After the Catch: How I Fell in Love with Rowing
In late summer of 1984, I walked onto the Columbia campus as a brand new freshman coming from a blue collar upbringing in Brooklyn, New York. My parents were immigrants from Germany, who were tradesmen with no more than a grammar school education. They came to America as most immigrants at the time - through Ellis Island. They spoke no English but learned quickly incorporating night school to do so. This was the mid 1950’s. They had suffered the hardship of war-torn Europe and left with nothing more than a bagful of clothes and a steely determination to make a better life. Hard work and personal discipline was a way of life, and it was an expectation they had for themselves and their son. After acceptance into Columbia, I realized it was a very different world, which was socially intimidating despite the great deal of confidence that I possessed in my ability to succeed. Confidence was a by-product of hard work. When I was accepted to a number of the Ivy League schools, I wrongfully assumed that I must be a genius. My grades were exceptional, so what else could be the reason for the acceptance? It certainly was not pedigree. The Ivy League was filled with the progeny of scions of industry, law, medicine, and wealth. Generation after generation of them attended these schools. Within the first weeks there, I came to the realization that I was no genius and that my success was a by-product of working HARDER than anyone else. I met several true geniuses in that time and clearly was not at that stratosphere. It is what I had done for years leading up to that moment. It is what my immigrant parents had shown in deed and word. It was THE WAY. Not only was I successful in academics, but I was athletic having played soccer, football, and basketball in high school, yet not so prodigious that any athletic recruiter came calling. On one of those first few days on campus, I crossed the Quad to come upon a sight I had never seen and totally out of place – an eight-oar shell on stretchers sitting in the middle of 116th Street! It was surrounded by some very LARGE men, looking very athletic and unified. They all wore varsity letterman jackets or Stevensons. At 60 feet long and 2 feet wide, the boat was sleek and looked built for speed. It was beautiful and mesmerizing. I had a very nice chat with men who were giants of Columbia Rowing: Colin Redhead and Tom Cornacchia. They sized me up and told me to “come out for Crew!” They said “I would do great… that I would be a natural.” I told them I had no experience. “None required” was the retort, “you just have to pull hard and don’t quit.” This was intriguing. This was the hook.
The Early Days of My Rowing Career
I went to the introductory meeting and met the Freshman coach, Joe “Okie” O’Connor. Okie was a firebrand, and I loved him, hated him, feared him, and most importantly respected him. He was a legendary coxswain at Penn who raced and won with the rowing giants of his day. We started to practice, went to the tanks, worked out on the ergs and in the weight room. Aside from the training, crew had its own social structure. At Columbia, I was a blue collar immigrant’s kid in a silver spoon world, and the rowing team magnified that. As a walk on, I didn’t have much in common with the Andover, Exeter, and Kent School recruits. But in those first few months, I did realize that I came to practice with some advantages that money, family and rowing experience just couldn’t buy. I had an intensity and ferocity and work ethic that could run laps around my own teammates and competitors. When the Fall head races came, I was in the 3rd freshman boat. We raced in a V-shaped, wooden-hulled King 8+ and used wooden oars. So Classic! It was heavy, but set up great in the wind, and one of our first races was the Princeton Chase. We raced into a cold headwind on a bright fall day. The midafternoon race made the leaves that were changing color seem even more bright and vibrant than usual. The locale and scene was almost Gatsby-esque. I left Princeton realizing that I loved to pull hard and race! Winter training came, then early spring on the Harlem River, then Spring Break. While every other college student seemed to go to Fort Lauderdale for the beach, we punished ourselves by rowing double workouts on the water. It was during Spring training week that we began seat racing. Up until then, we rowed as a crew, but now it was “mano-a-mano” in 4+’s. This is probably when I really knew that I loved rowing. Rowing was pure sport. Rowing was the ultimate gentleman’s meritocracy. If you trained harder, pulled harder, and could absorb more pain than anyone else, then you could win. Some rowers get nervous about seat racing. It exposes you. I relished it. I loved it. I won every seat race my freshman year and ended up in the 4-seat of the 1st freshman boat. Over the next four years, I had lost only one seat race, and it was in my senior year to an upstart sophomore. His name was Tom Auth, who went on to become a highly decorated two-time Olympian. I guess if I had to lose to someone, he was a worthy opponent. But in 1988, he was a sophomore walk-on in his first year of rowing and probably wasn’t so different than I in 1984.
