Resistance is futile: Ballyfermot schoolgirls row in to work out

Students are taking rowing in their stride as fitness levels rise and team work develops

Students from Caritas College, Ballyfermot enjoying a rowing workout. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Students from Caritas College, Ballyfermot enjoying a rowing workout. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons


Wooh-wheesh. Wooh-wheesh. The look on the faces of five teenage girls is familiar to everyone who has been in a gym or rowing club: the intense concentration of the struggle against the relentless resistance of a rowing machine.

However, they are not in a commercial gym nor in a well-stocked rowing club. The girls engaged in the battle, and their classmates waiting behind them, are students at Caritas College in Ballyfermot, a Deis (disadvantaged area) school with 380 pupils.

This group of first years have embraced wholeheartedly the opportunities offered by the five rowing machines that have been set up in the school gym as part of a partnership between Rowing Ireland and the Women in Sport initiative of the Irish Sports Council.

Team work
The girls, who train in relays to prepare them for working as a team, stop for a break and are happy to share their opinions of their new activity.

“I like that it works every muscle in your body. Your arms, your legs and your back,” says Emma Jackson. Leanne Kearney agrees: “I don’t like what your legs are like afterwards, but it’s worth it.”

The principal of Caritas, Adrienne Whelan, looks on approvingly as her PE teacher, Mary Ryan, and Rowing Ireland development officer Michelle Carpenter encourage the girls.

“The girls who tried it are saying, ‘Can we do it again, can we do it again?’” Whelan says. The attraction, she thinks, is that “it’s hard, but it’s doable. I think they can feel the exercise they are getting. They are at the age to be joining gyms, and now we have our own. I mean, you don’t get that in schools really. It’s absolutely fantastic.”

Tide of cutbacks
The school tries to provide every opportunity it can for the girls.

“Ballyfermot is a great area to work in. There’s a very, very strong sense of community,” Whelan says. But it is an area fighting a tide of cutbacks. “There were so many things injected in the area that have been pulled back. That has to have had an effect.”

With the rowing machines, the school has a resource it could not otherwise afford. “This is such a gift,” Ryan says.

The school has had a long-standing link with Municipal Rowing Centre in Islandbridge, which offers programmes and camps, but it was primarily for transition year students. Now, every girl in the school will test themselves on an ergometer.

“These rowing machines will get more of them interested because they will see that this will allow more of them on to the water. It’s another way on to it. And it’s a sport they wouldn’t have dreamed of doing, because they wouldn’t have access, maybe. They mightn’t even have thought about it. They may not have tried it. Once they try something new, there is a good chance that a few will take it up.”

Some girls from the school have moved on to row at Commercial Rowing Club, but Ryan says the expense has limited this route, to an extent.

However, the advantages of this activity go beyond the possibility of trying a new sport. “Everybody knows the rate of obesity in Ireland now is not good,” Ryan says. “It’s a very worrying feature. It affects everything. The whole economy is affected by it.

“Whatever you can get them doing that they will enjoy, and they will keep doing as a hobby, that’s what I really want; that they leave school with a hobby of some sort from the coaching season.”

Keeping fit
One pupil, Jessica Keogh, plays for the Dublin under-13 camogie team. She finds the rowing machines help her keep fit. “I love rowing outdoors as well because you get the fresh air in the morning,” she says.

Ryan also hopes to give the mothers of the rowers an opportunity to use the machines.

“We are going to have a designated rowing room in our school. It is being set up at the moment. It is not prepared yet, but we will have all our rowing machines in this rowing room. We won’t have clashes with our use of the gym then.

“Mothers will come down here to do courses . . . It will be the first real sports course that will be offered to them. We are hoping to get a bit of a take-up. We will be putting it out there that this is the best way of burning up the calories; the best all-around fitness form there is.”

Carpenter is in only her third month in her job as Leinster Women’s Development Officer of Rowing Ireland, but already the former Shannon rower has got 30 rowing machines into five Dublin schools: Mercy Secondary School in Goldenbridge in Inchicore; Mount Sackville in Chapelizod; Riversdale Community College in Blanchardstown; King’s Hospital in Palmerstown; and Caritas College.

She says more than 1,000 girls are involved.

Some of the rowing machines were accessed from a previous Get Going Get Rowing project; others she has found wherever she could with the backing of Rowing Ireland, transporting them in her own car. The eventual aim is to roll out the programme to regions outside Leinster and develop an inter-schools league for indoor rowers.

Carpenter, whose role is funded mainly by the Women in Sport initiative, hopes the project will “give girls another option other than the traditional sports in order to keep fit and healthy”.

She is reaching out to mature rowers to coach on a voluntary basis.

Overcoming difficulties
Ryan takes a group of transition-year students to Municipal Rowing Centre on Mondays. They used to go by minibus, but the cost became a problem, so now they trek the 4km to and from Islandbridge before and after rowing.

“The funding stopped, so now we walk,” Ryan says.

For the girls from this school, the enthusiasm trumps the difficulties – even in a sport not usually associated with the area.

“When people talk about Ballyfermot, this is something they don’t see,” says Ryan.

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