The Lasting Impact
By Molly Bruggeman • February 28, 2019
Patricia Spratlen Etem is one of only two African American women to ever compete on the U.S. national and Olympic rowing teams. For Etem, Olympic appearances or legacy are not what she holds in the highest regard, but rather looking towards her children and the lasting impact they have had on young people of color in the sport of rowing.
“I certainly think that each of my kids dreamed of being Olympians,” said Etem. “For our family, being an athlete and being active physically was important. I don’t think we sculpted the particular sport they gravitated towards; they chose it.”
Martin, Elise and Emerson Etem grew up participating in programs at their local YMCA in Long Beach, Calif. Long before any of them had picked up an oar, they made the annual pilgrimage to San Diego for the Crew Classic, an event that their mother believes jump-started their interest in the sport.
Elise was an accomplished swimmer at a young age on the local YMCA swim team. In the fall of 2008, she entered the University of California, Berkeley as a swimmer but made the switch to rowing during her freshman year. During her collegiate career, Elise helped the Golden Bears become four-time PAC-12 Champions, and year-after-year, she was winning medals in the second varsity and varsity eight at the NCAA Championships. Her senior season, she earned PAC-12 Athlete of the Year and CRCA All-American honors.
Martin grew up playing hockey with his brother Emerson, who eventually was drafted into the NHL, and picked up rowing in his senior year of high school. He was recruited to row at Syracuse University, and after a year competing in the freshman eight, he became a three-year member of the varsity eight. Additionally, he held a team-record, 2,000-meter time on the erg.
Martin made the 2008 Under 23 National Team in the quadruple sculls, becoming the first African American to compete on the U23 team. He began training after graduation at the OKC High Performance Center, narrowly missing selection to the 2012 men’s quad. He then enrolled at University of East London, where he continued rowing while pursuing a master’s degree in fine arts.
Martin and Elise had two very different experiences in their rowing careers, but they were both leaders who contributed immensely to their respective teams and served as role models for a younger generation.
To Etem, reaching out to that younger generation is a critical focus for the future of diversity in rowing. Parents want every opportunity available to their children, regardless of race or socioeconomic background, and the two-time Olympian hopes that her own kids — successful biracial, African American athletes — have begun to inspire and pave the way for the next generation of young rowers.
The importance of role models can’t be understated — seeing can be a huge step in believing that an opportunity is out there. They show young people what is not only possible but what should be an open door to all kids regardless of race.
Etem believes that this generational connection should “captivate the imagination and really make it more attainable for young people. To see African-American, biracial young people who did excel in the sport, it’s so important to really tap into the 360-degree engagement of families in the high school age range and early college age range in communities of color.”
Education is a foundation of celebrating Black History Month, as well as a mechanism to increase diversity. Etem believes rowing is one way to attain diversity. “I celebrate the fact that they were both recruited athletes and had their college paid for and, at the end of the day, that’s the celebration,” said Etem. “Rowing is as much about college access, affordability, team, leadership and academic success as [it is about being] an on-ramp to a fulfilling career post rowing.”
How does rowing get more diverse athletes involved? “It’s not going to happen by osmosis,” Etem said. “[We need to look at] what are going to be the actions that are going to build substantive awareness of communities that this is an opportunity. It’s going to take junior and high school coaches putting their diverse athletes in front of college coaches.”
She also puts the onus on college coaches to make diversity a priority within their programs, focusing their efforts on identifying athletes close to home.
“It really does take intentional action,” Etem said. “It will take intentional action to have Cal coaches, Texas coaches, UCLA coaches, USC coaches — the colleges that are right in the middle of complete majority people of color communities — and it takes intentional reaching out to these communities to build a pipeline.”
Elise came to Cal as a swimmer, and Etem points out that she was given the opportunity to make that change to rowing. “It took some tenacity, it took some politics, and a little bit of finessing and some great skill building to make that happen,” said Etem.
Etem believes one of the ways to increase diversity in rowing is to encourage a change of sport at the collegiate level, similar to Elise’s experience.
“The education attainment through sport, and through a little bit of a different sport than what might be more traditional for communities of color, is a real way to grow the diversity of rowing through the college pathway nexus,” said Etem.
Etem gave credit to USRowing CEO Patrick McNerney, saying the discussion needs to continue, be integrated into the mainstream, and continuously promoted. Etem said the sport must be “continuously supporting infrastructure to make sure it happens, otherwise it just won’t.”
And, she is looking for USRowing to continue to strive for action. “I do want to acknowledge his leadership,” Etem said. “He can’t do it alone. There’s got to be a lot of champions in the ballpark of increasing diversity in USRowing … shout out to him and his efforts, but a lot of people have to help take up the mantle.”
Some programs are taking action, and Etem singled out Row New York and Row LA, who have both initiated programs “right in people’s backyards [and they’re] increasing the pool of younger folks.”
Whether it’s Cal, UEL, Syracuse, or any other program across the country, Etem strives to engage those alumni.
“I say kudos to all the students of color who tried rowing during their tenure. To this young generation, I shout out to them to give back,” said Etem. “It’s incumbent upon you to give back to your college, to be there for that next generation of kids of color who are coming in and need to know you can succeed in that boathouse.”
Header photo credit: row2k.com