The Underdog, The Outsider, The Samurai
In June 1985, an article in Ultrasport came out about Brad Lewis featuring him on the cover. It detailed his rowing life as the outsider, the underdog, the avenger. I was enamored. This was me. Brad Lewis and I were rowing “brothers,” cut from the same mold. He became my rowing idol, and I modeled a lot of what I did on his philosophy. He talked about being the Samurai – a warrior on the water. I loved it. He metaphorically took on the Eastern rowing establishment to set his own course. At this time, Okie was training us for the IRA Championships. We had a .500 record and made the Petite Finals of the Eastern Sprints. The top crews really weren’t worried about us. We went to training camp with an 8+ and two spares. That was it. We put in double and triple workouts. Our crew assumed the moniker “ARC” for Apathetic Rowing Club and even created T-shirts. We didn’t care about the competition. It wasn’t cocky, but more quiet resignation. We didn’t care about anything except rowing as fast as we could. In the repechage race at the IRAs, we were matched up against the number two seed – Brown. The race on Lake Onandaga that day is one of those quintessential rowing moments that stays for life. Our swing was surreal. The boat jumped lively with each stroke and seemed to skim over the water. After 500m, we were a full length up on Brown and open water on the rest of the pack. But we knew Brown was not going to go away. They made a charge and pulled even at 1000m. The second 1000m of the race was a dogfight! One seat up, one seat down, all the way across the lake. We called a sprint with about 10-15 strokes to go, and when we crossed the line, nobody knew who won. As we approached the dock, we saw Okie going bananas. Columbia by 0.4 seconds over Brown! We raced well in the Grand Finals but finished out of the medals by 4 seconds. The Finals seemed anticlimactic. David had taken down Goliath during the race before. The Samurai had struck. Later that year, the EARC coaches awarded us the Russell S Callow Memorial award – an award for the most inspirational performance. The inscription on the award read: “We few, We happy few, We Band of Brothers.”
Life Gets in the Way
A yearning to be on the water has always been somewhat of a siren’s call for me. It was inexplicable. I cannot validate if there is any truth to the saying that seawater flows in some sailors’ blood, but I can tell you that my family has traced its seagoing roots dating to the 14th Century. As I was leaving Columbia, the water continued to call to me and drew me to join the Navy. It was during my initial Navy training that I met my wife, we married, and I spent 9 months at sea by the time our first anniversary arrived. I continued to row through my early 20’s and even took a turn at coaching, but the demands of a Navy career were a heavy burden with overseas deployments and frequent relocations. Soon, my responsibilities also included a growing family. All took a toll on this oarsman, and it seemed that I would hang up my oars for the last time before the age of 25, but I never really felt that I stopped being a rower as the years - and decades - marched on. At 26, I took a career path detour and changed from being a seagoing sailor to training for a career as an orthopaedic surgeon. My life went from busy to busier. Before I could press the pause button, a 26-year Naval career passed, as well as four grown children, who are now young adults. In my medical profession, my life saw all the stages of surgical training, from being a student through to being the professor of surgery.
Although I hadn’t touched an oar in decades, rowing was packed away in the closet of my soul, not far from my real closet that held my Boathouse Stevenson jackets, varsity sweater, and the rowing shirts I had won in college. My wife begged me to part with them, but I was not swayed. By my early 50’s, I had the vicarious joy of watching my younger son Alex row at FIT. Watching him race brought me back to the days of sport that I loved. Back in the 1980’s, regattas were not live streamed, but in the 2010’s, I was able to watch my son row all of his races, whether I was overseas or not. My last Navy duty station was in Spain, and I remember getting up in the middle of the night to livestream his races. It was a great pleasure. But time continued to march and soon enough, his college career in rowing came to an end. In 2016, while watching the Head of the Charles livestream with Alex, he turned to me and said: “ You know Dad, the Head of the Charles has a father-son race… wouldn’t it be cool if we did that?” This was two years ago. Those words were like turning the ignition on a 750HP muscle car. I turned back to him and said that I would do it, but with the only condition being that we both seriously commit to train for the race. He agreed. NeuBayern Rowing was born that day, and Boathouse Sports was with us on this journey. The next 12 months were a blur of ergs, weight training, dieting and an entire summer of weekends sleeping on my son’s couch, so we could train out of his college boathouse, which was two hours from my home. Moreover, we actually made an entire season of head racing out of it. We assembled boats, ergs, oars, and uniforms. Boathouse Sports was there every step of the way and was integral in developing our logo and our unis.
Alex was a strong force in getting me back to the sport I loved, after not strapping into a shell for 25 years. The 2017 Head of the Charles was a blast rowing down the course with my son. Our unis were a big hit both at the Charles and the Hooch. Since last Fall, I have been rowing my single scull on the Masters circuit and proudly wearing my blue and white checkered uni from Boathouse Sports. I sported it at the World Masters Regatta in September. Alex and I raced again this year at the Head of the Charles. We had better speed in our practices compared to last year, and we were hoping to better our time and maybe even a top 10 finish. It was not to be. For those of you who raced Sunday afternoon on the Charles, you understand. The rowing gods sent us 25 mph headwinds with 35 mph gusts. The bridge underpasses were wind tunnels. There were whitecaps in the Basin. There were no course records on Sunday. At points, the cruel wind checked our recovery and held the blades hostage in the air. Our backs strained under immense load. Our fingers went numb with the windchill. Lesser mortals huddled for warmth on shore. The race was so long, so there was plenty of time to think. As we passed under Weeks Bridge, through the numbing pain, I reflected that this was my 52nd birthday and I chose this special punishment. I entered into a dream state imagining we were our Viking forefathers rowing across the North Sea. It is through pain and struggle that we find our validation. God!, I love rowing.
Thank you Boathouse Sports!... Official Outfitter of NeuBayern Racing. (for the skullcap that kept me warm at HOCR54)
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