The Milwaukee Riverwalk District held its annual meeting recently and one of the three individuals honored, received special recognition for his efforts to remove barriers to participation in youth rowing.

Each year since 1994 the Milwaukee Riverwalk District has bestowed its Gertie Award, named for the famed duck who survived on the Milwaukee River beneath Wisconsin Avenue against all odds, to recipients who have worked to improve conditions along the waterway or helped the public better utilize the resource. This year William Bott, a Rowing Coach with the ‎Milwaukee Rowing Club, was awarded for his work with underprivileged children.

“Our outreach program was started a couple years ago, as an effort to create a more diverse and inclusive rowing club,” said Bott. “Additionally, we wanted to expand our talent pool and create a faster, stronger, and more competitive team. Today, a third of our middle school team is from the inner-city, receiving transportation to and from practice and swimming lessons as part of the program.”

Addressing the barriers of transportation and swimming competence has been key to the program’s success, with support from Urban Underground by providing a van to use. The club also has a relationship with the the Northside YMCA for swimming lessons, which are kept to the lowest costs possible.

Bott wants to expand to reach all sections of the city, increasing the diversity, opportunity, and speed of the rowing teams. He is looking to partner the club with the Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE) and other organizations, to help the program grow and offer academic support for the student athletes.

Without the opportunities provided by the club, most of the students of color would not be able to participate. A typical day for the students involves being picked up from their home, taken to the YMCA for swimming, then to rowing practice, and finally back home again.

Being a rower is expensive, with coaching, boat and boathouse fees. And being able to swim, a prerequisite to getting in the water, can be inaccessible for children who have not been exposed to lessons growing up.

“My vision is for a rowing club that breaks down the barriers of our city and offers more opportunity than anything else like it,” added Bott. “It will require more work, more sweat, more stress, and more partners. The Milwaukee River has long been considered a boundary. But now, we are using the Milwaukee River to break boundaries and work toward unity to our city.”

The other two individuals who received a Gertie Award were Captain Scott Cassavant, captain of the Milwaukee River skimmer Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Fifth District Alderman Jim Bohl of the City of Milwaukee. Alderman Bohl is the chair of the Common Council’s Zoning, Neighborhood, and Development Committee, and he has been a RiverWalk supporter for many years.

The Milwaukee Riverwalk District is a not-for-profit corporation of Wisconsin whose membership consists of property owners, businesses, organizations and individuals within the District.

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Lee Matz