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Rowing Biographies I’d Like to Read (or Write)

BY ANDY ANDERSON
PHOTO BY
PETER SPURRIER

The October 27 New York Times Book Review leads with Red Comet, a biography of the brilliant poet Sylvia Plath. It catches my eye because it is written by an old advisee and rower of mine, Heather Clark. I like reading biographies. A good one gives us insight into a person’s particular genius, recounts great anecdotes, and inspires us to reach for a higher bar in our own meager lives. Last year, I read and reviewed biographies of Thor Nilsen, Jurgen Grobler, and Harry Parker, all great rowing coaches. How many deserving subjects for biographies are still out there waiting to be captured in print? My late editor here at Rowing News once told me, “The writing is the easy part; the hard part is all the reporting and interviewing.” I don’t know that I completely agree with that, but gathering the material is certainly the most time-consuming. And fun, if you allow yourself enough time to do it.

So, here’s a list of deserving people for rowing biographies. I hope that someone with the time will step forward to write them. In another life, I’d be tempted to write these myself.

Joe Burk: The great Philadelphia sculler rowed his own unique stroke–short, upright, and at ratings in the 40s when all his competitors were locked in the long and low style that had dominated rowing since the sliding seat was introduced. The zenith of Burk’s career was 1938, when he won the Diamond Sculls at Henley in a time of 8:02, shaving 8 seconds off the course record that had stood for 33 years. That record would stand until 1965, when another American, Don Spero, went 7:42. Burk coached at the University of Pennsylvania, where his strong crews never quite reached the peak of collegiate rowing. Was he too fine a person? Too much a gentleman? Not aggressive enough of a coach? I asked him why he didn’t have his own Penn crews try to row the way he had. Modestly, he said, “I didn’t think that it was a way of rowing that would work for many other people. It had taken me so many hours to learn to row at high rates efficiently. I didn’t think that college boys could do that.” Doctor and Mrs. Doctor Rowing spent three days with Joe and his wife, Kay, at his retreat in Montana, and although I learned a lot, there is a lot more to be explored about his sculling and coaching.

Kris Korzeniowski: Before “Korzo” arrived on the scene, most American crews seemed to emphasize the catch at the expense of the rest of the stroke. He caught us up to what the rest of the world was doing with technique and introduced new training principles. One of the most influential coaches in U.S. rowing, he is completely unselfish about sharing his knowledge with other coaches. Coaching education is a passion for him, and the list of current coaches who have learned by attaching themselves, remora-like, to Korzo’s launch is a big one. There’s also no one funnier or more outrageous. “All this positive reinforcement you Americans live by. Look at what some negative reinforcement can do,” he once said, after telling someone “You row like $#*!” and then seeing immediate improvement.

Madame X: Here’s a shocking piece of national-team coach trivia: No woman has ever been the head coach of the USA women. When this finally comes to pass, who will it be?

Steve Gladstone: Who else has taken three different men’s varsity programs to the top? Gladstone’s six IRA crowns at California, five at Brown, and three at Yale–for a total of 14 national championships–is unparalleled. His recruiting of foreign athletes has changed collegiate rowing in the States. A recruited football player at Syracuse, he turned to rowing and has left nearly everyone else in his wake.

Pertti Karppinen: The great Finn, a single sculler with three consecutive Olympic golds, remains a mystery largely because of the barriers of language. His race in the 1984 Olympic finals over his great rival, Peter-Michael Kolbe of West Germany, is the definition of a come-from-behind victory.

Tom Terhaar: Without a lot of fanfare, Terhaar has led the USA women to Olympic and world-championship dominance. A national-team coach since 2001, he coached his women’s eight to 11 consecutive world or Olympic championships from 2006 to 2016, including three Olympic gold medals. He’s still coaching and still young, so there remain many chapters to be written, but some aspiring writer should latch on to his coaching launch.

The Olympic silver-medalist U.S. women single scullers: There have now been five of them: Joan Lind, Carlie Geer, Anne Marden, Michelle Guerette, and our current silver medalist, Gevvie Stone. The pressures of being all alone in a boat are not exaggerated. How did these extraordinary athletes rise to such heights and, with the exception of Stone, decide not to pursue another four years solo?

Caryn Davies: In contrast to her sculling sisters, Davies was able to stay at the top of the sweep rowing scene from 2002 to 2012, earning two Olympic gold medals and four Worlds golds. In 2015, she stroked the first Oxford women’s boat to race the full Tideway course to victory. In 2019, at age 37, she won the open division of the CRASH-B’s. How has she been able to do it for so many years?

Andy Sudduth: He burst onto the international racing scene as a 19-year-old, making the coxed four for the 1981 world championships, then rowing in the silver medal eight in Los Angeles. In 1985, his first year representing the USA in the single, he was within a hundred meters of winning and beating Karppinen, when he hit some bad water and ended up silver. His rise was meteoric; his time at the top too brief. At the 1988 Olympics, he finished sixth. The next year he was out of rowing. What drove this phenom?

The Dreissigackers: Who has changed the face of rowing more than these engineers? Like Henry Ford, they didn’t invent the machine that propelled them to great heights–there had been earlier rowing machines–but they perfected it for the masses.

We are just scratching the surface here. There are so many fascinating people with fascinating stories in our sport. Are you retired or about to be? Think about writing a biography.

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