Eight brave Atria Rye Brook seniors took to the water in Glen Island Harbor to learn how to row. The eight ranged in age from 78 to 96 and two of them are legally blind. But the group overcame everything in their way and propelled their little boat out into open water on Tuesday, Sept. 20. 
Casey Watts|Westmore News
Eight brave Atria Rye Brook seniors took to the water in Glen Island Harbor to learn how to row. The eight ranged in age from 78 to 96 and two of them are legally blind. But the group overcame everything in their way and propelled their little boat out into open water on Tuesday, Sept. 20. Casey Watts|Westmore News
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The sun was high in the sky, the harbor was placid and eight seniors between the ages of 78 and 96 were in the middle of Glen Island Harbor in New Rochelle on Tuesday, Sept. 20 learning how to row as a team.

The Atria residents were all accustomed to rowing, except their experience was limited to a once-a-week class on an indoor machine. Therefore, Veterans’ Rowing & Kayaking, Inc., which teaches Atria Rye Brook’s class at 1200 King St., paired up with the Pelham County Rowing Association (PCRA) to give the seniors time on the water. After a quick demonstration of how to row with an actual oar instead of with a handle and rope attached to a machine, PCRA Coach John Brisson led eight to the rowboat.

“Only way to learn is to jump in,” Brisson said.

The rowers took their positions. In the front seats were 96-year-old Ruth Shiller and Pat Swire, 85. Behind them sat Catherine Hanson, 88, Anna Miklos, 82, Marjorie Waterman, 92, and Mimi Ivy, 78. Taking up the rear and steering the boat were 94-year-old Spencer Weil and Howard Rusk, 82. A couple of the rowers battled more than just their age; Miklos and Rusk are both legally blind, but Miklos cannot see anything at all.

Age didn’t get in the way of the oldest member of the Atria rowers. At 96, Shiller was the most excited and led the pack down to the dock. She was the first one to get in the vessel, and once her feet were strapped in, she immediately began practicing her rowing technique in the docked boat.

“I think I got it, by George!” she yelled.

Once everyone was in the boat and two rescue boats were launched, the seniors were pushed off into the harbor. To the chorus of orders “Hands away, body over, slide up, lay it in and push,” the ragtag group of newbies came together as a team and propelled their ship across the water. They left the area with the docked boats and went out a few meters into open water before turning around to return to shore. The trip took about 30 minutes – a quick experience many of the Atria staff members were saying the residents would be talking about for weeks.

Once back on solid ground, Miklos had a smile on her face as she was led back to the park.

“It was a little scary, but a nice feeling because I felt the buoyancy of the water,” Miklos explained. “It’s a beautiful day, nice fresh air and trying something new. I would do it again.”

“The most frightening part was getting into the boat, but I had the help of some wonderful people,” she concluded.

The youngest member, 78-year-old Ivy, said she never expected the boat to actually go anywhere other than in circles. But the experience clearly left its mark on her as she quickly sat down with one of the bystanders and explained how wonderful it was to feel the breeze out on the water.

Shiller’s granddaughter, Amy Padilla, said it was cool to see her grandmother out in the harbor, but it was cooler to see her on the tennis court. When she walked over to Shiller to help her off the dock, her grandmother joked to Atria Public Relations Manager Amira Ruben that it was exhausting out on the water and she’d like to see the staff do it.

“It was really fun and challenging,” Shiller added. She said she liked meeting new people and “all the wonderful people who did this out of the goodness of their hearts.”

The ones behind it are looking to continue outings like this in Glen Island Harbor as a weekly spring program. Veterans’ Rowing & Kayaking is looking into the possibility of expanding their rowing classes with Atria. But for now, their focus is on a little competition between two Atria locations, one being Rye Brook. The seniors will be pitted against each other in a friendly match between like ages and genders to see which community can row 1,000 meters the fastest on indoor machines. There will be a Skype-like call and video feed where the two teams can see one another. The time and date for this competition have not yet been announced.

“There is some hidden talent here,” said Veterans’ Rowing & Kayaking’s Director of Community Outreach Tom Dorney. “Ruth is a natural.”

Shiller is going to fly out from her winter home in Florida for C.R.A.S.H.-B SPRINTS World Indoor Rowing Championship in Boston University’s Agganis Arena on Feb. 12. Dorney expects her to set new records for her age group and possibly beat a couple of 70- and 80-year-olds.

But rowing is more than just competition. Atria’s Engage Life Director Caren Kern just wants her residents to have fun and work with one another to accomplish something big, such as making it past the docked boats in Glen Island Harbor and experiencing a new thing together.

“It’s a sense of community by doing it together and working for a goal,” Kern said. “Anybody can do it.”