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He sees no barriers in NoLibs

Dwayne Adams, inside his Northern Liberties rowing and athletics club, which was recently robbed of much of its exercise equipment, fears his gym may need to close soon. SAM NEWHOUSE / STAR PHOTO

After thieves robbed his Northern Liberties-based competitive rowing training facility, Dwayne Adams said he’s trying to move on and stick to what was always his goal — helping local kids.

Nearly three weeks after thieves stole an array of fitness equipment from the brand-new location of his rowing school and athletics gym, Dwayne Adams said he is starting to pick up the pieces and plan how he can move on.

“I found out Monday morning [March 3]. I didn’t get a call. When I clicked the light on, this is what I saw. I just froze,” Adams said, gazing at the former industrial space he has rented since October. “For like four days, I didn’t talk to anybody.”

Over the weekend of March 1–2, a whole wall of weights, two dumbbell racks, a treadmill, several spinning machines and even mats covering part of the floor were stolen from Adams’ facility, Breaking Barriers. Adams estimated the losses at upward of $120,000 in equipment, much of which he accumulated over years and cannot easily replace.

Police say the investigation into the robbery is ogoing.

“It hurts financially. I could lose this building. But who would lose out more than me is the kids,” Adams said. “I figured this was the final stop for Breaking Barriers. Now, I might lose it.”

In 2005, Adams founded Breaking Barriers. Through the program, he works with local youths to train them in competitive rowing. He currently works with about 25 kids. One group from Philadelphia Mennonite Charter School comes weekly to work out, but last week, one student didn’t come because he heard that Adams had been robbed, and he didn’t think there was any equipment left.

“I told the kids, ‘My name is Breaking Barriers. This is not going to stop me,’” Adams recalled.

Adams, 53, has traveled the world competitively rowing with the U.S. Adaptive Rowing team ever since he picked up the sport at age 38 during rehabilitation — a stray-bullet shooting left him legally blind, with only partial vision in his right eye, and with no sense of smell.

Prior to the shooting, Adams was a Comcast customer service representative. That stray-bullet shooting — which happened in North Philly as he was sitting on his mother’s step — may seem like a curse to most people, but the stubbornly optimistic Adams said he saw it as the accident that gave him a second life.

“I’m not saying I am these people, but just the way God directed Moses and Noah, he directed me,” Adams said.

As an adaptive rower, Adams competed in the same boat as rowers who had disabilities such as cerebral palsy or were single- or double-amputees.

In 2005, Adams started teaching rowing through The Bridge School in Fox Chase, a Philadelphia nonprofit that works with adolescents seeking to overcome substance abuse, school truancy and other mental or behavioral challenges. He said that he saw teenage boys who had threatened to kill one another become friends who trusted one another through the experience of competitive rowing.

Over the next few years, Adams started inviting students to Boathouse Row on the Schuylkill River for training. He’s also brought students to the Wilmington Youth Rowing Association to train at their indoor rowing tank.

But using other facilities has cost Adams personally as much as $350 per student, a charge he doesn’t pass on to the parents.

That’s why he recently bought his own boat and paddles, and decided to start renting his own gym space. Now he rents storage space for his boat in South Philly near the Philadelphia Trolley Works, and launches his students on six- to eight-mile rows from there. In October, he scraped together his savings to start renting an empty warehouse at 517 Poplar St. in Northern Liberties.

Adams said he stresses to his students the concepts of discipline, responsibility and accountability, not to mention the basics of rowing — how keep your boat straight, checking over your shoulder every eight strokes, conditioning one’s muscles for the sport.

“Every child is worth saving, even if it’s only one child. Saving children, telling children that they’re special and they deserve all this attention — I think it’s the greatest calling,” said Eve Saint-Girard, president of the Liberties Homeowners Association. She said Adams has done wonderful things for the neighborhood.

Adams said he’s a member of the Northern Liberties Neighbors Association and really loves the neighborhood. He said he hopes Breaking Barriers’ location on the west side of NoLibs, further from the hustle and bustle of attractions like the Piazza at Schmidt’s, could help bring more people to the area.

“This is a sad story. Breaking Barriers is one of USRowing’s original America Rows community rowing programs,” said Richard Butler, inclusion manager at USRowing, a nationwide initiative that currently supports several dozen rowing organizations and club programs. “The rowing community needs to rally and ensure that Breaking Barriers can continue to inspire and serve hundreds of Philadelphia youth.”

Adams said that Bishop Keith Reed of Sharon Baptist Church blessed his gym just a little while before the robbery took place. And the way he’s chosen to look at this incident, perhaps only the things that weren’t meant to be in the building were stolen.

“They didn’t touch my rowing machines. That’s my heart,” Adams said. “I’m thinking, ‘Maybe I didn’t need all those weights.’”

Adams said he harbors no grudge against the thieves who robbed him. Tirelessly optimistic, he’s currently looking for backers that can help him get the gym on its feet, and is talking to friends involved in the CrossFit gym franchise. He’s still focused on his original vision of setting up a gym with a computer lab and juice bar where kids can train.

“From starting out with a laptop and eight kids, to finally filling this place out to what it can be — it’s a blessing,” Adams said.

U.S. Rowing is collecting donations to support Breaking Barriers. Checks can be sent to USRowing, Attention: Breaking Barriers Donation, 2 Wall Street, Princeton, N.J. 08540.

Reporter Sam Newhouse can be reached at 215–354–3124 or at snewhouse@bsmphilly.com.

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