for the first time in the spring season of 1988. The club bought an 8-man boat from Union College for $1 and borrowed oars.
Only eight of the 16 boys and 16 girls that came out for the team could practice at one time because Niskayuna Rowing only had one boat. Just two years later, the club won the points trophy at Saratoga’s Head of the Fish event.
“The kids worked hard. The parents worked hard,” Kuntz said. “It was exciting to be the first. It was new, and we were having success and growing quickly.”
The slow, incremental success, bolstered by fundraising efforts that ranged from garage sales to hawking donuts and coffee at Saturday morning soccer games, allowed the club to purchase more boats and its own oars, along with a short-lived practice barge. By 1990, the boat house on Aqueduct Road had been renovated with enough bays to serve Niskayuna Rowing and the nearby Aqueduct Rowing Club.
Now, 30 years on, sixth- through 12th-graders still hoist the shells over their heads and walk to the waiting water of the Mohawk River. The team participates against other local clubs — rowing is not sponsored by the New York State Public High School Athletic Association — as well as regionally and nationally.
“[Rowing] builds confidence from competence,” said program director and current girls’ head coach Stacey Apfelbaum. “And you learn to be part of a group and work as a group. There is no star.”
Apfelbaum has been coaching at Niskayuna Rowing for four years, and is herself a championship rower. She has placed first at Boston’s prestigious Head of the Charles three times. And she and seven teammates representing the United States took first place at the 1984 World Rowing Championships in Montreal.
“I’m impressed with the spirit and work ethic of the kids,” Apfelbaum said. “We’re an outdoor sport, so we’re out there rain or shine and, sometimes, snow. We get wet and dirty.”
They also win. This year, Kat Molina advanced to single youth nationals. The varsity girls’ 8-man boat qualified for one of only 40 spots for the internationally attended Head of the Charles regatta. They have won state and national championships.
In the past five years, coach Sabrina Lansing-Skotarczak took three girls’ boats to national championships.
“I love this job, and I work with a great group of people,” Lansing-Skotarczak said. “To me this is more than a job; it is being part of a great rowing family.”
Other alumni have gone on to greatness as well. Just this spring, Gideon Schmidt was part of a national champion team for Cornell University. Others have earned scholarships that helped them pay for college.
Julia Mason, 21, a Bates College graduate and two-time national champion, started rowing in sixth grade and hasn’t stopped.
“It is a huge part of my identity,” Mason said. “It shaped me.”
Georgetown junior Anne Stoessel started rowing her freshman year in high school, and was recruited for her college team.
“I love that you can get into it at any age,” Stoessel said. “I’d never done a sport, but I fell in love with it.”
While the student-athletes may be eternally positive, the club hit a rocky patch a couple years ago with its adult leadership.
Days after one of the club’s boats won a national championship in 2015, its coach was fired. Later that year, a young girl fell out of an overcrowded motorboat and was then hit by the craft during a Learn to Row session.
In an unrelated move, Niskayuna Rowing’s then-executive director left the program shortly after the Learn to Row incident and Apfelbaum inherited the position. Another coach was fired from the program the next spring after allegations a rower with learning disabilities was discriminated against.
“We’ve had some tumultuous years,” said Apfelbaum. “We’re in an excellent position now. We’ve had a fabulous year in terms of team morale and dedication.”
As Niskayuna Rowing looks to the next 30 years, club officials see a future of progress and promise. The club has been awarded a grant which, in concert with the town, will fund the installation of running water and restrooms at Aqueduct Park. They have also grown from that solitary boat to more than 20. This year they christened two new shells.
The newest rowers are showing enthusiasm for the sport and are eager to take up the oars of those who came before.
“I love the team closeness and the hard work,” said sophomore James Schmidt, who hopes to place in a higher boat than last year and is eyeing a college career as well.
His sister, 13-year old Heather, decided to strap into the foot stretchers because of her brother’s hearty endorsement of the sport.
“I love how it’s not just you, it’s everyone,” she said.
Fellow eighth-grader Matt Fromowitz plans to row through high school and maybe beyond. He likes how peaceful the sport is and enjoys being in nature. He’s also helping with the club’s adult Learn to Row program, in which his mother is a participant.
“I rowed in a double with my mom,” Fromowitz said. “She’s pretty good.”
Niskayuna Rowing has come a long way in 30 years. Its budget has expanded well beyond the initial $300, and there are now more than 100 participants taking up oars.
Newly installed president Chris Wolfe, himself a rower, has set his sights on keeping the positive momentum. He said the coaching staff is in order as are the finances for both equipment and staff. The club is excited to see the growth and improvement at Aqueduct Park and the boat house.
“We want all parents to play a role,” Wolfe said. “When everybody is invited to participate, it’s a stronger community.”
“It’s a beautiful sport,” Kuntz said. “Being on the water is fantastic. Rowing teaches kids their limits and how to push themselves. I’m very, very satisfied that the program has continued to be and become more successful. It’s a positive experience for so many kids and parents.”