Aki Kurose Middle School students competed in an indoor rowing race Friday with local Olympians and UW athletes as part of the first year of Seattle's Erg Ed program.

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Former Olympic rower Portia McGee huddled with her teammates Friday morning, strategizing how to win the race that had brought her out of retirement.

McGee wanted to beat seven other teams, and to do so she needed the help of her fellow rowers — three students from Aki Kurose Middle School Academy.

Together, the four competed in an indoor relay race as part of the first year of Seattle Public Schools’ Erg Ed program. The program, offered twice a year through a partnership between the George Pocock Rowing Foundation and the school district, lets students spend a week learning how to row, using rowing machines in their school gyms.

The program currently runs in three Seattle middle schools — Aki Kurose, Washington and Eckstein — and senior program director Karla Landis said it will expand to three more next year. The goal is to serve nine middle schools and 3,200 students by 2013.

Though rowing is a classic Seattle sport, it’s out of reach to a large portion of Seattle’s students. Before Erg Ed launched in the fall of 2010, only four of 155 Aki eighth-graders were signed up for a water sport at their neighborhood boathouse. As part of Erg Ed, students learn about opportunities to overcome barriers to the sport, such as how to sign up for swim lessons.

Clayton Mubangu, an eighth-grader at Aki Kurose, said rowing had never interested him before he tried it out at his school. He had seen rowers on TV, but he didn’t like water, and he’d never taken swimming lessons.

“When it first came to our school I thought it would be boring because it’s like exercise,” he said. “But then it started to get fun.”

Rowing isn’t just a fun exercise for the students — it’s also a particularly thorough workout.

Heather Alschuler, a member of the 2008 Canadian Olympic rowing team, instructs the program and guides the students through the relay.

“They push themselves to an intensity that they’ve never been able to experience before,” Alschuler said, adding that rowing is a perfect workout because any student can participate regardless of fitness level or body type.

It’s not like making students run a mile, she said, when all the students can notice who falls behind.

Instead, the indoor relay race is all about teamwork: Standing on the race’s sidelines Friday, Lori Dunn, Seattle Public School’s P.E. program manager, points out all the students yelling and cheering for their classmates.

“They’re all engaged,” Dunn said, noting that there wasn’t one student who looked bored or left out.

Dunn’s proud of the inclusivity of the program, and she hopes students will stay engaged after graduation. She wants these students to look at rowing as a lifelong skill.

On a more short-term scale, rowing is a skill that could carry students through college on a scholarship. Members of the University of Washington crew team joined the group at the middle school Friday to participate in the relay race and show middle-school students what their future could hold.

Crystal Gonzales, an Aki Kurose seventh-grader, said she might keep rowing. She doesn’t know for sure. On Friday she just needed to focus on the race at hand.

She didn’t end up winning, and neither did McGee’s team — they both lost to a group of boys in fourth period — but that wasn’t the point.

“It was a really good workout for all of us,” she said.

Olivia Bobrowsky: 206-464-3195 or obobrowsky@seattletimes.com