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Stunned. I was absolutely stunned that they even let us touch the damn thing. We were eight totally clueless beginners and it was _25,000 boat. But all they said was, "Okay, can we get bow pair to row and to take us out?"

So there I was, two weeks into my abroad semester in Ireland, rowing down the River Corrib for the National University of Ireland, Galway.

I'd never rowed before, but whenever I would see the Penn guys on the Schuylkill I'd think, "That looks fun - I wish I could do that."

But Penn's a top D-I crew program and if I had ever gone down to the boathouse and asked them to teach me to row, they'd have laughed me into oncoming traffic on East River Drive.

Penn Athletics is not beginner-friendly, and I don't just mean our varsity teams. What's really upsetting is that many of our clubs - especially the major sports - are also essentially closed, their rosters filled up with varsity recruit rejects and other top high school athletes.

I remember, for instance, the club baseball tryouts being nothing more than a half-ass formality.

The great American mantra of "winning is everything" has made many clubs as competitive and exclusive as our varsity teams - might as well call some of them JV. If you're not a superstar, if you want to learn a new sport and have some fun, you might be out of luck.

But not at Galway. On their clubs' day (note: their clubs = our varsity), I walked into a gym packed with enthusiastic reps aggressively selling their teams. "Beginners welcome" and "no experience necessary" signs were everywhere; conspicuously missing were "let's get them over with as fast as possible" tryouts and "we're sorry but we had a lot of interest this fall." e-mails.

Clubs' day at Galway was a sports toy store - "I want to play this!" "I want to try that!"

Their administration encourages this inclusive atmosphere by giving clubs funding based not only on their success, but also on their number of active members.

The more students a club includes, the more money that club gets.

I got one of those "we're sorry" e-mails after the club baseball 'tryout' my freshman year. Though I didn't make the team, I still wanted to play and I knew others did too, so I started Sandlot Baseball.

It was aptly named - for two years on warm spring Sunday afternoons, 20 to 30 of us (some good, some bad - nobody cared) played ball, just like kids in the neighborhood. One of my players was Lithuanian - he'd never played baseball before, but he joined the league anyway and later told me how much he loved the game.

That was really cool to hear. It's nice when everybody can participate.

Not only are our teams doing a disservice to Penn students with their elitism, but they may be hurting themselves too.

The captain of Galway rowing, Richard Murray, argued that "sometimes guys who start in college pick it up quickly." One of his beginners from last year "made the [top] boat [this summer] and was second in the national championships. If [we] didn't have the open policy in the club, [we] wouldn't [have found] that kind of talent."

Keen beginners can be a catalyst, sparking a team's experienced members. The new guys are always "nipping at [the veterans'] heels, so they try harder," said Galway crew coach Aengus O'Conghaile.

There was no walk-on prejudice in Galway crew - your position was based on performance, not pedigree. "Whoever makes the boat go fast, they're in the boat," Murray flatly stated.

(Highly complicated logic, I know.)

Our teams could improve themselves and, more importantly, do something good for Penn if they'd follow Galway's example.

Let everyone at least join the clubs.

"All it [takes] is two people [to work with the new guys]. That's it," said Galway crew coach Phil O'Connell. "We have the facility to show people rowing, so why not help out where we can? We get benefit and they get benefit."

We just needed Phil and Aengus to lead us and a spare boat to hold us. We worked hard in the gym on Tuesday and Thursday nights and out on the water Thursday and Saturday mornings. We didn't get in the big boys' way and we didn't break anything. And by the time I flew home in December, we were a crew. We got our chance and went from ragtag to respectable in three months.

You know, it really is fun.

Alex Weinstein is a College senior from Bridgeport, W.Va. His e-mail address is Straight to Hell appears on Thursdays.

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