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The Myth and the Man

* Editors Note: This profile was originally published in the January issue of Rowing News.

BY ANDY ANDERSON
PHOTOS PROVIDED BY WILLIAM STEKL AND PHIL STEKL

Most people have heard stories about Ted Nash before they’ve ever met him.

He dove into the Schuylkill to rescue someone trapped in a sinking car. He hit a buoy in the Rome Olympics, broke his wooden blade, and won the race rowing with half a blade. When a port man in his coxless four got so sick that he was unable to row, Ted switched from starboard to port so that the best spare could row in the boat. Ted was on call for Special Ops and might need to depart from training sites at any moment if his “Zulu number” was called. There are hundreds of Ted Nash stories.

Ted A. Nash is a mythic figure. Tall and strong, he is handsome like Gary Cooper or Gregory Peck; he cuts a figure that says “American.” He never screams or shouts or swears. When he speaks in his deep rich voice, you listen. He’s been to 11 Olympic Games, two as a competitor and nine as a coach.

He’s energetic, enthusiastic, and far from standoffish. He talks to everyone. He wants to be involved and help everyone. He wants everyone to be their best version of themselves. He’s not “Mr. Nash” or “Coach Nash. He’s “Ted”–to everyone.

 Unfortunately, Ted, who is 88 and battling health issues, was not able to speak with me for this article. His wife, Jan, however, was very helpful in posing my questions to him, and legions of oarsmen who rowed for Ted contributed their stories.

The Athlete

Ted was born in 1932 in Melrose, Mass., a suburb of Boston. His family moved to California, where he was a fine athlete in high school. A neighbor taught him to scull, and he would take a fishing pole out with him on the water. He entered Boston University and rowed. He doesn’t talk much about those years, which contributes to the mystery of his past. He was in the class of ’55 at BU but seems to have been there for only two years before leaving to join the Army. While in the military, he was first posted to Detroit and rowed for the Detroit Boat Club and then was transferred to Fort Lewis, Wash. Stan Pocock invited him to join the Lake Washington Rowing Club in Seattle to train for the 1959 Pan American Games in Chicago.

Lake Washington focused on small boats and sent a coxless four, coxed four, and the coxless pair to Chicago. In the coxless four, Ted rowed two-seat with two veteran oarsmen in front of him in the stern pair: John Sayre, University of Washington stroke in ’58, and Rusty Wailes from the 1956 Yale Olympic gold-medal eight. The bow seat was filled by a newcomer like Ted, Jay Hall. All LWRC boats won gold medals, as did the other USA boats: the single (Harry Parker), the double (Bill Knecht and Jack Kelly Jr.), and the eight. 

The Rome Olympics 1960

Returning to Seattle, Ted trained under Stan Pocock for the next year. The stern three added Dan Ayrault in bow, a 1956 gold medalist in the 2+ who in 1959 hadn’t been in racing shape. They won the Olympic Trials and headed to Rome for the Olympic Games.

The regatta was held at Lake Albano, a lovely lake in the caldera of an ancient volcano that is the site of Castel Gandolfo, the summer residence of the Pope. The American coxless four was flying, having posted impressive times before leaving for Italy. In their heat, they battled Great Britain for the first thousand meters, both crews trailing a fast-starting Hungary. Just past the thousand, Ted hit a buoy on the starboard side and split his wooden blade lengthwise. After the mishap, he rowed the race out with half a blade. Unfazed, both the British and the Americans passed the fading Hungarians. At the finish line, the USA was half a second behind the Brits. With less resistance because his blade was not intact, Ted was ripping through the water so quickly that he damaged the muscles in his arm. A Seattle journalist wrote that it was “blown up like a balloon.”

They won their repêchage the next day, breaking the Olympic record by 3.5 seconds, a record that Great Britain had set in the heat. In the finals, they were slow off the line and were sixth after the first 500. In those days, putting everything into your starting 500 was the rule. But while the rest of the field slowed considerably in the second 500 (silver medalist Italy was seven seconds slower than its first 500), the USA was only 1.2 seconds off their first 500. This pattern continued down the course, and in the third 500, the USA moved ahead of the Russians, who had led at 1,000. Italy held on to the stern of the USA, but at the finish line, after a furious sprint at 40, the men from Lake Washington were 2.5 seconds ahead. It was the USA’s first Olympic victory in the coxless four since 1904, and remains the only one.

