Philly Olympian Ochal's epic workout

Glenn Ochal's father, Lee, with his other two sons, Justin and Kyle (right), who also rowed for Roman Catholic.
Glenn Ochal's father, Lee, with his other two sons, Justin and Kyle (right), who also rowed for Roman Catholic. (ED HILLE / Staff)
Posted: July 22, 2012

The kid from Roxborough, then a freshman at Princeton, heard the words from his coach: "You think you have a sense of your limits. What is the edge of your limits?' "

He decided to find out.

When Glenn Ochal told his younger brother, Justin, what he was planning for himself one winter day on and around the Schuylkill, Justin responded, "Dude, are you insane?"

Glenn's childhood nickname had been The Moose. His family entertained friends by having little Moose push people around the house in a chair. He'd push tables, anything.

"I moved stuff around just because I could," Ochal said.

An older brother - tall and broad-shouldered if not quite Moose-like - got steered toward rowing at Roman Catholic High, and Glenn followed, giving up football after his freshman season to the dismay of Roman Catholic's football coach.

"Maybe I can take this somewhere," Ochal thought of his new sport.

He was made for it, already 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds in eighth grade, with, as he put it, "a decent lung capacity." But the best clue to Ochal's future as a chiseled 6-4, 205-pound, 26-year-old Olympian in a featured U.S. boat - men's four without coxswain - came during Ochal's winter break his freshman year at Princeton.

The freshman rowing coach liked to challenge his guys, knowing they followed his workouts to the letter. Going into the break, the coach, Greg Hughes, told the freshmen his workouts were just the beginning. That's when he asked about finding the edge of your limits.

His plea had an impolite name, sort of a "guts-out" workout. One recent student responded, he said, by climbing one of the tallest peaks in South America. An Australian rower did a full-day workout back home.

Ochal's response remains Princeton's gold standard.

Between Christmas and New Year's - "It was maybe 45 degrees," Ochal said - the now fabled workout took 6 hours, 34 minutes. Esquire magazine, tipped by Princeton coaches, later memorialized it in a section dubbed "Absurdly Grueling Workouts." The magazine added, "Chance of Collapse: 97 percent."

First one done

If you're looking for a true Philadelphia Olympian, with deep Philadelphia roots, Ochal is your Olympian. He grew up in Roxborough. His parents grew up in Roxborough. His father, Lee, also went to Roman Catholic and has worked for Sun Chemical on Hunting Park Avenue since a month after his graduation in 1975. Lee didn't play sports at Roman. He was more of a motor head, he said, and he always had a job. Lee's father worked at the Schmidt's Brewery. Glenn's maternal grandfather worked at a paper mill in Manayunk.

They can trace their family lineage back further, to Glenn's great, great grandfather, Winfield Scott Guiles, a lock tender in Manayunk who lived by the canal. According to a history of the Schuylkill, the ruins of Guiles' house are still visible. He tended Lock 68 for more than six decades. From that history: "His wife, a Lenni-Lenape Indian known as the 'Manayunk Healer,' treated the people of Manayunk when they were ill with herbs, leaves and bark from local plants."

The river wasn't part of Glenn Ochal's early life. He grew up off Henry Avenue in Roxborough and attended grade school in Manayunk at St. Mary of the Assumption on Conarroe Street, which permanently closed on July 1, the day after holding a beef and beer to defray Olympic travel expenses for Ochal's family.

Some traits that came in handy later popped up at St. Mary the Assumption. Sister Elizabeth, Ochal's first-grade teacher, dubbed Ochal the Russian, "because he was always rushing to be the first one done at everything," his father said.

The CYO track coach at the school was a retired policeman named Mr. Barnes who once asked Ochal's older brother what sport he planned to play at Roman Catholic. Realizing he was talking to his track coach, Kyle Ochal said, "I'm going to run track."

He didn't know that Mr. Barnes also worked as an official for rowing events on the Schuylkill.

"No, you're going to go out for the crew team," Mr. Barnes told him.

Thus a mini-dynasty was started at Roman. Kyle, then Glenn, then Justin. All won a closet full of medals in high school and in college. Kyle went to Marietta, which came back to win bronze at the Dad Vail. Justin rowed at Northeastern, a medal-winner at the Head of the Charles. Glenn's Princeton resumé is gold-plated, with victories at the Head of the Charles, the Eastern Sprints, and the Henley Royal Regatta.

Now, Ochal is the second Roman Catholic graduate to make the Olympics, after basketball player Mike Bantom, who played on the 1972 U.S. team.

Lee Ochal said he thought Princeton took a chance on Glenn, coming from a smaller sculling program. Not so, said Hughes, the Princeton coach. They had an idea of what they were getting.

"It's apparent he has a pretty big engine. What happens [is] it was just discovered through the sport of rowing," Hughes said. "He was so strong there was no question we would take a chance. I didn't see any chance. He did 19:55 in high school for 6K." (That's his time for pulling six kilometers on a rowing machine.)

"I don't know if there's a junior breaking 20 minutes for 6K right now. I might be wrong. That's a big standard, and scores have definitely improved. There was no risk, no chance being taken."

The kid was a blue-chipper. And blue-chippers can come from anywhere.

