Editors' note: Baylor Henry and eight other women made history at last year’s Head of the Charles Regatta. Henry rowed in the first all-Black, all-female eight (plus a coxswain) boat in the race's history.
“It was such a surreal moment,” she said this week, speaking with Cognoscenti. “And it was so powerful. It was such a powerful unification of everyone.”
Henry fell in love with rowing as a high school student in Alpharetta, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta. But she didn’t see any Black role models in the sport. Now a junior at Drexel University, she started an Instagram account, blackgirlsrow, to profile other young women like her. She was looking for her community, and she also wanted to increase visibility and encourage other younger women of color to think about rowing.
At this weekend’s Head of the Charles, Henry will row again, but with Drexel’s Women’s Crew. Here she is, in her own words, edited for length and clarity. — Kathleen Burge and Sara Shukla
In my early days, I used to be a swimmer. I was going into my freshman year of high school when my dad went to a farmer's market, and they had a vendor promoting rowing. I was looking for a sport that I could do outside of swimming, and I wanted something very different. I went to learn-to-row camp during the summer, and I fell in love with it. Because who rows boats? Over time, I got better, and it just stuck with me.
Since I started rowing, I've become more open minded and [developed] a growth mindset.
There were moments where I would be so rigid, where it would be like, if I don't pull this split, or if I don't hit this number, it's the end of the world. Or, if I don't [set a personal record] on every piece, that means I'm not good enough. I had to learn to be open-minded, by being like, okay, you didn't get it this time, but there's room to get it next time.
Learning to overcome the fear of failure, self-improvement, self-motivation, discipline — that has been the biggest impact, for me. Having to wake up at a certain time in the morning, having to structure your day around the commitment of rowing — what you eat, your classes, your friends, all of that — in a good way, in a healthy way. It's a team-oriented sport. There are just so many life skills that I've learned in this sport.
When I first started rowing, when I first came to the [Head of the Charles] in 2019, I could count on my hand how many Black people or just people of color that I saw. Rowing is not a sport that is talked about within the Black community. I really want to inspire younger girls to try it out — and also to not second guess themselves, just because they may not see people who look like them in that sport. So, with blackgirlsrow, that is the goal.
The fact that rowing is a predominantly white sport, it can make you question, Okay, am I good at this? Can I be good at this? Cause I don't see anyone else who looks like me doing it. It boosts my confidence whenever I see other Black athletes, especially females, doing some really good things.
In high school, I felt that there was always so much that I had to prove, despite how my athletic capability — the data — had already spoken for itself. It always seemed that I fell short, compared to my white teammates. Even if I surpassed my teammates, and I was pretty good on the water, coaches didn't want to use me. It was very tough — and heartbreaking. I ignored it, at first, because it was too hard for me to accept. You never want to think that anyone has biases towards you. Nobody wants to feel slighted, or pushed to the side or overlooked.
One of the girls I highlighted on blackgirlsrow last year — her name is Bella. She rows at Duke, and she's amazing. And I remember, she came to me at Head of the Charles last year, and she told me, I just feel like I take up so much space here. I was able to relate, and I was also just tried to encourage her in that moment. You don't take up space. You belong here. Don't feel insecure because maybe you're not seeing all the people of color you're hoping to see. Don't let that stop you.
That’s something I've spoken to other girls about, back in Atlanta, some younger ones who are just starting the program that I used to row for. One of the moms, she asked me, “How do you keep going despite the structural barriers – how expensive it is, the transportation, also dealing with the coaching staff?”
I just told her, “It was in my heart. I didn't want anyone to tell me that I could not do it.”
And that's one thing I emphasize. Don't allow your circumstances – your experience in this current moment — dictate the opportunities that will continue to come. And that's why community matters, why blackgirlsrow matters, because that's how we uplift each other.
Rowing itself is expensive — even just practicing, and being a part of a team. The equipment is expensive. The structure overall is built for the elite. I think when it comes to expanding and diversifying rowing, the structures that have been in place, historically, are something we will have to continue to work on. Because even when it comes to diversity, especially in the Black community, the reality is that not everyone has access to those resources. Hopefully down the line, we can talk about that and allow those resources to be readily available, and even sponsored.
Last summer, Rowing in Color invited me to participate in the first Black Women's 8. And I was very nervous, but I was like, absolutely. I will do my very, very best on race day.
It was just such an awesome, wholesome experience. It was very beautiful. There were so many emotions that day because you're looking at people that used to row, and also are rowing currently, and being able to be next to Olympians — just all this awesome, awesome stuff.
Rowing down the Charles, and showing the families that were on the sidelines that, here we are, we're doing it. Black girls. Black queens. It was such a beautiful moment. It was so surreal.
In 2019, I felt like Bella, like I was taking up space. But last year, in 2022, it was just a different feeling. There was a momentum to the diversity, and the energy. I felt like I belonged here. I saw more girls of color, and I saw more athletes of color just in general, not just Black people. On the sidelines, people were so excited to see us race, and it was people from all backgrounds — white, Black, Latina, Indian. There was just so much loving energy compared to the previous years. I want to amplify that. There's good stuff happening.