Ted is a natural storyteller. and a couple of stories came out of the Rome Olympics that illustrate his talent for spinning a yarn and getting so excited that he may cross from fact to fiction. The way Ted told it, his four was still open-water behind Italy with 40 strokes to go. With 11 strokes to go, they pulled even and ended up winning by open water.

 The splits show they were never behind Italy after the first 500, but no doubt it felt so fast that Ted’s exaggeration can be forgiven. We all know that feeling of moving so fast that it’s inconceivable that anyone could stay within a length.

That’s the thing about many of Ted’s stories:  It doesn’t matter if they are literally true. They feel true. For years, Ted talked about how on the awards dock, the Pope came down to greet the victors and said, “You have brought great honor to your country and to ours.” But none of his teammates or Coach Stan Pocock saw the Pope. Years later, Ted admitted that he had been swept up in a moment of fantasy. Of course he had seen the Pope–in his mind.

The Tokyo Olympics 1964

After their gold medal, his teammates retired, but Ted kept training for another four years. An Army lieutenant, he taught aspiring pilots to fly and made frequent trips overseas on training missions. These trips became the inspiration for some of the Green Beret/jungle warfare/black ops tales that many people have heard. Questioned about them, he usually changes the subject, but in an interview with Peter Mallory for The Sport of Rowing, Ted said, “I was never in black ops or in combat in Korea. I enjoyed the Army but was not often in jeopardy anywhere. I was an instructor pilot and also taught aerobatics as an escape tactic, plus anti-guerilla warfare tactics.”

Yet Ted’s legend is such that his oarsmen will swear that he is just being modest. To experience a Ted Nash race day and its meticulous planning is to be convinced he must have been the man who planned the moon landing or mapped out strategy for Operation Desert Storm.

As an Olympic veteran, Ted took charge of recruiting boatmates tough enough to join him in 1964’s Lake Washington coxless four. The club had planned to enter an eight in the Olympic trials, but after months of workouts, Stan Pocock decided that the eight was not working, and he decreed that the club would concentrate on small boats. Pocock let the oarsmen take the lead in choosing combinations, and Ted stepped forward eagerly to select the men for the straight four. After 17 different combinations were tried, Ted settled on a lineup of himself at stroke, Phil Durbrow at three, Dick Lyon at two, and Theo Mittet, bow. There was excitement because in practice they turned in splits faster than 1960’s crew. They won the trials convincingly and prepared for the October Olympics.

In the opening heat, they had opened a solid lead over the field when Durbrow coughed up blood. On the verge of passing out, he stopped rowing. The other crews shot past them until he cried out that he could row again, and he gave it his best, finishing the race in fifth place. But in the boathouse, he collapsed and was rushed to the hospital. He had a serious infection in his lungs and was forbidden from rowing again. They turned to their port spare, Geoff Picard, who had stroked the Harvard eight throughout the spring and at the Olympic trials. Now, he had to jump into a boat in which he had never rowed and whose style was different from his own. (Lake Washington rowed with quick hands away from the finish and a slowing of the slide as they approached the catch. Harvard had slow hands at the finish and steady slides.) With only a couple of times to row with his new boatmates, Picard slid into Durbrow’s three-seat.

They won their repêchage and moved into the finals, where the feeling was that they’d be lucky to win any type of medal. In the finals, there would be no magic second 1,000 as there had been in Rome. The crew fought hard to work its way through the field and into second place behind winning Denmark, only to have Great Britain slip by them in the last strokes. After their difficulties, they were happy to win a bronze medal.

 There’s another version of the story, however, and it’s one of the most repeated Ted Nash legends:

The port spare was not up to the task of joining a medal-contending crew, and so Ted switched to port, a side he had never rowed seriously, and re-rigged the boat so he could replace the ill three man.

That never happened, truth compels us to report.  Crew members were effusive in their praise of Picard, who joined the boat and handled a very tough assignment.

