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Asking Ellen Minzner about rowing is like asking Oprah how she feels about talk shows, or what Meryl Streep enjoys about acting. Minzner displays undeniable passion for what she does. "I love a sport where it's not enough to just have natural talent," she said. "You have to work harder, and be mentally tougher, than your competition. That doesn't come easy."
Minzner, 45, a native of Lawrence, Mass., is the outreach director for Community Rowing Boston (CRI), a non-profit organization that uses rowing to foster teamwork, discipline and fitness. Based on Boston's Charles River, CRI trains youngsters, adults, Olympians and national champion rowers.
Minzner, who joined CRI in February, has focused on special needs individuals with sensory and mobility disabilities, and on disabled veterans. "We challenge them," she said. "It's not about just spending a nice day sitting in a boat floating around. They have to do something. We push them to improve, and they like that. We even have a couple of competitors who are trying out for the U.S. paralympic team."
Minzner's drive stems from a lifelong involvement in the sport she loves. She began her rowing career at Villanova University, and is a five-time U.S. national team member and a two-time world champion. She has coached at The Winsor School, Wellesley College, Kansas State University and the University of California at Berkeley.
Her competitive sports career is a study in perseverance. "I played basketball and ran track in high school," Minzner said. "At Villanova, I walked on in both sports, but they told me I would probably never be able to compete. That was not for me, so I got into rowing my sophomore year and fell in love with it."
In her third year at Villanova, Minzner was named team captain and most valuable player. The Wildcats won a silver medal in the Dad Vail Regatta in Pennsylvania, competing against more than 100 schools from the U.S. and Canada.
After graduation, Minzner turned her passion into a profession, taking a part-time job as an instructor at CRI. But her best days as a competitor were still ahead.
"Several of the CRI coaches participated in the Masters national team," she said. "I made my first team in 1991, and we took the bronze medal at the world championships in Vienna." Minzner won the 1995 world championships in lightweight pair (two female rowers) in Tampere, Finland, and took another gold medal at the 1996 worlds in Scotland.
While her rowing career took Minzner around the world, her heart remained in Lawrence, an immigrant city steeped in Industrial Revolution history, but mired in current economic hardship. Minzner saw a need, and decided to come home.
"I saw these great rivers in my community, but no one was using them, so I helped start a rowing program that began with six kids," she said. Programs for beginning rowers and middle schoolers soon followed. Minzner became executive director of the Greater Lawrence Community Boating Program, and founder of both the Greater Lawrence Rowing Club and the Lawrence Celebration Regatta. Promoting the sport and helping kids became her mission.
"Growing up in Lawrence, kids never dream that they can travel outside the country and compete," Minzner said. "We took 15 students from Lawrence High School's Leadership Academy and got them on the river. We not only taught them rowing, but also how to teach others. In the fall, we got a bunch of rowing machines, and our students taught rowing to middle school kids in Lawrence. It was amazing."
Minzner cited one of the program's many success stories. "Josh Maldonado is now at MIT and on the crew team. Sometimes I can't believe when I say Lawrence, MIT and crew in the same sentence. It shows how far we've come," she said.
Jenna Bueno of Methuen, Mass., is a stroke (rower closest to the stern) on Minzner's Greater Lawrence Rowing Club. "Thanks to Coach, our team is constantly setting goals for ourselves," said Bueno, a senior at Methuen High School. "We want to see how much better we can get. We all get along great. It's like a little family."
Bueno and her teammates were invited to compete in the 2010 U.S. Rowing Youth National Championships in Cincinnati. "This was the first time our team had gone," said Minzner, who was the Women's Sports Foundation coach of the year while at The Winsor School.
Whether expanding the horizons of those thought to be limited, or creating a path for young people, Minzner has continued to use her sport to empower and edify. "In this country, we love sports," she said. "But I don't think we know what to do with them. We can use sports to fight poverty and disease, and to create transforming leaders. ... More than this, you can do something that you previously thought was impossible."