BY ANDY ANDERSON
PHOTO BY PETER SPURRIER
At the end of October, John Chatzky, a University of Pennsylvania and U.S. team coxswain, sent out a request to the rowing world for stories about Ted Nash to be used to celebrate the legendary coach’s birthday. Emails poured in from all over the world, and Doctor Rowing thought that some of them should be shared with the wider rowing world.
If you don’t know Nash, you’ve missed one of the most original personalities in rowing. Nash is larger than life; if all of the stories about him are true, he, not Clark Kent, may be Superman’s alter ego. Some of them have the ring of tall tales, but to some extent their veracity is beside the point. Nash’s oarsmen believed in him and believed that with him as their coach, whether at Penn or on the U.S. team, they could achieve incredible things.
I first met Ted at the world championships in 1985 when I got off the elevator in the hotel a floor too soon and walked into what was obviously Mission Control for the boats Ted was coaching–the pair and coxed pair. There were large newsprint tablets taped to hotel doors outlining each boat’s race plan and what was known about their competitors. The rest of the team dubbed the Penn Athletic Center Rowing Association “the PACRA Assault Team.” For Ted, every detail was important; every race was deadly serious.
He has been a member of 11 Olympic teams, as a gold medalist in the coxless four in 1960, bronze in the coxless four in 1964, and a coach in nine more. He’s never been the head coach; instead, he works with rowers who had been cut from boats in the camp-selection system and polishes them into finely tuned crews. His loyalty and dedication to those who row for him are unparalleled. It’s no wonder that he is beloved. Here is a sample of a few of the great Ted Nash stories.
In 2004, in the final stages of training for the Athens Olympics, the men’s eight was in Plovdiv, Bulgaria. They had been trying out several different fins on their Hudson shell, and Pete Cipollone, the coxswain, had finally found the perfect one. Dan Beery, the six man remembers:
“On the course at Plovdiv, there was a cable that ran under the water as the boats approach the finish-line area. At the end of a piece, as we were approaching the finish line, we heard the fin go, and I believe that Pete knew it was gone, checked, and confirmed it was gone, and alerted Coach Mike Teti, who was on his bike and who, when he realized the fin was gone, was not happy. (His head was about to explode.) Ted was following along behind and was watching where Pete was pointing in the water. He jumped off his bike, ran to the side of the water, and immediately dove in. I was watching Teti, and the body language was priceless. Ted disappeared under the water and a few seconds later he popped up out of the water holding the fin in his teeth.” Ted saved the day and the boat won the gold medal.
Kevin Breslin, a Penn oarsman, tells of Ted’s matter-of-fact ingenuity:
“Andy Post and I were in a straight pair on a freezing cold February afternoon. It was so cold that the frigid weather caused the starboard oarlock (made of plastic in those days) to crack and break. The oar (mine) pops out, the boat flips, and we get dunked. When we finally get back to the boathouse, Ted tells me, ‘Breslin, the next time that happens, you want to take the shoelaces out of the stretcher and tie the oar into the rigger and proceed that way. Sound advice for a July day, no doubt.”
John Riley, a PACRA oarsman of whom Ted said “his blood is blue and yellow” (the club colors), also remembers Nash as a paragon of resourcefulness.
“Ted’s use of sharpies, legal pads, duct and black tape, Bondo, and spray paint is unprecedented. ‘Three wraps of black equals one degree of pitch,’ for example. Don’t forget ‘long-chain polymer’ car wax. Anything to get an edge. He was a father of invention.”
In 1986, Nash coached the coxless four to a gold medal at the world championships. “At Worlds, he sat down with Helmut Empacher and had a long discussion about a new coxless four. We came over, and Ted told us how he was getting a new coxless four, and it would be reinforced in the bow. He told us, ‘Next year, I’m going to cut a hole in the deck and make it a coxed four.’ We thought he was joking.
“The next summer, we came down to the boathouse, and there was Ted, hacksaw in hand, ripping a huge hole in the deck of our new coxless four, just bow-ward of the wash box. What came next changed our view of Ted forever. The doorbell at PAC rang, and there stood a woman who had to turn around and climb down backward each of the two stairs of the old bay. Ted quickly announced, ‘Guys, this is Carla, your new coxswain.’ Our jaws hit the floor. Carla wasn’t three feet tall!
“In the ’87 U.S. national-championship coxed-four final, we were in lane six. With 500 meters to go, the course was a tailwind mess. Soap bubbles were whipping past us as we went through our final sprinting gears. Espe [Robert Espeseth] had the toe (Carla didn’t have any steering equipment), and Carla thought blowing bubbles would be a nice touch. Surreal! We were drifting into lane seven, and Carla was shouting, ‘BIG!…RED!…BIG RED BALL!’ All this at 40 strokes per minute in a tight finish. We hit the giant red ball marking the finish line.”
Bruce Ibbetson, the stroke of the U.S. men’s eight plus in 1980 and 1984, trained under Ted in 1978 in a pair with future Olympian Sèan Colgan. He recalls:
“Ted made it possible to do things your body said you could not do. He trained us, seemingly every day, to push beyond each of our breaking points. I remember countless workouts where Ted, the master of handicapping boats, could line up anything that floated, provide some incalculable leads, and the win would come down to the last few strokes. When our eight trailed a fast Vesper boat in the final stages at the Independence Day Regatta that summer, there was no doubt that we would go through them! Ted programmed us to win. He is, without a doubt, the most competitive person I have ever met.”
Eight years ago, when Ted turned 80, Chatzky organized a surprise birthday party for Nash that attracted 280 people.
“The man is absolutely beloved,” Chatz says. “There wasn’t a person there who didn’t love him, hadn’t been influenced by him, or whose life wasn’t better for having known him. He is magical and unique, and all whose paths had crossed with his were lucky indeed.”