A rowing lifer, lured out of retirement for another shot at Dad Vail

Dennis Kamrad came out of retirement for Grand Valley.
Dennis Kamrad came out of retirement for Grand Valley.
Posted: May 14, 2011

Dennis Kamrad still remembers that summer in the early 1960s, when he would work in his father's butcher shop, then cut grass for the Trenton parks department, then hop in his car. He would drive from his home in Trenton to Philadelphia, cut across the Roosevelt Expressway, down to I-76, then onto the Girard Avenue Bridge, and circle around onto Kelly Drive.

Just as he can close his eyes and see the course that thousands of athletes navigated on Friday during the opening day of the Dad Vail Regatta, Kamrad can envision the route he took to the Penn Athletic Club boathouse, where his obsession with the regatta took shape.

Walk around the banks of the Schuylkill today and it will be impossible to miss Kamrad. He is one of the sages of the Dad Vail, a 71-year-old rowing lifer with a protruding white beard, narrow face and unpredictable sensibility. Everyone knows him. Everyone stops to talk to him.

This regatta is Kamrad's love and the reason why, after a lifetime of coaching, he eschewed retirement and agreed last fall to coach the Grand Valley State University women who will try to win the varsity heavyweight eight title, among other events. For John Bancheri, head of the Lakers rowing program, pulling Kamrad out of retirement was akin to Andy Reid luring Howard Mudd back into coaching - only Kamrad is essentially working for free.

Kamrad stays in an honors dorm on the Allendale, Mich., campus, in what he calls his "monk's den," and has a meal card that allows him two daily meals. Otherwise, he coaches out of love, trying to give back to a sport that has consumed his life.

And he wanted to get back to Dad Vail.

"He's obsessed with this course," said Vanessa Dean, a 19-year-old on the team. "That's all he talks about. I think even in the fall he was just anxious to get to Dad Vail."

Kamrad grew up in Trenton, around the corner from the state prison and a block away from the Roebling Steel mill. His father was a butcher and a musician, his mother a piano teacher and secretary, and as a kid Kamrad played the cello and took voice lessons.

He rode horses while in high school at Valley Forge Military Academy, a place where "the structure was good for me," Kamrad said.

Not until his freshman year at Florida's Rollins College in 1958 did Kamrad taste the water. He put down the cello and picked up an oar, and in May 1959 he raced in his first Dad Vail for Rollins' legendary coach, U.T. Bradley, one of the regatta's founding fathers.

Kamrad has missed four Dad Vails since.

After starting high-school girls' rowing in the state of Florida, Kamrad founded the women's rowing program at Central Florida in 1972. Kamrad's Central Florida crews won 17 Dad Vail titles, and in 1997, six years before he retired, the Dad Vail committee renamed its women's varsity lightweight eight trophy the Dennis Kamrad Trophy, making him the only active coach today with a trophy named after him.

Over time, Kamrad has learned every inch of the course, the breaks, the wind repercussions, the strategies to take depending on a lane assignment. He runs the race over and over in his head, from the desirable positions in lanes three and four to the tougher trips in lanes one and six.

Kamrad understands the philosophies of the Philadelphia-based teams that are so accustomed to practicing on the Schuylkill, and has a plan to counteract them. And he has a strategy for Saturday that he has kept tucked away, unwilling to share.

"There are different spots where the Philly crews like to attack," Kamrad said. "Philly crews know what to do - Temple, St. Joe's, Drexel, Villanova. They're like, 'OK, this is what we're going to do.' Even if you don't follow that plan, it's like in football, you have to be aware of the tendencies."

Kamrad's philosophy is simple: Get from Point A to Point B faster than the opponent. And, hug the inside of the lane through the turn, and then keep your line straight.

The constant, at least for Kamrad, are the nerves.

"I was as excited and as nervous and as focused in my first race as I am today as a coach," Kamrad said. "You get on that course and just - wow. In those days I placed in the finals, but they only gave medals for first place. Now, they give them for first three. So my kids say, 'All I want is a medal.' I'm like, 'Yeah, me too.' "

Kamrad's team has not raced since early April because of bad weather in Michigan. Races were cancelled or altered, and because of floods his team moved out of one boat house, then another.

He is not sure what he has today - "I'm never confident in any of these things, scared to death every time," he said - but he knows what he wants.

And when it is over, Grand Valley will head down Kelly Drive and loop around the art museum, just like Kamrad did so many times that one summer.

"Every night I'd leave, and the Phillies were winning," Kamrad said. "Every day I'd wake up and find out they lost in the ninth inning. It was terrible."

Kamrad is hoping Saturday will be anything but.

Contact columnist Ashley Fox at 215-854-5064 or afox@phillynews.com.

Follow her on Twitter: www.twitter.com/AshleyMFox.


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