Libby Peters helping solidify Philly as rowing capital of United States

Libby Peters helping solidify Philly as rowing capital of United States
Igor Belakovskiy/Scullingfool Photography

There’s just something about the Schuylkill River that’s made Philadelphia the mecca for competitive rowing in America.

The best and most talented athletes in the sport always seem to find their way to the banks of the Delaware’s meandering tributary and to its famous Boathouse Row.

That’s what happened to Libby Peters.

“It was shortly after college I decided I wanted to continue training and I decided I would make a run for the national team in the Olympics,” Peters, who was involved last month with the Olympic development coaching crew, said. “That naturally drew me to Philadelphia because it is a very strong rowing community with a long history of champions and of Olympians. Vesper has a 150 year history and a lot of rowers in the Olympics were affiliated with it — it’s the boat club of Jack Kelly for instance.”

Peters, who has more or less dedicated her life to the sport of rowing, is honored to be ascending in prestige alongside the highly successful and influential athletes and coaches who’ve been affiliated with Vesper in the past.

“I think what’s interesting about Libby is that there is a special thing in Philly about hard work,” Ryan Sparks, CEO of Sparks Consulting(one of the leading companies providing rowing camps to kids), who worked closely with Peters when she was a summer counselor after college, said. “Philly really likes that type of person –look at Rocky.”

Peters was a talented athlete who competed at Columbia University and was on the fast track to become an Olympian, finishing second in the Olympic trials and third in Worlds before her life was turned upside down when she was just 25. Her competing days were over when she was diagnosed with Stage 3 Lymphoma.

“Obviously my focus shifted,” Peters, who ​founded Philadelphia City Rowing — a program that exposes her favorite sport to local high school kids, said. “I focused on getting better and I stayed in the area for that. It took time to realize I would be moving on from my competitive career. A lot of my energy went to giving back to the rowing community.​”​

Peters began by going school to school alongside former Olympic rowers (like Abington, PA’s two time gold medalist Susan Francia), educating kids on the sport that gives Peters her livelihood and arguably saved her life. Five years later, the program is thriving and expanding to invite middle schoolers to compete in the sport as well.

“It is available to all public school kids in Philly and it’s a free program,” Peters said. “It combines mentoring and tutoring and, like rowing, it encourages character development.”

Peters recently accepted the post of assistant coach for the women’s rowing team at Penn — in addition to her coaching gig with Vesper’s high performance program.The latest endeavor for Peters, when she isn’t in Florida helping the United States prepare its Olympic squad for Rio, is partnering the crew program at Penn with Sparks — an organization that offers rowing camps all over the country.

“We are going to be partnering with Sparks rowing camps to offer a 5-day camp in August open to high school students from anywhere to stay at UPenn and row out of our boathouse with Penn coaching,” Peters said. “They will see what it’s like to row and be a D-I Student athlete. It’s a really cool partnership because I used to coach at these rowing camps when I was at Columbia.”

In Peters’ mind, Philadelphia is the center of the rowing world, and of her life. And the South Philly resident is proud of the up and coming Quakers’ program, now entrenched in the middle of the pack in the hotly contested Ivy League.

“It’s a big community and collectively there are great boathouses and clubs to support the athletes,” Peters said of the city. “It’s not just a standalone effort. The Schuylkill River is great body of water for training, it’s beautiful, it’s always useful for rowing in terms of conditions.”

Peters has had the luxury of coaching along side 1992 Olympian and Vesper head coach John Parker. And two athletes from the Vesper’s high performance program will be representing the United States in the Olympics when Devery Karz and Kate Bertko take to the water for the lightweight double later in the summer. Though she won’t be there herself (her team was only allowed to take one coach with them to Rio), there is little doubt coaching in the Olympics lies in her future.

“That’s absolutely the case,” Sparks said.”The fact is that she is already coaching athletes who have Olympic ambitions … She’s one of the top people in our sport in her generation, I think that’s fairly obvious from her record. Look at where shes coached and what shes done so far.”