One Legend, or Another

This weekend was the Thomas Eakins Head of the Schuylkill Regatta in Philadelphia.  I, along with fellow 2012 Olympic Medalists, Henrik Rummel and Esther Lofgren, were once again in attendance to sign autographs, take photos and to present medals to race winners all weekend.  Despite the threat of an impending hurricane hybrid being dubbed affectionately (?) as “Frankenstorm”, all races went off successfully on Saturday and Sunday and the regatta was another successful event for us with more great opportunities to meet more young rowers and their families from all over the US.

This weekend was particularly memorable for me, however, because of Saturday night’s events.  Late on Friday while out for cocktails with a good friend of the US Rowing Team, Esther and I were asked if we were going to be at the surprise 80th birthday for Ted Nash the following night.  For those of you who don’t know Ted, here’s a crash course:  The short story is that Ted is a legend in American rowing.  As an athlete, he won Gold and Bronze at the Olympic Games in the 1960 and 1964 Games in the men’s four; he was a member of the United States Marine Corps and Army Green Berets; he was a longtime coach of the Penn men’s crews and figurehead of the Penn A.C.  During his career he has coached dozens of athletes at the elite level who have gone on to become world medalists and Olympians.  In all, he has represented US Rowing at an unprecedented 11 Olympic Games as either an athlete or a coach.  He is ever-present, selfless, and more enthusiastic about helping American crews to win races than any other person I know.  He would do anything to help an athlete in need, regardless of their age, experience, or competitive resume–as almost every member of PTC knows from some horrible or unfortunate mishap at a selection regatta that Ted somehow miraculously was able to fix for us when we were too clueless or helpless to help ourselves.  Ted was even present in the women’s quad at the start line of the London Olympic Games as part of our routine was to “check your oarlocks for Ted Nash” — a quirk from a workout I experienced in 2008 doing pieces in the W2X against Ted’s LW2X during which he heartily encouraged us to “check your oarlocks!” immediately before he called “Attention-GO”.
The list of people who know and admire Ted is long and illustrious – so when Esther and I were asked if we were going to be there, despite not being invited, we knew we had to find a way to crash the party.

Us with the legendary Ted A. Nash

And so we did.  We walked in to the venue on Saturday night dressed in casual skirts and shirts anticipating a huge reception of generations of American rowers enjoying an open bar and conversation–and instead found ourselves facing a full ballroom of people in suits and ties at a formal sit-down dinner with no empty chairs.  During a prepared speech.  My bright orange top did very little to conceal our less-than-graceful entrance to the much-more-formal-than-anticipated birthday party, and we had a moment of panic.  The last thing we wanted to do when presented with an opportunity to share in the celebration of one of the most important members of the USRowing community was to disrespect him by showing up ill-timed and underdressed during some heartfelt remarks from someone who was actually supposed to be there and who probably knew Ted better than I could ever hope to.

Serendipitously, the members of the 2004 Olympic Men’s 8+ happened to be seated at table just near the entrance, and they ushered us in and found a way to squeeze us in to their table without making a scene and the party carried on with almost no notice of us.  As the night went on and we settled in to catch up with the 2004 men–many of whom I have known since 2005 and have been teammates and colleagues with for many years–I found myself realizing how lucky I was to have stumbled into such a tremendous room of people and to have fallen in at the table I did.
Person after person got up in front of the 250 other guests to tell stories about Ted and about how he had changed their life in one way or another; about his character and tenacity and all of the things that make him such a unique champion for the sport of rowing.  Stories dated back decades, and as I listened and applauded, I started to trace my own path to how I had arrived at that moment on that night surrounded by so much US Rowing firepower.

At the conclusion of the 2004 Olympic Games, my college boathouse was buzzing with the summer’s success of three Husky alums: Matt Deakin who had won gold in the M8+ as well as Anna Cummins (nee Mickelson) and Mary Whipple who had won silver in the W8+.  Both crews had ended significant medal droughts in their events with their performances in Athens, and arguably initiated a renewed pattern of success for the US Rowing program.  Still, it wasn’t clear to me how those athletes came from my boathouse and then went on to win Olympic medals.  It wasn’t until the spring of 2005 when Bryan Volpenhein, Dan Beery, Beau Hoopman and Matt all came out to race at the Windermere Cup and I was able to meet them and interact with them that I started to formulate an idea of what the National Team was and that it was a real possibility for athletes (maybe even myself) after college.  The Athens crews were really my first idea of what the National Team could or should be.  In many ways, I have them to thank for my introduction to elite rowing–along with the mentorship of my collegiate coach who happened to also be a Junior and U23 National Team coach.  But without the right alchemy and timing, I may never have taken an interest or seen the signs and I wouldn’t be sitting here now thinking how lucky I am to have sat in on Ted Nash’s 80th birthday party, and to have shared it with some of the people who are responsible for me having the guts to take a chance on rowing after I graduated, six years ago.  My own personal legends, in a way.

It was an awesome, humbling night.  Even still feeling like I am riding the wave of success in London, I felt very small in that room on Saturday night.  Experiencing the depth and breadth of the impact that just one individual has had on so many athletes and teams throughout his lifetime was immensely inspiring and made me realize just how much could still lie ahead for myself and for my teammates, should we choose to undertake it.
I went back to the Schuylkill on Sunday morning with a renewed appreciation for the smiles, photographs and signatures I was sharing with the next generation of young rowers who are just beginning to find their way–whatever their goals may be.  Sport, and in particular, rowing, has a limitless supply of opportunity and character for those who have the guts to reveal them.  I hope that as long as I continue my involvement in the sport of rowing that I will always be a resource for those who are searching.  Even if they don’t realize it yet.

Happy Birthday Ted, and thank you.

Long Live the Dream,

–MK

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