Why are there so many Ted Nash-as-superhero stories, and why do they endure, told with relish by generations of rowers? Because they’re often true, and when they aren’t, they should be. With near-disaster looming, of course Ted would have saved the situation.

 “The thing about these Ted superhero stories,” an oarsman who knows him well told me, “is that you think: ‘If anyone could do it, Ted could.’ You want to believe it happened because from what we saw on a frequent basis, Ted could do anything.”

University of Pennsylvania Coach

After Tokyo, Ted accepted a job coaching the freshmen at Penn, as an assistant to Joe Burk, the single sculler who had set a course record at Henley in 1938, a record that stood for 27 years. Burk had coached some good crews at Penn in the 1950s, but the Penn program had fallen on hard times, with the varsity failing to qualify for petite finals at the Eastern Sprints in 1964. Ted’s energy and enthusiasm quickly made a difference. He recruited tirelessly, flooding prospects with mail and brochures. He set up shells on the freshman quadrangle and talked to anyone who showed the slightest interest in looking at the boats. He put a mark on the door at registration to sort out who was tall. “Ted’s freshmen looked like they could all do a hundred pull-ups and run a four-minute mile,” one rival coach recalled. And fresh from his own athletic career, he showed them how to work hard.

Mike Beck, Penn ’77, a perennial JV oarsman remembers looking at Ted when he was recruiting him from Father Judge High School and thinking, “If he thinks I can row at Penn, then I guess I can.”

“The confidence he had that I was tougher than I thought meant the world to me,” Beck said. “As an athlete, I rose to his expectations. Ted either made you better or drove you away. He never wanted to hear any excuses; he just wanted my best.”

Penn won the freshmen race at the IRA four years running and in 1967 won the varsity event for the first time since 1900. In 1968, a varsity squad loaded with oarsmen Ted had coached was beaten in the Olympic Trials race by Harvard by half of a second. It is one of the greatest races ever rowed between two colleges.

In 1969, Joe Burk’s final season at Penn, they beat Harvard and Navy in the Adams Cup for the first time since 1963. Riding on his success in molding freshmen winners, Ted moved into the head coach’s office and continued to build the program. In 1970, Penn won the Adams Cup again, defeating the coach who would be his main collegiate rival, Harry Parker at Harvard.

Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, Penn was a crew to be reckoned with, but what his oarsmen remember more than the great races and shirts won is their personal connection with Ted.

“As far as we all know, in addition to his success in club rowing and many Olympics, Ted was in the Army, Air Force, Secret Service, Special Forces, Space Force, parachuted, did undersea demolitions, landed fighter jets on carriers, and jumped off the Strawberry Mansion Bridge to save someone’s life,” said Gardner Cadwalader, who rowed on the ’68 crew.

“The stories are numerous, grand, and characterize the tempered steel of a man who was selfless, generous, thoughtful, and who influenced our lives.”

Although he devoted most of his career to working with men, Ted was interested in seeing women, too, have great experiences in rowing. In 1965, he helped found the National Women’s Rowing Association and he would gladly help any woman on the Schuylkill who wanted it. In 1997, he coached Sarah Garner, a woman who had dropped out of rowing while at Penn, to a gold medal at the World Rowing Championships in the lightweight single. 

Penn AC and USA

Ted revived the Pennsylvania Athletic Club Rowing Association and invited oarsmen from all over the country to move to Philadelphia to train. He found them places to live and jobs and for a while divided his time between the club and the University of Pennsylvania before leaving Penn in 1983. He coached crews at nine Olympic regattas. His record of accomplishment as a coach, though, pales beside the way he encouraged, supported, and developed athletes. He is a coach who wanted people to have the best possible experience rowing.

Tom Bohrer rowed for Penn AC for eight years, twice making the Olympic coxless four and twice winning silver medals. Now men’s coach at Boston University, he remembers Ted’s advice when he accepted his first coaching job.

“I asked a lot of coaches and heard what you might expect: advice on training, recruiting, and working with the athletic department. But Ted said: ‘Don’t forget the guys in the third or fourth varsity. Their experience is really important. They can set a good example for the whole program, a push from the bottom.’

