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The Dark Horse

BY COLLEEN SAVILLE
PHOTO BY ERIC CATALANO

*This feature was originally published in the March 2019 issue of Rowing News.

If you were to create a blueprint for a boathouse, what would it look like? Not the architectural structure or foundation, though surely that’s part of it, but its energy, culture, and mission; its heartbeat. How would you best leverage all of the resources available to you, including your own intellect? Would your boathouse prioritize the development of masters or elite rowing? Athletes or coaches? Community or the individual? If you were to ask Eric Catalano, executive director of Saratoga Rowing Association (SRA) in Saratoga Springs, N.Y, who founded SRA’s elite training center ARION roughly three years ago, about his blueprint, he would’ve told you without hesitation, “I want all of it, and yes, it’s possible.” And he’d be right. 

Named after the swift immortal horse sired by Poseidon and known for his insatiable eagerness to run, ARION (uh-rye-un) also stands for the Advanced Rowing Initiative of the Northeast. Founded in Spring 2016, ARION has already captured consecutive gold medals in the women’s championship double at Head of the Charles, won the senior double and champ eight at the 2018 Canadian Henley, and sent five athletes to Plovdiv, Bulgaria, to represent the U.S. at the 2018 senior worlds—three in the women’s quad and two in the light men’s quad. Yes, 2018 was a busy year for ARION, but the SRA junior and under-23 squads were working just as hard. In fact, last summer marked the first time Saratoga had athletes competing at all three world championships—junior, senior, and under-23. Catalano’s blueprint, you see, was designed to work that way. 

Catalano, affectionately known as “Cat,” started rowing at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., as a way to stay in shape for baseball during the off-season. “Once I started rowing, I was never the biggest or the strongest,” he explains, “but I thought, ‘If I’m going to excel in my little area it’s going to be because I’m technically sound and thoughtful about what I’m doing. And because I take advantage of developing myself.’ That led me to asking my coach, Jim Crick, a lot of questions,” he laughs. “I was probably in his ear way too much, but I think he realized I had a true passion for the sport and for learning about it.” In 1993, Catalano’s sophomore year of college, Crick decided to start a high school rowing program in upstate New York called Burnt Hills Rowing (formerly Erie Canal Athletic Club). “He [Crick] said, ‘If you help coach I’ll let you come on spring break for free.’ And that was it, that was the beginning. I started coaching there as a college sophomore one year into my own rowing career. And I just fell in love with it.” 

After graduation and a short stint as a teacher and coach at Brewster Academy in New Hampshire, Catalano returned to New York to find his position at Burnt Hills had been filled. Luckily for him, however, SRA was just getting started. “I ran into Chris Chase (current SRA regatta director and freshman boys coach) in the spring of 1998 and he said, ‘Hey, you want to coach the guys at Saratoga Rowing?’ And so I joined the staff of this brand-new team.”

Today, the Saratoga juniors—girls and boys—are among the top junior programs in the country. But it wasn’t always that way. “We were in Schoenbrods with duct tape and rowing out of backyards,” Catalano recalls. “I remember Chase was a teacher at the time and we both were barely getting paid, yet we were spending all of our money on launch engines so we could practice. Everyone was excited about this new grassroots team. We originally called ourselves ‘Dark Horse Rowing.’ It was a play on Saratoga’s horse theme, but it was also an underdog theme. We were rowing these boats covered with duct tape that we got for free because we had dug them out of the snow bank.”

The Saratoga juniors, particularly the girls whom Catalano coached, began seeing A-level final success in the early 2000s followed by several gold-medal podium appearances at scholastic and club national championships soon after. But in 2004, Catalano left at the height of the program’s success to pursue an opportunity as assistant coach of the lightweight women at Radcliffe.