Just getting started

Ochal did his big winter workout from Boathouse Row. First he rowed for 12 miles, up the racecourse to the Route 1 bridge and back, twice. That's about ten times longer than the average college or Olympic 2,000-meter race. Ochal doesn't remember seeing any other rowers on the river.

Next he went upstairs at Crescent Boathouse to the ergometers, the rowing machines, and pulled the equivalent of 15 kilometers in just under an hour. "It probably wasn't the quickest [but] a good pace," Ochal said.

That alone, the row and the erg work, would have been an impressive day's work. Ochal was just getting started. He hopped on a mountain bike he had seen outside Crescent. He guessed one of the coaches usually used it to ride along Kelly Drive during races. "The tires are full. It moves. Here we go." Ochal took it for a spin, down around the Art Museum, up West River Drive to the East Falls Bridge, down Kelly Drive.

"I distinctly remember getting off the bike. I had been rowing. I'm used to the rowing motion," Ochal said, "I thought, 'Wow, my legs are really sore here.' I probably wasn't set on the bike."

He grabbed a protein bar and a water and begun running. That was the hardest transition, he said, getting his legs back. If you see triathletes get wobbly as they switch from the bike to start running, that's how he was. He ran a 10K loop up to the East Falls bridge and back.

"I'm not setting any records out there," Ochal said. "It's all about keeping moving, take another step, keep going. It's kind of easy when you get to the bridge. You've got to get back."

Ochal saved the toughest for last. He knew it had to be last.

"Start with the rowing, finish with the steps," Ochal said.

Running the Art Museum steps isn't just for a fictitious boxer's transformative workouts or for tourists. Rowers run those steps regularly.

"I figured I'd be the most sore after the steps," Ochal said of running them last. "And there's a lot to look at, people going up the steps, cars going by, looking at the city - stuff to distract you."

There also is a mystique. Sylvester Stallone got it right. Rocky wouldn't have been the same movie without those steps. In a foreword to Rocky Stories: Tales of Love, Hope, and Happiness at America's Most Famous Steps, by The Inquirer's Michael Vitez and Tom Gralish, Stallone wrote, "He decides that the pinnacle of what will determine his success will be whether he is able to run up the steps of this magnificent structure - a structure where he really doesn't even understand what's inside, but only what it represents. It's like he's crossed over to a new dimension, a new status."

Ochal decided to run up and down the steps 50 times.

"I thought 20 or 25 was not enough. I thought 100 was way too much," Ochal said. "Fifty sounded like a lot."

Ochal had started rowing in late morning. He finished his 50th up-and-back in late afternoon as the winter sun faded.

"I hit a few of those walls, or the walls hit me a few times," Ochal said. "It was a little colder out. I had my Eagles hat on, sweating through that. . . . It was a hard workout, but nothing was really timed. I didn't have to run or row or a certain pace. I just had to get it done."

He remembers walking afterward back to the boathouse. "It was a good walk," he said. "I had accomplished something."

His older brother drove down and picked him up.

"He came back into the house, he was roughed up a little bit," his father said.

"I was pumped," his coach said. "For him to make his own choices, set his own goals - doing that, achieving something so far beyond . . . He gained confidence in who he is."

Ochal's boat

The United States won a gold medal in the Olympic Eight in Athens and a bronze in Beijing. But the goal for London is to get more rowing medals for more boats. So all the top rowers weren't automatically steered toward the Eight. Quite a few rowing insiders consider the top boat, the priority boat, to be the Four. Ochal's boat.

Also in the boat are Charlie Cole, Scott Gault, and Henrik Rummel. Their competition starts July 30 and the medal race is Aug. 4.

What Ochal showed that day at Boathouse Row has gotten him this far.

"I wouldn't say he's a big-time power guy - get it done in ten strokes," said Hughes, the Princeton coach. "He's the guy who is going to endure. He is never going to slow down."

U.S. coach Tim McLaren pointed out there is a fair amount of responsibility on all the rowers in a smaller boat. He also points out that facing Roger Federer at Wimbledon for the first time isn't easy, no matter your ability.

"His international career is just starting. He's got great potential," said McLaren, who won a silver medal for Australia in the quadruple sculls at the 1984 Olympics. "His best days are still in front of him. It's one thing being elite in America, it's another thing being elite in the world scene."

Ochal isn't one to ever feel he has arrived. When his brother Justin called to congratulate him on making the Olympic team, Glenn told him, "I have to get there," as if he might miss the flight or something.

Ochal left his job as an assistant coach at Princeton, realizing this was his time. He spent the last year at the Olympic training center in Chula Vista, Calif.

"I've been training with Olympians. I'm surrounded by Olympians. Sometimes I lose perspective on what that means," Ochal said. "I have to take a step back. It's a pretty unique opportunity, especially from where I come from. Maybe it's a lack of opportunity or lack of ambition, but not many people do that from where I come from. I pride myself I'm from the city, I'm not from Malvern. I'm not from outside the city. I went to Roman, in Center City. It's kind of how I did it. Not many can say that."

At Princeton, they still challenge the freshmen over winter break.

"There are no rules, just go for it, take some risks," Hughes said, adding that Ochal's workout is the one brought up every year.

"This is the guy we look to in our program if we want to be the best," Hughes said. "There's the standard up there. It's way up there."


Contact Mike Jensen at 215-854-4489 or mjensen@phillynews.com. Follow @Jensenoffcampus on Twitter.

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