“It reminded me of something Ted once said about why he had such a huge squad of guys training at Penn AC. ‘Why not concentrate on the top one or two boats?’ he was asked. ‘All these guys have come here to try to get better, to do their best,’ he replied. ‘If I can help them get one step further, that’s what I want to do.’

“Ted is unequivocal about what great experiences he had in rowing, and he always tried to spread that to as many people as possible.”

Despite his success working with elite athletes at both Penn AC and on the U.S, national team, Ted wasn’t always beloved by USRowing. In the ’80s and ’90’s, there was tension between those who wanted the USA boats chosen through a camp system and those who wanted trials to determine who would represent the USA.

Ted was a firm believer in the trials system. He was very successful working with athletes who had been cut from camps or not invited, and he believed that running open trials was the fairest way to produce fast boats.

Without going into the whole debate, it boiled down to: How do we get the best pool of athletes to select from? If athletes thought they might make the team by staying at home with their club teammates, then the camps, which had proven results in the eights, might not draw the best our country had to offer. There was never any question about Ted’s loyalty to athletes who rowed for him. Time and again, he stood up for someone who trained with him.

 Mike Teti, USRowing’s head coach, was similarly impressed by Ted’s dedication to rowing and rowers.

 “From 2003 to 2008, Ted commuted up to Princeton to help with the national team. It was great having him around because he’s super-passionate and shared his knowledge about so many things.”

The Mythic Ted

For 14 years, Seán Colgan rowed for Ted at Penn and Penn AC.

“There’s no one else with his kind of energy, with his excitement about being at the boathouse every day. He wasn’t a cheerleader. He always had technical advice or he’d be checking foot stretchers to make sure they were set right.

“You know, a lot of the Ted stories are true. Don’t ever bet against a story you hear about him. I was on the water in a pair the day he dove into the river and saved a kid whose car had gone into the water.

“We had just finished a piece, and Ted was talking to us from the shore when a young guy drove a Cadillac onto the grass past the finish line, right near the water’s edge. It had been raining and it was really wet. Ted said to him, ‘Son, if I were you, I’d get out of the car and take a taxi home.’ The kid gunned the engine, the car spun out and went over the bank into the river. Ted dove right in and pulled him out as the car was sinking.

“How tough was he? One winter he took us all out to Valley Forge for a one-hour commando run up and down hills. He was 44; we were 20. He finished fourth.

“Ted was the ultimate macho man, tough as iron. But he never yelled, cursed, or threw his megaphone. If you did something really disappointing, he would tell you to take the boat in for the day. One of his favorite things to say was, ‘Don’t complain to me. I’m happy to get in the boat for you.’

Mike Beck tells this quintessential Ted Nash story:

 “I was stroking the JV as a sophomore, and we were up at Yale. We did a last 10 in our race warmup and all of a sudden, my back went into incredible spasms. I couldn’t bend, I could barely move.

“We called the launch over, and Ted wanted to know what was going on. I explained.

“Ted said, ‘You can’t row?’

“When I said no, he had me get in the launch, and we moved someone up from the 3V. We sat in the launch silently for a long time.

“Finally, he said, ‘You know, this happened to me once. I had a few cracked ribs.’ I thought he was going to make me feel better and tell me it will be all right.

“After a pause, he said, ‘But I kept rowing.’

“Ted brought together a great group of guys, people who were a reflection of him. A positive word from him meant so much. Forty years later, we still get together because he drew us together.”

Colgan has three other classic Ted stories:

“After Ted left Penn in 1983, I hired him as a troubleshooter for a shipping company I ran. One time in Hong Kong, the unloading of a ship full of fertilizer was going very slowly. The dockworkers had to fill up 100-pound bags from a huge pile on the ship, and they were slow. Every day a ship sits at the dock costs $10,000, so you want to unload, reload, and sail.

“Ted flew in, saw how leisurely they were working, and went out and bought T-shirts for everyone, four colors. He divided all the dockworkers into teams, assigned each team a color, and told them there would be a cash prize for the team that filled up the most bags. He blew a whistle, they started working. With his push, they went from 1,000 tons a day to almost 5,000. Competition works.