“I went to Radcliffe for professional development,” he explains. “I felt like I wanted to grow and it was tough in the Upstate New York area to do that. There wasn’t a lot going on nearby and at the time we were among the strongest teams. It was hard for me to see an avenue to continue growing. So I made the move to Radcliffe.” To Chase and all of SRA’s delight, Catalano returned to Saratoga in 2007, just three years after his departure. Asked why, he explains something that surely all high school coaches can understand. “As a high school coach, we have almost three hours per day with these kids. The impact that you can have on them is truly profound. I absolutely loved coaching at Radcliffe, but I missed some of the smaller moments. With high school athletes, sometimes it’s just helping the kids learn confidence. There’s a lot of little but significant life lessons that you can teach them during this formative stage of their lives.”

When Catalano returned to Saratoga he knew that he didn’t want to end up in the situation he found himself in back in 2004. “Previously, I had wanted to stretch myself more and felt the need to leave to do it. I love Saratoga, and I want to be here. In order to fulfill that I knew that I needed to build my own professional development system.” Further, Catalano explains, he recognized that Saratoga was facing a real coaching challenge. With a big team, the number of coaches required to grow it effectively was high, and realistically SRA could not get people to move to Saratoga to coach for only a couple of hours per day. From both these needs ARION was born. “It was a program that would bring elite athletes here who could help coach our middle school and varsity programs while training at the highest level themselves. By bringing them in we’re solving that need, but importantly, we are also teaching them to become coaches themselves.”

“Additionally,” he continues, “in our mission statement we commit to making Saratoga a premiere rowing destination, and the piece we were missing was the high-level. It was going to be hard to compete as a premiere rowing destination with Boston and Philly if we didn’t have this elite piece. We filled a professional development need; our coaching need, and our mission statement need. This program was a little flash of insight that would solve a lot of issues in one shot.”

As part of an elite program, ARION athletes spend the majority of their time training. However, they are also required to contribute to the SRA community by dedicating 15 hours per week to coaching. Coaching duties range from summer Learn to Row programs, to coaching more consistent groups of middle schoolers, freshman, and varsity athletes. If they wish to coach more than 15 hours per week, additional approval is required. As Kara Soucek, ARION athlete and two-time senior national team member (2017-18) puts it, “ARION is really for us to focus on our training, so they try to limit the amount that we’re working.” 

Catalano explains that he made it a priority to remove as many other life stressors as possible, knowing that if these elite athletes were to achieve and pursue as intensely as he wanted them to, he needed to ensure they could focus on only the most important things. By providing training, housing, and some food and travel assistance in exchange for coaching and regatta management, ARION athletes are free of most major expenses and able to focus their energies on the training time necessary to achieve international success.

“There’s a lot of routine and monotony that goes into elite rowing,” Catalano describes, “and there’s a lot of stress when you’ve committed your life to this goal. I think every day when they show up and they see the middle and high school kids laughing and having a great time, they are reminded of the inherent fun in what they’re doing. It’s this daily, welcome reminder that there’s a passion they have that goes deeper. And for juniors, I fully believe that being able to see where you want to go is a very powerful thing.”

Catalano has also put a greater emphasis over the past year on coaching education and professional development, appointing long-time SRA coach Manny Valentin as coach education director. “We take their development as coaches very seriously,” Catalano notes. 

Perhaps one of the most magical things about ARION is that by design, with the right pieces in place, its ecosystem self-sustains. Eric Gehrke, Catalano’s assistant coach for ARION and as of last fall, the SRA varsity girls’ head coach, describes SRA as “the preeminent definition of a lifecycle club” for this very reason. “How crazy is it that my 4V is being coached by someone who’s been to world championships the last two years?” he asks. “Those girls couldn’t be asking for a better person to be out on the water with them, and I don’t think you can find that in a lot of places. It’s a nice touch that many of the other elite programs don’t necessarily present, being way more involved in the community, and being way more involved in the growth cycle of other athletes. Once everyone is in the boathouse interacting, so much becomes effortless.”

Like Catalano, Gehrke is no stranger to humble beginnings, having built up Nashville Rowing in Nashville, Tenn., in late 2013. From there, Gehrke assumed the role of assistant coach at the University of Southern California, and was ready to stay in the collegiate circuit until he heard from Catalano mid-2018. 

