Boathouses Are Losing Olympic Dreams The U.s. Team Wants Rowers To Train At Centralized Camps. Club Rowers Face A Tough Choice.

Posted: April 30, 1995

Tom Bohrer is 31 years old, strong and tanned, with a wonderful wife and a joyful 9-month-old daughter. Bohrer has a good job as an environmental scientist. He has a house and a great life in Philadelphia.

He is also possibly the best rower in the country.

But Bohrer seems to have little chance of making the 1996 U.S. Olympic team next year, unless . . .

Unless Bohrer gives up his life. Quits his job. Leaves his wife, C.B. Sands-Bohrer, and his daughter, Sally, and moves to San Diego, where USRowing has set up a national sweep rowing center for the men.

The upheaval such a move would make in Bohrer's life is emblematic of the turmoil that USRowing, the governing body for rowing in the United States, has created in boathouses across the country.

From the Charles River in Boston to the Schuylkill to Lake Washington in Seattle, boathouses and rowing clubs that have always produced winning Olympians in the truly amateur sense, of scraping by with little money and very hard work, are for the first time being made irrelevant.

For the last 90 years, elite-level rowers were groomed and trained at clubs like Penn AC or Undine, Vesper or Fairmount. Boathouse Row in Philadelphia might have the strongest Olympic tradition in the country, and clubs in Boston, New York and Washington, D.C., Detroit, Seattle and Newport Beach, Calif., were always putting together Olympic boats.

But this year, USRowing has decided that in order to compete against other nations that house, feed and train their rowers together year-round, it must wean the United States from its dependence on disparate rowing clubs scattered across the country. Now that the Eastern European nations have broken away

from state-sponsored, centralized training, USRowing seems to be adopting that very formula.

To make the U.S. team, Bohrer and other men and women almost certainly will have to move to one of three USRowing training centers: San Diego to join the men's sweep team; Augusta, Ga., to join the men's sculling team; or Chattanooga, Tenn., to join the women's team.

That means that next year, at the Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Boathouse Row probably won't have a boat on the U.S. team. There won't be an Undine double or quad, a Vesper women's boat, a Penn AC pair or straight four.

From the boathouses come expressions of fear that the decision marks the beginning of the end of the boathouse clubs, or at least the competitive spirit on which they have thrived. What happens to all those who want to compete but can't commit to giving their lives to a national training regimen? How many potential Olympic-quality athletes will simply fade away, unknown to team organizers? Rowers, mostly well-educated, have always been stubbornly proud of their ability to advance their career goals and still be Olympians. Now that doesn't seem possible.

To benefit from the stipends given to athletes by the United States Olympic Committee - money that is always desperately needed by the rowers, who never get endorsements or appearance fees or any financial benefit from being rowers - these athletes have to be invited to San Diego or Chattanooga or Augusta.

The USOC seems to be encouraging this idea. There is a resident athletes' program at USOC headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colo., where athletes in various sports live in USOC housing and use the USOC facilities to train. Swimmers have recently benefited from this program, and several Pan-Am Games medal-winning swimmers have been members of the resident athletes' program. The rowing center in San Diego is part of a USOC training site that will soon house and help train many athletes.

Bohrer's best chance to make any of the rowing sweep boats - the eight, the four without coxswain or the pair without coxswain - would be to join about 20 other rowers and live in group housing and row three times a day. He would be among familiar faces: Six of the rowers training for the men's eight previously rowed for Penn AC and Undine on Boathouse Row. He would work under the critical eye of Mike Spracklen, a driven, successful Briton who coaches the U.S. men's sweep team. He would, in the words of one man who is at the center, "do nothing but row, sleep and eat. In that order."

This is a decision Bohrer never needed to make before. Bohrer has two Olympic silver medals, both in the men's four without coxswain, both earned in a boat that trained at Penn AC on Boathouse Row with the help of coach Ted Nash. Bohrer was able to train for the Olympics and work at his career, use his college degree from Florida Institute of Technology, meet his future wife. It wasn't an easy life. Up before dawn to get out on the Schuylkill. Back on the river after work. Weekends spent traveling to regattas. But it was a full life, an adult life, and successful, too. Two silver medals, after all.

