For Chicago rowers, path to better life begins at river's edge

CHICAGO -- On the south branch of the Chicago River, at the confluence of industrial effluence that forms what locals call Bubbly Creek, there's a spot where dreams run deep.

Montana Butsch CBS News
This is where you can find Montana Butsch -- yes, that's his name -- and a group of unlikely oarsmen from the inner city.

Butsch acknowledges that "inner city" and "rowing" are not often found in the same sentence.

"And that makes it terribly exciting," he says.

Butsch took up rowing at 15 years old, competed in college and sees no reason why his young friends cannot follow in his wake.

"It switches a lot of kids on, and then they totally embrace it, and it's really fun to see that happen," he says.

Brian Behena CBS News
Brian Behena is a coxswain, the captain of the crew and navigator of the boat.

"I didn't even know this sport existed, really, until Montana came to our school and introduced it to us, and now I'm actually glad I took advantage of coming out here," he says.

To enjoy it, though, the teenagers have to overcome the reality of Chicago's mean streets.

"A few of our kids have been jumped by, you know, gangs or by people who they don't like in their neighborhoods," Butsch says. "We've had to deal with that on occasion. I've had to drive a few of our kids home after practice because they're worried about crossing gang boundaries."

A group of unlikely oarsmen from the inner city. CBS News
Butsch, who rowed for Oxford University in the 2004 race against Cambridge in England, started the Chicago training center six years ago and has grown it into a competitive force on the city's waterways.

It has an annual budget of $300,000, raised from donations, city grants and foundation sponsorships.

There's also a strict code of conduct, and the 60 crew members must maintain at least a 3.0 grade average in school.

"Here, everyone has to work together, and without that, nothing is achieved," Butsch says, noting he's not raising professional rowers but professional people.

These are lessons for life, he says, learned one stroke at a time.

  • Dean Reynolds

    Dean Reynolds is a CBS News National Correspondent based in Chicago.