“When I was leaving college coaching, I wasn’t thinking about coming to Saratoga at all,” Gehrke recalls. “Catalano shot me a text and said, ‘If you’re interested, come up to Saratoga and let’s sit down’ and honestly, I hadn’t even thought about going anywhere except to another college team. The weekend I visited was during selection camp in the summer and it was incredible. It wasn’t even like an interview, he just had me work with him for the weekend. It was basically like, ‘Follow Catalano around for 36 hours’ and I left and thought, ‘I want to be in Saratoga and coach with him.’”

Gehrke notes that while the coaching opportunity was new, Chase and Catalano certainly weren’t strangers. When starting Nashville Rowing he would often call the SRA founders to ask for advice. “Chase has never been a closed door. I could always call Chase and ask him questions and he’d either give me the answer or say, ‘You need to talk to Cat.’ I think in the grander scheme, as humble as he might be about it, a lot of people know Cat. He might not say it or think it, but he’s on the front end of some exciting rigging adaptations that are happening. He’s on the front end in creating a program like ARION that bridges several different Venn diagrams into one. For someone like me who was just getting started, I didn’t want to look at people who were making mistakes. I wanted to look at people who were implementing best practices. Catalano and Chase were implementing best practices.” 

When asked about the inherent differences between training in Saratoga versus a bigger city like Boston or Philadelphia, Gehrke is quick to point out that this distinction is one of the program’s draws. “You really test the seriousness of someone’s interest in asking them to move to a place where their sole focus is training and pursuing their dream. We’re close enough to Boston and the like that when the athletes need or want some time they can take it, but we’re asking them to prove that this goal is the number one thing.”  

Gehrke continues, “I think this program has taken on the personality of the man who runs it. Catalano himself is a singularly focused person who just pursues a goal like a metronome; he will not stop ticking along until he gets it. I think that’s incredible. That’s the first test of getting here. Are you interested in being in Saratoga? Are you interested in the lifestyle required of singularly focusing on that path? Coming here and being a part of it is a big test in and of itself.” 

Kristi Wagner, current ARION athlete and Olympic hopeful recalls meeting Catalano in 2009 when she joined his RowRideRace program, a special training group that raced together at Canadian Henley and rode their bicycles to St. Catharine’s to get there. “I had always kept in touch with Cat,” she says. “When Catalano started ARION in 2016 I just came.” When asked what brought her back, Wagner pauses, and says, “I feel like Cat will never say no to anyone’s ambition or dream. I think I say things to him and his immediate response is always, ‘Alright, let’s make action steps and do this.’ He never questions anything. And not just for me, for everyone. If you’re going to put in the work, he’ll work with you, which is an incredible characteristic. But I also think he takes whatever your strengths are, whatever makes you great and unique and tries to build on it. He doesn’t try to make us all the same.” 

ARION has seen success quickly, but in some ways, they are just getting started. Like so many teams around the world, making a push for 2020 will be front and center for the foreseeable future. When asked what’s next, Gehrke points out that ARION (as Chase would describe it) was born out of Catalano’s need for further professional development, and that need will continue to serve them. “Coaching junior girls and running the boathouse was not pushing him to his growth limits. In starting ARION he was searching out his own professional development at a higher level. If we follow that trend I think for both the athletes and Cat, the next steps would be pursuing the highest levels of rowing. Not just making world championships, but challenging to be in boats at the Olympics.” He laughs, “If Catalano was a program developer, he’d always be working on open source. He wouldn’t be working for Apple, he’d be working for Google. He doesn’t just want to create ARION, he wants to create a blueprint for anyone to follow in those footsteps. Saratoga has always been open source. Catalano and Chase have always been willing to share.” 

Gehrke’s assessment seems to be spot on. When asked the same question, Catalano thoughtfully replies, “NCAA and collegiate rowing became one of the largest development systems for women’s rowing in the world. I hope that ARION can expand on that system to develop athletes for the sculling boats—and along the way produces the next generation of coaches, for those whose passion for the sport continues beyond retirement. Why not think big? ARION looks to impact the trajectory of not only the individual athletes but the trajectory of the country and the sport.” At this rate, that looks within reach.  

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