In the past, the trials for the Olympics and for world-championship teams would usually be contentious affairs. Often lawsuits were filed because time standards weren't fair. Or the trial site wasn't fair. Or something. It was a disorganized process, but it was uniquely American. Rowers were well-educated, fiercely independent, and proud of their scramble to live on a shoestring and be Olympians in the truly amateur sense. And medals were won. A total of 67 so far.

But at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, the men's rowing team won only one medal, that silver from Bohrer's boat. In the men's eight, the glamour event, the event that is like the 100-meter dash, where you win the designation as fastest boat in the world, the United States finished fourth. The women's team didn't do much better. A bronze in the pair without coxswain, a silver in the four without coxswain.

The idea of rowers going off to clubs like Penn AC wasn't working. Spracklen, a bit of a carpetbagger, was hired away from the Canadian national team to coach the men's sweep team. He wanted a training center. He wanted it in San Diego. The women were given a national center, too, in Chattanooga. The men's scullers were given their own center also, in Augusta.

And the rowing clubs, where rowing has been nurtured forever, what was to become of them? Were they to have a role in training elite rowers? Or will they become home only to high school rowers and masters rowers, like the neighborhood YMCA, where people gather to exercise but never to dream about Olympics?


Bob Kaehler, a Rutgers graduate who lived in Bala Cynwyd, was a raw and technically clumsy rower who once was told by Kris Korzeniowski, the 1988 men's national coach, to go home and quit the sport. From 1987 to 1993, Kaehler was a sculler in the double and in the quad.

Kaehler made national teams and competed internationally but never with much success, if you measure by medals. Kaehler was in the 1992 men's Olympic quad that finished eighth and in a fifth-place U.S. quad at the 1991 world championships. At the 1993 worlds, Kaehler finished fifth in the double. But shortly after, Spracklen, the new men's national sweep coach, came to Kaehler.

Spracklen wanted big, he wanted strong for his eight. Kaehler is 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds. Kaehler was invited to join the sweep team, invited to try for the eight that would race for the United States at the 1994 world championships in Indianapolis and then most likely stay together for the Olympics. Kaehler had a good job as a physical therapist at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and a fiancee who taught in Bucks County. He had a good, full life just like Bohrer. He had a choice to make.

Kaehler made the move to San Diego. He made the men's eight and it won a gold medal at the world championships. Now Kaehler lives in a house with other rowers and does three things every day. He eats. He sleeps. He rows.

"I miss my fiancee," Kaehler said. "I miss my job. But if I want to win an Olympic gold medal, this is what I have to do. And if you look at the gold medal last year, this would seem to be working."

It is a glorious day on the Schuylkill along Boathouse Row, this Wednesday afternoon with the sun and a soft wind and 70-degree temperatures. Jim Barker, a slim, weathered, 65-year-old coach, steps out of his motor launch and watches quietly as his Haverford School high school team lifts its shells out of the water and heads into the Undine Barge Club to shower and go home.

Not so long ago, Barker was coaching elite rowers, too. He coached Kaehler, took Kaehler in at Undine when Korzeniowski was telling Kaehler to give up rowing.

Now Barker says flat-out that Spracklen has stolen his rower. Barker had another good sculler, Tim Young, and a plan to build a quad around Young. Then, last summer, Igor Grinko, the men's national sculling coach from Ukraine, asked Young to come to Augusta and join the U.S. quad at the world championship. Young did it.

"They stole Tim Young too," Barker says.

Barker is not coaching elite rowers anymore. He says he feels betrayed by Kaehler and Young a little bit, and bitter about USRowing a lot.

The impact on Boathouse Row is this, Barker says: The members at Undine have become convinced it is not worthwhile to train elite rowers anymore.

Barker says the budget at Undine is usually about $12,000 to $15,000 each year. That money comes almost solely from dues and an occasional fund-raising event. Barker says club members now think that if the U.S. national team is going to take the best, if Undine isn't going to send rowers to the Olympics, then, hey, instead of spending big money to send elite rowers to national trials or European regattas, let's build a new shower or put on a new roof. Something for the club.

"The future of the clubs," Barker says, "is bleak."

Nash, the coach at Penn AC, agrees. And Nash is worried about more.

