Exposing Inner Cities to Rowing
By Maeve Berry • February 1, 2019
Growing up in Boston, Mass., Eric Carson, MD, recalls attending the Head of the Charles Regatta every year as a spectator. Although he never had the opportunity to row when he was young, he has gained a full appreciation for the sport through his sports medicine work with prominent collegiate rowing programs and the U.S. National Team. Carson enjoyed the last 15 years practicing at University of Virginia and is currently in the process of moving across the country to work at Washington University.
“I did not have a complete understanding of the sport growing up, except that rowers had an incredible commitment to be on the cold water at 5:30 a.m. on a frigid day in October,” said Carson. “I have grown to understand the sport and the huge sacrifices the athletes make, as I have traveled the world with U.S. national teams to world championships.”
During the desegregation of public schools when Carson was young, he recalls the national broadcast of police escorting students from the inner city to school. Seeking better alternatives, Carson’s mother enrolled him in a voluntary busing program that would take him to a school in a nearby suburb. There, he excelled as a student-athlete in football and track and field.
Stepping out of his comfort zone, Carson took advantage of Youth Enrichment Services, a non-profit in Boston that exposed inner city children to the outdoors. He tried competitive downhill skiing, “a non-traditional sport for an ‘inner city kid’,” and was naturally talented.
“It was obvious rowing was an ‘elite and white’ sport like skiing,” said Carson. “Growing up in the city, I knew of all the major prep schools in the area and that they all participated in this sport; a sport of privilege.”
Carson remained involved in sports through high school and as an undergrad in college, participating in football and track and field at Tufts University.
“The sports medicine doctors were an integral part of keeping me healthy,” said Carson. “I admired what they did as their expertise, working day in and day out with athletes who were highly motivated to get healthy. My life as a doctor has revolved around ‘quality of life’ issues and getting athletes back on the field.”
In 2004, he joined the faculty at UVA and was assigned to the Olympic sports.
“A lot of the sports like tennis and baseball had shoulder issues and lacrosse and soccer with knee injuries, which I was familiar with,” said Carson. “I had some of the female rowers come in with rib and back injuries, which I knew nothing about. Kevin Sauer, the head coach, would accompany the athletes with the athletic trainer, and he would see this perplexed look on my face, which is far too memorable.”
Looking into options as to who could assist him, Carson could not think of anyone he had trained with at Harvard University during his residency who had experience dealing with injuries common to rowers. Thinking about his fellowship at Cornell University’s Hospital for Special Surgery in New York, N.Y., he reached out to the head team doctor at USRowing, Dr. Jo Hannifan, MD, who he had trained under.
“Jo has been an invaluable resource dealing with the complexity of injuries rowers have at the elite and novice levels,” said Carson. “After a couple of years of calling and haunting her, she commented, ‘You have all the knowledge and expertise, stop calling me!’ The following comment from her was, ‘Tim Hosea and I need your assistance to help us with USRowing as a consultant and event coverage doctor.’ I was ecstatic.”
Early on in his national team experience, Carson had an out-of-place task at the 2010 World Rowing Under 23 Championships in Belarus when a coach fell off his bike on a day of competition. He suffered a fracture and dislocation of his elbow.
“This was a surgical emergency in a foreign country,” said Carson. “It was a true challenge figuring out how to best treat him.”
In terms of rewarding moments, Carson lists seeing former UVA rowers he has worked with make the national team as the center of his career highlights.
“This past summer at the World Rowing Championships in Bulgaria, watching the women’s eight with Kristine O’Brien, a UVA athlete, win was one of my favorite memories,” said Carson. “I was so excited.”
Carson not only plans to remain involved with the sport through medicine, but he is making efforts to become more involved with USRowing to assist in expanding the sport.
“Just this past year, I had multiple opportunities to talk with the new CEO of USRowing, Patrick McNerney,” said Carson. “He is someone who is thinking outside of the box to better rowing, not just for the United States, but the sport itself. He was quite interested to hear my thoughts.”
It is clear the racial and socioeconomic makeup of rowers is not representative of all the people in the U.S. The sport has seemed to face a challenge in expanding to inner cities and other communities with low-income families.
Rowers have been competing in the Olympic Games since 1900. Since that time, there have been just five African-Americans who have represented the U.S. in the sport.
“From my perspective, there can be many more,” said Carson. “I have closely followed many programs that have placed a focus on exposing inner city children to this truly unique sport, such as Community Rowing Inc. and Philadelphia City Rowing. I have seen incredible success in other sports, which I consider privileged, like fencing. The development of non-profit programs with funding has had tremendous success, not only introducing children to fencing, but leading many to receiving scholarships to elite universities like Columbia and Yale. I see the exposure of such young, underprivileged children as an opportunity to obtain a scholarship to college and change their life as mine has changed from my experiences.”