“We had a contract to ship frozen chicken that was headed for Baghdad during the first Iraq war, and there were complaints that it was spoiled by the time it got to Baghdad. So Ted went over to see what the problem was. The ship was docking in Mersin, a port in Turkey near the border. Ted flew in, rented a car, and went to see what was happening. It’s close to a 24-hour drive. When the truck drivers stopped overnight, they would turn off their trucks to save fuel. And the big containers full of frozen chicken had no refrigeration. Ted bought a cricket bat and would walk through the parking lot banging on the cab of every truck that had shut off its engine. You can imagine how quickly compressors got started up.”

For most of his life, Ted has looked as tough as he is.

“One time, we were driving to a practice and were in a rough part of Philadelphia, and I had to make a phone call,” a friend said. “I saw a phone booth, and Ted saw my hesitation and said, ‘Don’t worry; I’ll stand guard. You’ll be safe.’ And I realized he was right; no one would mess with him.”

Hanley Bodek, a Penn oarsman, remembers a pull- up test.

 “I had cut my finger pretty bad and had eight stitches in it. I said to Ted that maybe I shouldn’t do it that day. He said, ‘If they start to rip, you can stop.’”

Fine Details and Race Preparation

Ted was the most thorough, organized coach at any regatta. If you needed some green tape, he would have it in his toolbox and be the first person to jump up and give it to you. When Penn AC would arrive at Nationals, their area for boats would be marked with police tape and “Keep Out” signs.

“Ted was a student of the fine detail,” recalled Dan Beery, six man in the 2004 Olympic gold-medal eight.  “Prior to our race in Athens, I had a specific problem in the large rolling waves there, as my handle would catch the crest of a wave and get caught on my patella as it crossed. Ted had the Croker rep shave down the handle exactly where it was catching on my knee. Sure enough, in the heat where we set a world record, I hit the crest of a wave, and the handle smacked my knee and barely grazed across it, allowing me to stay in rhythm with Volp [the stroke]. It’s the small things that, when added together, make a difference in a critical moment.”

Gardner Cadwalader:

“Before the Grand Challenge race at Henley in 1969, we were huddled in the blue-and-white tent to hear Ted prepare us for the most amazing, most challenging race of a lifetime. We gathered together tightly so we could listen to Ted tell us about our conditioning, how we had trained for this race since September, how we were ready, how the best of Penn was in the boat, how the race plan was specifically for us, for right now, for this race, for this barometric pressure.

 “Ted’s conclusion: ‘I would give my left nut to be in the boat with you.’

“As we lowered the boat into the Thames, a wag in the engine room asked, ‘Why the left one?’”

Bruce Ibbetson, who joined Penn AC to try to make the national team and ended up stroking the Olympic eights of 1980 and 1984:

“Ted was Mr. Black Tape. Seán Colgan and I would be out training in the pair, seemingly alone and doing the work, when suddenly a deep bullhorn voice would come out of the trees, and say, ‘Ibbetson, you need two tight wraps of black tape on top.’ Translation: My oar blade was too deep, and two tight wraps would be a half degree of pitch.

“One summer, Ted devised a race plan for a pair race. Our base rating was 36 strokes per minute. Ted instructed us to attack at the white picket fence, which was approximately 750 meters to go on the Princeton course. The attack was 40 at a 40. Really? In a pair? What then? Answer: ‘Breathe for 10 and go again!’ It worked, and we were off to New Zealand for the world championships.

“Ted was a master at identifying people and honing their skills to the max. If you believed in Ted’s coaching and you were committed to do the work, Ted would leave no stone unturned to create a winner.”

The Man

Seán Colgan:

“One day, we were rowing in Philadelphia, and Hugh Stevenson yelled, ‘Ow!’ He looked down at his arm and he’d been shot. He was OK, because it was a high-powered BB gun, and Hugh’s muscle had been tensed during the drive, so it didn’t do any lasting damage.

“Ted looked around and saw a kid with a rifle. He drove right to shore, jumped out. and grabbed the kid. He threw him into his launch, taped his hands together, and took him to the police.