"What I'm afraid of," Nash says, "is the future. If the clubs give up on elite rowing, where is the future? Where do the college guys go? Where do you go if you aren't good enough to be invited to San Diego yet, but you are 22 and want to get better? After this Olympics, the cupboard is bare. There is no development."

"I run an open system," Spracklen responds. "Anybody is welcome to come or go. Nobody is forced to stay here. You are welcome to leave and go back to your club and form a boat and compete at the trials. The trials are completely open."

Open, yes, says Nash, but it is not a fair competition. The trials for this year's world championship boats and next year's Olympic men's boats will last nine days in San Diego for the world team and in Atlanta for the Olympic team. Spracklen wants the long trials so people who lose in the first round could be evaluated and mixed into different boats that might be faster.

Spracklen says he has nothing against the clubs and, in fact, would like the U.S. club system to be stronger. He would like there to be clubs all over the United States that would welcome the college rowers and postgraduates who are interested in staying in the sport. Spracklen says rowers reach their peak when they are 25 to 30, and Spracklen can take only about 20 rowers in San Diego. But USRowing is spending all its money on the elite programs.

The point that Nash and Barker keep making is this: The clubs have always spent their own money to help develop elite rowers. Nash and Barker have always coached for free at their clubs. But the club members don't see the point anymore. If USRowing is going to give the clubs no money, and if there is to be no Olympic payoff anymore, then what is the point?

"It is a problem," Bruce Konopka says. Konopka is the lightweight coach at Penn and will most likely coach the U.S. lightweight rowing entries in the Olympics next year. Konopka thinks Spracklen is an excellent coach who will produce a fast, strong eight for next year and make a good straight four and pair as well. But Konopka, too, fears for the future. "What happens after 1996, I'm not sure. There is no development plan."

Frank Coyle, president of USRowing, says that the training centers "will make for a stronger program. With the club system, people were putting together boats on very short notice, and we at USRowing didn't think it was a good system."

In San Diego, Kaehler says he understands the concerns raised by Barker and Nash. But he adds: "I wouldn't have won a world-championship gold medal if I had stayed. . . . If you have a chance to win a gold medal, you go."

Bohrer doesn't think he wants to go. He doesn't find it appealing to be thirtysomething and living like a college kid.

Right now, Bohrer knows only that he wants to row in next year's Olympics. He has tried rowing a single lately, but he says: "I don't think I can ever make that boat go fast enough."

Now Bohrer sees his options like this:

"I can keep trying to go faster in the single, but I don't think that's going to happen. I can try to find some young college guy and make a pair. Or next year I can put my life on hold and leave my family and my job and move to San Diego for the year. I don't know what I'm going to do."

Spracklen is 57 years old and wins gold. Period.

At the 1992 Olympics, the Canadian men's eight coached by Spracklen won a gold. At the 1988 Olympics, Spracklen coached a gold-medal pair for England. In 1984, he coached the gold-medal four with coxswain.

He plans to produce another for the United States. No one will get in his way. He is in charge, and Spracklen will not be argued with.

"I have been hired to win a gold medal in the eight," Spracklen said. "I have an idea on how I want to do that."

Spracklen says he would love to have Bohrer in San Diego, says Bohrer is a talented rower who could be an asset in any sweep boat. "But I don't think that you can think of anybody who is a top amateur sportsman who has a job. Nancy Kerrigan? Ben Johnson? Carl Lewis? Do they have jobs? Winning an Olympics now is an extremely hard and high event," said Spracklen. "It is worth dedicating two or three years of your life to achieve. It does not seem

worthwhile to not set aside all of your time and then lose by the smallest of


So everybody has an answer. And nobody has an answer. Spracklen was hired to win a gold medal in the eight and he probably will. And Spracklen says yes, long-range development is terrible in the U.S. program, but that is not his job. USRowing is looking mostly to win Olympic medals. Now. The clubs are pulling inward and see no reason to help a system that gives it nothing.

And Bob Kaehler sits in San Diego, a 31-year-old whose life is on hold but who is on track for Olympic gold. And Tom Bohrer sits in Philadelphia with his good job and great family, and with the dream of Olympic gold turning dark.

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