Oakland Strokes Youth Summer workshops teach the sport of rowing

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by JR Valrey, The Minister of Information 

Summer is here and it is time for the youth to get active in the outdoors and learn something new about their environment. In this case, Oakland Strokes is a middle school and high school rowing club that competes in competitions. They have beginning level classes all the way up to competition level classes, for young people interested in water sports. 

Frank Clayton, an Oakland Strokes veteran of 12 years, is still very passionate about sharing the sport with all youth, but especially Black inner-city youth. We did this interview to bring awareness to a sport that is not commonly talked about and an opportunity that is not always given in the Black community. Oakland Strokes is active in June at the San Pablo Reservoir and in July in Oakland at the Boathouse, at Lake Merritt. If you know some young people into water sports, rowing, or just need something new to do, they should tap in. 

JR Valrey: How long have you been a part of Oakland Strokes? What inspired you to join?

Frank Clayton: I have been with the organization for about 12 years now. Wow that is actually hella long. Yeah 12 years. I was originally asked by a friend if I was interested in an opportunity to train athletes. I had been training as a personal trainer for about a year. She introduced me to Beth Anderson who became like an older sister and mentor to me in the sport of rowing. I had no clue what the sport was like. I went to the boathouse for the first time and it was a bit of a culture shock on many levels. I came in as the strength and conditioning coach with my background in training football, basketball and other sports. I learned the sport and have been there ever since. 

JR Valrey: What is Oakland Strokes?

Frank Clayton: The Oakland Strokes is probably the winningest team in Oakland history to be honest. Over 17 National Championships in the past 50 years since its inception. Strokes is a competitive middle and high school rowing club. We draw athletes from all over the Bay Area. We teach crew from a beginning level and never having touched a boat before to a high competitive level being recruited by the best colleges in the country.   

JR Valrey: What is the age range for youth to participate?

Frank Clayton: We start from 6th grade and go through high school. 

JR Valrey: What do the youth do in a day at Oakland Strokes?

Frank Clayton: Well as we say, there’s levels to this. When athletes are starting there is a lot to learn so they spend a lot of time learning terms and observing the culture of the boathouse. They’re learning what port and starboard mean. They are learning how to carry boats, listen really well, follow instructions, be self-sufficient and responsible for their equipment. Things like that. Coming in at middle school most athletes start off on the non-competitive club team. You can start the sport anywhere and learn. You can start your junior year in high school or you can start as a 7th grader. It’s not a big deal. 

The beauty about the Strokes boathouse is that the younger middle school athletes are in sight and proximity to the high school athletes so there is this intentional matriculation into the high school competitive teams.  

Practice is about two-four hours a day depending on the day and level. Most of that time is spent busting your butt and having fun doing it. We lift weights, run, erg and row. Erging is to simulate rowing on land. For your readers who don’t know what an erg is, it’s just the indoor rowing machine. Most people see them at the gym with the damper (the numbers on the side of the fan wheel) set to 10. 

JR Valrey: When do the programs open up, for this summer?

Frank Clayton: We run summer camps in June out at San Pablo reservoir and in July at our boathouse in Oakland. We host Learn to Row days for organizations and schools we partner with as well. Our camps are a week at a time and our Learn to Row days are typically one to two days. Orgs that are interested in setting a Learn to Row day can contact me. We really want to get more youth from Oakland to really take a good look at this sport and all the benefits that come with it. 

JR Valrey: What do you hope that youth gain from being in this program?

Frank Clayton: Truthfully, whether I go to a school to meet youth or I meet them at the boathouse the first time, I always want them to know this opportunity is about getting used to challenging yourself. I am incredibly intentional about expressing this when I go into schools full of Black and brown and other students of color. It is so easy to get comfortable or fearful and want to stay in a place of comfort where people look like you or sound like you or you fit and know how to do everything already. 

My wish for every student no matter where or how they enter the Strokes family is that they leave better than they came and they learn from others they interact with. There is no secret rowing is traditionally a white elitist sport. The sport has changed and shifted so much and is more and more each year. Oakland is the epicenter of opportunity for some many intersectional conversations to happen. Through competition and working towards an ultimate goal of winning championships while having fun of course, kids from different cultures, neighborhoods, orientations and even athletic abilities can learn from each other and be better for it.  

JR Valrey: What have you gained from being a part of Oakland Strokes?

Frank Clayton: Perspective for one. I have met so many people I probably wouldn’t have said two words to just walking down the street or in a random room. Now I proudly call them colleagues and many friends. I gained a love for the sport, not for the competitiveness alone, but for all the intangibles it teaches. It teaches athletes at a young age responsibility, personal agency, grit, communication, preparation and a commitment to detail among other things. It has expanded my network greatly. 

I am so appreciative of the warm welcome from parents of athletes over the years. One of the greatest moments was having one the boathouse donated by a parent named after my only son at the time. I went from training maybe two or three people at a time to being able to train 50 plus athletes at once. So it definitely made me a better coach, trainer, parent and person. 

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JR Valrey: What is the importance of getting young Black people to participate in watersports?

Frank Clayton: Young Black people have all the talent in the world and deserve all the opportunities to showcase it. If college is their path this avenue opens other doors. If it is not, they still learn valuable skills that help navigate life. It is so easy to be lured in by the familiar. It is so easy to not see past a block, a neighborhood, a city or opportunities that are low hanging fruit and limiting. 

The sport needs more diversity to make it better also. I want young Black people to embrace it. It may not be for everyone, but for those who try and like it, the world opens up to them that much more. It is not without its challenges. There is still room to grow and make it more equitable for certain communities and populations, but I believe progress starts with proximity. As a Black coach in the sport it was rare to see another. 

Contrary to popular opinion we have a long and rich history with water and watersports. Oakland Strokes and WELO, a community based organization in Oakland run by one of our board members, Dwayne Aikens and a team of historians and a dynamic Black woman artist are in the process of creating an art project to share that history with young Black folk this summer in the Bay Area. As many Black youth that can get to the water as possible the better. 

JR Valrey: How do people get more info online?

Frank Clayton: People can find information about all of our programs online at www.oaklandstrokes.org. You can inquire about community programs and partnerships by emailing info@oaklandstrokes.org or me directly at frankclayton@oaklandstrokes.org.

JR Valrey, journalist, author, filmmaker and founder of Black New World Media, is also the editor in chief of the San Francisco Bay View newspaper. He teaches the Community Journalism class twice a week at the San Francisco Bay View newspaper office.