March 30, 2011
SAN DIEGO, Calif.-
In 1986 the University of San Diego men's rowing team accomplished something that had never been done: they became Cal Cup champions. On the eve of the 2011 San Diego Crew Classic, the USD men's rowing team is setting their sights on repeating that feat 25 years later. Of course, it is a feat not easily duplicated, but one that has remained an integral part of the lives of those members of USD's first Cal Cup championship team over two decades ago.
Returning to the waters where they made Torero history will be the majority of the members of that 1986 varsity eight team, who will be competing for the Coach Del Beekley Volunteer Cup in the Master's C event at 2:10 p.m. on Sunday, April 3rd in this year's Crew Classic, which annually features many of the nation's top junior, collegiate, and master's competition in a two-day, 90-race event on San Diego's Mission Bay.
Most of the 1986 team, which consisted of Suzy Duyn, Neal Stehly, Treak Tasker, Mike Gerhart, Mike Weber, Brett O'Keefe, Will Creagan, Jamie Bea and Erik Henrion, have reunited with the help of Facebook and trained both individually and together over the past six months to compete in this weekend's event. The bond that these teammates had has helped keep the team intact more than two decades after graduating from USD.
"We were made up of eight different personalities but on the water we were a team of fierce competitors completely focused on training hard and winning races," says Gerhart, now the owner/president of Chill-Tek, Inc. in Manhattan Beach, Calif. "This attitude stayed with us as individuals after graduation and prepared us for the sport of life."
"Winning the Cal Cup at the Crew Classic was one of the most amazing experiences of my life," commented Stehly, who lives in Carlsbad with his wife and three kids and is the vice president of the Employee Benefits Division of Marrs, Maddocks & Associates Insurance Agency. "The comradery that was built with my teammates was second to none."
"All I know is that these men are a special group," said Len Velez, who has served as the USD Alumni team coxswain in various races throughout the past decade. "They are professionals, family men, driven to succeed and balance family, work, and life. Most of all, they are men of faith and love life. I look up to them as my older brothers and are friends for life."
The success that the 1986 team had was a product of many factors that came together to make USD history. Like any great team in any sport, the 1986 Toreros combined an intense work ethic with passion for the sport and sound guidance from the coaching staff to ultimately hoist the Cup.
"We had a great coach in Joe Flohr, we were rowing well and working hard every minute of practice," said Bea, who was the 2010 World Rowing Champion in the Master's single scull in his age group. "We were winning a lot of races and just believing in ourselves after second-place finishes in '84 and '85."
"It starts with a group of extremely good athletes throughout the program," added Stehly, who was one of seven siblings to row at USD. "The varsity eight we ended up with were not the only excellent rowers. The competition to make the varsity eight was fierce and it made us extremely fast."
Even though the members of the 1986 team have moved on to other career endeavors, the passion for rowing and the competition it brings out remains as strong as it was years ago. As part of their preparation for the Crew Classic, the team competed in and won the 2,000 meter eight race at the Long Beach Spring Regatta on March 20th.
"There is something visceral about rowing that keeps an oarsman rowing," said Gerhart, who competed with the Atlanta Rowing Club during graduate school at Georgia State University and participated in the prestigious Head of the Charles race in Boston, Mass. following his USD rowing career. "It is amazing to know that all eight of us who are in our mid-to-late 40s are physically capable of competing at a high level. We have embraced the challenge and committed to each other to put ourselves through a grueling 16-week training program that has demanded once again self-sacrifice and physical suffering on behalf of the team."
The training program followed by the members of the team was designed to get them back in shape to compete at this year's Classic. Despite their passion for rowing, there were some members of the team who were understandably hesitant about the prospects of such an intensive workout regime.
"I believe I was the last person to commit to doing this," admitted O'Keefe. "I mean, it's not like competing at race pace for 2,000 meters is a recreational undertaking to be taken lightly. You have to prepare. However, after seeing Will, Jaime and Mike very fit at last year's event, I knew we had to do this. The feeling was mutual and the motivation was very high from the outset. Over time our cardio, strength and times on the machines improved. Some of us had to buy new clothes."
"I had not been on the water or that blasted rowing machine since 1986," said Tasker, who owns a commercial mortgage banking company in Tulsa, Okla., where he has lived for the past 15 years with his wife, Mary Jo, whom he met at USD, and their three sons. "But some of the boys have and they talked to the rest of us about a reunion row. The program got progressively harder each week, but everyone bought into it and the race was on to get in rowing shape. Everyone's times improved week after week as everyone posted via email. Some of us truly had a long way to come, but the encouragement never ceased and no one fell behind."
Despite the challenges in front of them, the team committed themselves to their goal of racing in top shape in this weekend's Classic. Never a team to put in a half-hearted effort, the 1986 squad aims to mark its 25th anniversary the same way it did then: by winning. It is clear that the feeling of accomplishment gained from the Cal Cup victory in 1986 has been a significant motivator in pushing the team back into competition mode.
"Bottom line is that we would not be doing this now if we had not won, even if it had been a close second," said Stehly. "Winning created the memories that will never be forgotten and now we are creating more memories 25 years later."
"I think that we shared deep commitments to being the best we could be and we were successful in achieving a goal together," commented O'Keefe. "I think we all know there is something deeply rewarding about hard work. It produces results. I think that's what we enjoy most."
"I have often wished I could have bottled up some of the feelings and emotions from that day to take little sips of throughout my life," remarked Creagan, who took fourth place in the men's Master's World Championships in Canada in September 2010 with Bea. "But I guess in one sense we've all done that anyway. It gave us the taste of true success in competition at the Division I college level, and once you've had that success it keeps you inspired for life. When I saw the USD women win it last year, I couldn't help but shed tears even though I didn't know any of the girls personally, because I knew without a shadow of a doubt that they would remember that day and that experience of winning a major regatta for the rest of their lives."
Bringing the Cal Cup home to USD for the first time instilled a sense of pride for the members of that team. That pride is what keeps them involved in the Torero rowing program today, with all the members doing something large or small to help USD rowing over the years since they left. Stehly, for instance, was instrumental in raising funds for the 2008 dedication of a new rowing shell named in honor of Karen Cosgrove, the late wife of former USD Associate Vice President for Student Affairs and long-time rowing supporter Tom Cosgrove. The members of the 1986 team also had the opportunity to scrimmage against the current USD varsity team this past January, an experience that highlights the connection of the teams generations apart.
"This adventure of the 1986 team would never be possible were it not for the unwavering support of the rowing program and the USD athletic department," said Gerhart. "The current crews and coaching staff have been incredible in their support and encouragement. While I have moved on from USD, USD rowing has never left me. I owe a lot of my personal and professional success to the USD rowing program. I will always be an active supporter of USD rowing. It is a program that builds character and prepares a young oarsman/oarswoman for the challenges of life beyond the campus."
With their legacy already established in USD rowing history, the members of the 1986 team will set out on Mission Bay Sunday afternoon to accomplish new goals and, in the process, relive the feeling of glory they experienced 25 years ago.