“When the kid came up for trial, the judge was going to give him a 90-day sentence in juvie. But Ted said, ‘Give him to me for 90 days instead.’ He had the kid do all kinds of work at the boathouse and even made him a coxswain. He said, ‘I didn’t want that kid to have his life ruined because he did something stupid.’ Ted always tempered justice with mercy.”

Dan Beery:

 “I don’t know how many times Ted stopped in the middle of a pre- or post-practice debrief to help some passerby go to the restroom, give him directions, inform him about rowing, or show him a courtesy or kindness that was completely unexpected.

“Ted was a great example of how to de-escalate rude, crazy, or even dangerous people without stooping to their level. His example of remaining calm in those situations was specifically valuable to me last spring when a group of intoxicated jet skiers was harassing our athletes at Upper Merion High School. His example of building people up instead of tearing them down has been a priceless gift.”

Phil Stekl, a Penn oarsman who won a silver medal in the coxless four at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984:

“There was Ted the Myth, and there was sometimes Ted the Father. I met the latter first, as a Penn freshman in 1975 during the spring season’s first overnight away regatta, which, in keeping with Ted’s formality and standards of appearance, required wearing a jacket and tie during the team bus ride and meal stops. I had a makeshift jacket. I even had a suitable tie. But I had no clue as to how to knot the latter.

“I evaded Ted’s inspection while boarding the bus on campus, but there was nowhere to hide when we disembarked for our dinner stop a few hours later. He confronted me in the restaurant. ‘Where’s your tie, Phil?’ he asked. ‘In the bus,’ I said, which was true. ‘Well, go back and put it on, son.’ I was mortified.

“I spent a good 15 minutes in the dark aisle in the back of the charter bus, alone but for the napping driver, fumbling with every knot permutation I could imagine in the hope of stumbling on one that would suffice, before Ted strode with purpose into the vehicle, hunting me down with a piercing gaze. I was terrified.

“So many of the Ted stories I’ve heard over the decades involve Ted one-liners that have glued themselves to our memory of the man. As Ted was rushing down the bus aisle, he uttered the phrase that will be glued to mine forever: ‘I’m sorry, Phil. I should have known.’

“It took me a quarter of a lifetime to peer beyond the immense relief I felt with those words to recognize what they signaled about the man who said them. Not only hadn’t he forgotten me but also he had figured me out. Such is the essence that separates Ted from any other leader I’ve known. How many other men so naturally straddle the line between sensitive soul and demigod?”

John Chatzky, who coxed for Penn and the national team and is very close to Ted, organized a surprise 80th birthday party for him that was attended by over 200 admirers. He spoke at the dinner and said:

“He taught me so many important things about rowing, but, much more importantly, he taught me lessons about life: He taught me that you needed to be passionate about your pursuits, and that one really couldn’t be truly happy or truly fulfilled in one’s life unless you were passionate about something. He taught me that it’s OK if, from time to time, your passions cloud your judgment. He taught me about dedication, determination, discipline, and excellence. He taught me about commitment and the need to challenge yourself and to challenge others around you to be better. He taught me that to achieve great things you needed to take great risks, and that it was OK to fail and to be imperfect, that we failed only when we dared to push ourselves and we only got better when we confronted our failures. He taught me that it was more important to be respected than to be liked and that it was OK if others questioned your methods, as long as you believed in yourself.

Ted’s wife, Jan:

“Ted stopped coaching in 2012 after open-heart surgery for an aortic aneurysm, but continued training and rowing for personal enjoyment as well as competition until September 2018.

“I know the one thing Ted loves most about being a coach is that he helped create bonds of friendship among his athletes and crews that have lasted their lifetimes. And while Ted believed in discipline and hard training and racing and, of course, winning, he wanted rowing and competing to be fun. He truly loved what he was doing and encouraged a positive spirit in his athletes.”

The last words are Ted’s, from his 2013 Golden Oars Award speech:

 “I have been an athlete and a coach of rowing for over 60 years. But if I leave any legacy to rowing, it would not be the medals or the winning of races, even Olympics. It would be that I may have inspired others in my love of rowing, sculling, and the values of our sport.”

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