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Finding Their Depth


The PC rowing team, fresh off a high-performing 10th anniversary season, is energized by a gift of two new boats.

When Joyce Kelly first drove her son Kevin OPC ’13 down to the banks of the Schuylkill River she had no idea the site would become like a second home for him for the next eight years.

It was the summer before ninth grade, and Kevin had enrolled in an introductory rowing camp at the suggestion of Joyce’s colleague in the Philadelphia Department of Recreation. Though never much of an athlete, he quickly discovered he liked the sport—and had a real knack for it.

The following spring, Kevin joined Penn Charter’s newly rebooted crew program and was already clocking some of the best times on the team as a freshman. By sophomore year he was bringing home medals.

“Once he started winning, things really took off,” said Joyce, who watched her son dedicate himself to rowing with a passion she hadn’t observed in him before. Kevin began working out regularly, eating healthy and taking every opportunity he could to get out on the water.

“It helped him find his depth,” she said. Kevin would go on to serve as captain during his next three seasons with the Quakers and to hone his skills on a club team during the summers. After graduation, he spent four years sculling with the University of Pennsylvania’s heavyweight team, eventually earning a captainship and All-American honors from the Intercollegiate Rowing Association.

In 2012, Kevin helped lead the PC team to its best season in modern history when he and doubles partner Spencer Grant OPC ’13 nabbed a silver medal at the Stotesbury Regatta and a gold at the SRAA Scholastic Championship, the sport’s top high school events. Maria Georgiou and Heidi Zisselman, also OPC ’13, matched their teammates’ performances at both races. It was the first time the Quakers had qualified boats for the highly competitive SRAA Championship, let alone medalled—twice.

The SRAA race marked a turning point in Kevin’s rowing career and served as an extraordinary demonstration of just how much depth he had developed in two years.

Last summer, Joyce and Joe Kelly decided to honor their son’s transformative experience in Penn Charter crew by donating a new boat to the program. The Kellys’ gift was matched by the family of a current PC rower, who donated a second shell anonymously. The vessels will augment a fleet of seven acquired by Penn Charter in 2015 made by Italian boatmaker Filippi.

The gift couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time for the crew team, which had just wrapped up its best season since 2012. Four Quaker boats won medals at the 2019 Philadelphia City Championship, a team high for that race. Three boats finished top-six at Stotesbury and advanced to the SRAAs in Ohio, where Gabriela Mancini and Riley McDade, 11th graders at the time, charged to a third-place finish in the girls junior doubles.

“There’s an infectious confidence going around,” said head coach Katherine Farrell, who began as an assistant in 2013 and rose to lead the team two years later. “It’s such a joy to witness.”

The 2019 Penn Charter crew team.

The 2019 season also marked the 10th anniversary of the revival of the Penn Charter crew program, which had been inactive since the 1970s after an intermittent presence on the Schuylkill earlier in the century. A high point from that bygone era of PC rowing came in 1945, when future Olympian John B. Kelly Jr. OPC ’45 and his father, Olympian John B. Kelly Sr., helped the Quakers win the Stotesbury Cup, as athlete and coach, respectively. (John B. Kelly Jr. and Sr. are unrelated to Joyce and Joe Kelly.)

Penn Charter crew resurfaced as a club team during the 2007-08 school year after a coalition of students and parents, supported by Head of School Darryl J. Ford Hon. 1689, advocated for the program and worked to secure a boathouse. Rowing was recognized as a JV sport the following season and a varsity sport one year later.

By the time the Quakers made their varsity debut in the 2010 Manny Flick Regatta series, Joyce and Joe Kelly, like their son, had fully embraced the crew lifestyle. Most Sundays, they found themselves loading their truck with sandwich trays and snacks to feed the flock of Penn Charter families that gathered at the river to spectate.

The Kellys’ hospitality developed into a full-blown cookout when, on a whim one Sunday, they decided to haul their gas grill down to the race. It quickly became a welcomed source of diversion and sustenance during long afternoons on the Schuylkill, and other crew parents began coordinating to supply meats, vegetables and tableware for the weekly gathering.

Inspired by the sense of community they encountered at the boathouse, the Kellys donated a grill and cargo trailer in 2012. They saw the purchase as an affirmation of the crew program’s revitalized presence on campus.

“We wanted the team to feel like they were really becoming a part of Penn Charter,” Joyce said about the 2012 gift.

Eight years later, the rowing program has clearly found its niche at PC, just as it has asserted itself as a serious competitor on the Schuylkill once again. The team has attracted consistently strong numbers since 2009, due in no small part to the Quakers’ standout performances on the national stage.

The Kellys hope their latest gift will allow the program to continue to grow, unabated by the restrictive costs of equipment associated with the sport.

“We just want to help get more kids in boats, in races and in practice,” Joyce said.

With the way things are going, the PC crew team is going to need all the seats it can get.