BY ANDY ANDERSON | PHOTO BY CHIP DAVIS
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When the news came that the Colgan Foundation had signed an agreement to support the UK’s Leander Club, there was some grumbling to the tune of “Why not support American athletes?” It was perhaps an understandable complaint, seeing how the Colgan Foundation is directed primarily by Seán Colgan and his wife, Bibi. Seán is an American who rowed at Penn and was a member of 10 National Teams—junior, lightweight, and heavyweight; sweep and sculling. He was bowman of the U.S. men’s eight that would have represented us in the 1980 Olympics had there not been a boycott. Why support our competitors?
I’ve known Seán for a long time; he’s a gadfly, a guy who likes to stir the pot, a man of strong opinions, not all of which I agree with. I asked him to give me a call.
First of all, my parents aren’t alive anymore; I don’t need to get permission from anyone to spend my money,” he said on our Zoom call. He was in New Zealand, where he moved six years ago to run a sheep ranch. He looked youthful, tan, and fit.
“We like to support programs that are well led, that are designed to succeed. Leander delivers over 60 percent of the British team, and the Brits are top of the medals.
“I’m as American as they come. I support Penn, LaSalle High School, Vesper, Penn AC, and Row New York. I’ve helped build seven boathouses. My father oversaw desegregating public schools in Philadelphia, and he started the first urban rowing program, Camp Dimension. I rowed with the first Black oarsman to win a world-championship medal in 1975. Nobody needs USRowing’s lectures on DEI. Boathouses are always welcoming. Rowing wants the best people in the boat.
“I don’t reinforce failure. I’m sorry to say that national- team rowing in the U.S. is failing. After the 2016 Olympics, when not a single men’s boat won a medal—though the U.S. women won gold in the eight and silver in the single—and the 2021 Olympics, when the USA didn’t win any medals at all, I gave up on USRowing. I support rowing in New Zealand and Australia. And now Leander—programs that aren’t a bloviating bloated bureaucracy.
“Remember what happened after 2016? There was a USRowing white paper that refused to examine the events and decisions of the preceding four or eight years. They opted instead to outline a future plan without reviewing the decisions that caused the 2016 disaster. It’s the height of hubris to look forward without reviewing previous mistakes. I’m a businessman, and there’s just no way one can succeed absent an honest evaluation of the past.
“And I was correct. In Tokyo, for the first time in the modern Olympic Games, Team USA failed to win a single solitary medal of any color. And New Zealand, that we greatly funded, led the medal charts with three gold and two silver, including a gold in the men’s eight.”
I wondered when things began to go sour for Seán, a guy who bleeds red, white, and blue.
“Well, this is not personal, but it is hard to unsee how vindictive USRowing could be, to the total detriment of rowers. For the 2011 Pan Am games in Mexico, the USRowing-designed program was that the four and two pairs would form the eight. Ted Nash at Penn AC won the four without trials and therefore was the coach of the eight. But Ted wanted to concentrate on coaching the lightweight women’s single that had a good chance of beating the world champion from Brazil.
“So Ted asked me to coach the eight. USRowing said that I could not be the coach because I didn’t have a coaching-education certificate. Nash was incredulous and said, ‘Nobody knows more about an eight than Seán, a guy who rowed in the USA junior eight, the light eight that won two world-champ medals, and the Olympic eight!’”
“But Glenn Merry and Matt Imes of USRowing refused to appoint me to the team. Why? Because I am outspoken when I see that dishonest bureaucrats do not put rowers first. The eight insisted that I remain the coach. I called in some chips and obtained Pan Am coaching credentials from El Salvador.
Throughout the two weeks, USRowing constantly and consistently impeded my ability to coach the eight, to the detriment of the American rowers. The U.S. team manager would not allow me on the team bus and to live in the American compound, et cetera.
“One day, the coaches asked where the coaching bikes were. ‘We don’t have any money in the budget for bikes,’ the manager said. So I bought four bikes at Walmart for the U.S. coaches, and the manager was furious. I went into the kitchen, made friends, spread a few $20 bills and flowers around to make sure that the U.S. team had eggs for breakfast. The kitchen staff was happy for the recognition. But the manager freaked out and said, ‘Americans cannot be exceptional.’” What? I do whatever it takes for our athletes to win. The men’s eight was one of only two gold medals at the Pan Ams—and there hasn’t been a men’s USA gold medal since.
“The goal must be ‘Are you doing what is best for the athletes? Is the support 100%?’ Look, I believe in results. You need to have a plan. Everyone must be aligned with the agenda to produce a winning team. USRowing is absent on all counts.”
Lest you wonder, Seán wasn’t ranting.
“I don’t have a personal vendetta here. Being on 10 teams, it pains me to see all the American talent wasted annually. I just know what is needed, what works. When we see programs that are on our same wavelength, the Colgan Foundation wants to support them. It’s not only rowing that the Colgan Foundation supports, by the way. We’ve got a program this summer that will train 3,000 lifeguards in CPR in El Salvador. In El Salvador, CF just completed building the only para-surf center in the world, where now several national teams train.”
“Ultimately, our goal in rowing should be to develop people who will make the world a better place. Rowing is excellent at building that kind of character. Let’s support programs that are succeeding, that supply the tools for success.”
I asked him if he could see a way back to supporting USRowing. After a long pause, he said, “I don’t think they want my kind of vision. Their priorities do not align with mine nor those of most American rowers. Just examine the lack of membership. People flee USRowing like the plague.”
The mission statement of the Colgan Foundation is “to financially support organizations and individuals that promote the values of the Colgan family through excellence, opportunity, and inclusivity in education, athletics, and science.” It certainly sounds like his goals ought to line up.
Leander had the best day ever at Henley with eight victories and issued a statement saying, “None of this would have been possible without the unwavering support of the Colgan Foundation.”
It’s a sad day when someone like Colgan is so estranged from our system. Unfortunately, he’s not alone in this. Where are we going?