Have you ever had a great coach, whether in or out of school? One who not only helped you to master a skill or a sport, but who also helped shape you as a person?
LOS ANGELES — For the past three years, Henrique “Hicu” Motta, a rowing coach, has created unlikely success stories in a sport long associated with the privileged. He has taken his team of high school girls from working-class families to the national championships and sent several of them to Division I colleges on athletic scholarships.
“I’m Latina, little and had never been on a sports team,” said Isabella Soto, 17, the daughter of a nanny and a machinist who hopes to row at an elite college next fall.
Isabella, who was accepted onto the RowLA team despite being only 5 feet 2 inches tall “on a good day,” is a first-generation American whose parents are undocumented Mexicans. Kassie Kim is the child of Korean immigrants, a cashier and a fire-alarm installer. Samadhi Dissanayake, a Sri Lankan-American raised by a single mother in subsidized housing, rides two buses to practice.
“I hated sports before coming here,” said Samadhi, who is also considering rowing in college. “Now I love rowing and the sense of community.”
But Mr. Motta, 39, a Brazilian who is in the country on a work visa, has been notified that his petition to remain in the United States has been denied. In order to stay, U.S. immigration authorities said, he must prove that he has “extraordinary ability” to do a job that might otherwise go to an American.
In a sport dominated by athletes who are white and wealthy, RowLA under Mr. Motta’s leadership has long made a point of enlisting those who normally would not have access to rowing. Neither build nor athletic acumen determine who gets to compete and succeed. “He can take a girl, regardless of size and ability, and turn her into a serious rower. That’s rare among coaches,” said Liz Greenberger, a retired international security analyst who founded the team a decade ago and brought Mr. Motta in as their second coach in 2017. “It’s Hicu’s philosophy that is perfect for our program,” she said.
Mr. Motta’s philosophy is simple: “I try to make something special out of any girl who wants to give rowing a shot,” he said.
The question is, does that amount to extraordinary ability?
In the three years since receiving a work visa, Mr. Motta has crafted a program of dedicated rowers who have competed in the U.S. Rowing Youth Nationals, the highest level for high school rowers, and won college scholarships. But Mr. Motta does not just coach.
A nutritionist by training, he instructs his athletes to maintain a balanced diet. (No processed food before races. Stick to fruit for energy and coconut water for hydration.) Mr. Motta urges his rowers to spend time on their studies and think about futures that can be full of possibilities.
“We don’t just focus on rowing performance; we’re developing student athletes,” said Mr. Motta, standing in Parking Lot 77 at Marina del Rey in West Los Angeles, where the team assembles six days a week to train, rain or shine.
Students 13 and older are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.