Young Olympic hopefuls tackle the Schuylkill with 2028 LA games in mind

Listen 4:05
Girls 19 years old and under participate in the Mid-Atlantic U.S. Olympic Development Program program on the Schuylkill in Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Girls 19 years old and under participate in the Mid-Atlantic U.S. Olympic Development Program program on the Schuylkill in Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Athletes around the world are getting ready for the Summer Olympics in Tokyo next year, but in Philadelphia, there’s a group of rowers with a much longer-term goal. 

The city is hosting one of six Olympic development camps where young men and women under 19 are already preparing for the 2028 Summer Games in Los Angeles.

Long before they might tackle the waters of Southern California’s Lake Perris — the current venue for the 2028 Olympic rowing competition — they’ve spent the last two weeks mastering the mighty Schuylkill River in Philadelphia.

“Rowing on the Schuylkill is an iconic rowing experience,” said John Cohn, the women’s coach for the local U.S. Rowing Olympic development program. “Being around Boathouse Row is inspiring. There are other national team athletes on the river all the time, or hopeful national team athletes on the river all the time.”

The Mid-Atlantic regional camp is open by invitation only to top high school rowers from Virginia to New Jersey. The group trains out of the Temple University boathouse on the Schuylkill, and twice a day in addition to on-land workouts and classroom lessons.

Cohn said the goal is for U.S. rowing to make a strong showing in nine years. At the last summer games in Rio, the U.S. team won just two medals in 14 rowing events.

“This is the age group, this is the current group that will most likely be competing, so we really want to step up our game and make sure that we show well at our home games,” Cohn said.

Charlotte Hall is a rising junior from Chesapeake, Virginia, and one of 30 young women ages 14 to 17 at the camp.

Hall said she’s already seen a big difference in her performance in a short period of time. 

“I’ve learned a lot here … learning a bunch of new techniques and I think it’s really helped,” she said. “I’ve thought about the Olympics and everything, and it’s been an idea of mine that I’d like to pursue.”

Though it’s not clear whether Hall or any of the other women will make the 2028 Olympic team, Cohn is trying to build a foundation of good form and good habits that can help give them a better shot.

“We talk to them about nutrition and recovery and rest and all of the little things that elite athletes do that ultimately make the difference between making an Olympic team or not or getting gold or silver,” he said.

It’s a different approach than he would typically use in his regular job training high school rowers at the Newport Rowing Club in Delaware.

“We’re not really trying to get the athletes exceptionally fast right now, so we have to have a major focus on the athletes’ long-term development,” Cohn said. “It’s really difficult to get teenagers to think nine to 10 years ahead. 

“So for now, the goals that we talk about are what they need to do to possibly make the under 19 national team over the next year or two,” he added. “That’s a lot more tangible for them.”

Celeste Funari Muse, a rising junior from Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, said she’s impressed by her teammates’ dedication this summer, even though the LA games are so far away and there’s no guarantee any of them will qualify.

“Every single girl here is so passionate about this sport,” she said. “They’re willing to put themselves through so much pain to see the results that they want. Seeing that passion from so many people my age is really inspiring.”

This is the team’s final week of training on the Schuylkill. Next week, the team will meet with rowers from five other regions in Sarasota, Florida for combined training. The regions will also race each other for bragging rights.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal