Team Tenacity

USD Men's Alumni Rowing Squad


Anyone who’s ever rowed competitively in college can attest that being a member of a varsity eight crew team is not for the faint of heart.

On the contrary, it’s a full-throttle indoctrination into reaching your physical and mental limits and pushing past them. It’s about rising with the roosters and putting oars in the water before most people hit the snooze button, and learning how to synchronize a boat full of unique personalities into one, cohesive unit.

It takes a special breed to excel in that type of environment. Twenty-five years ago, just such a group rowed their way into the USD history books with an upset win at one of the nation’s premier collegiate rowing events, the San Diego Crew Classic at Mission Bay.

“Winning the Cal Cup at the Crew Classic was one of the most amazing experiences of my life,” recalls ’86 team member Neil Stehly, one of seven siblings to row at USD. “Everybody on that team shared such a strong bond. We’ve all moved on to different chapters in our lives, but getting back together to compete in the Crew Classic Master’s Race has really been a great experience.”

Thanks to the wonders of modern technology — in this case, a team Facebook page that served as part motivating influence, part comic relief — Stehly, along with Treak Tasker, Mike Gerhart, Mike Weber, Brett O’Keefe, Will Creagan, Jamie Bea and Erik Henrion rekindled their commitment to crew racing, and made the group decision that they wouldn’t just be happy competing in the Coach Del Beekley Volunteer Cup Masters’ C race; they were in it to win it.

“You know, a lot of people get back together for these types of alumni races, and it’s all about fun,” says USD team coxswain Len Velez, the man responsible for keeping all eight members in time and on task during their 2,000-meter race. “But when these guys get together …” he smiles, shaking his head as he watches the reunited crew hoist their boat and head towards the water for a practice run, “they just don’t know how to do anything half speed. It’s all or nothing.”

Yet, in order to get into the kind of tiptop physical condition required to match strokes with formidable teams such as the Kent Mitchell Rowing Club — which is comprised predominately of former Olympic and national crew team members — the ’86 team knew they needed to take their preparations to a new level. That meant lots of time in the gym, and on the water.

“Hey, we’re not exactly spring chickens,” says Gerhart, “But I’ve been really impressed how all eight of us are still physically capable of competing at a high level. We embraced the challenge and committed to each other to put ourselves through a grueling fitness program that has demanded, once again, self-sacrifice and physical suffering on behalf of the team.”

Back when getting to class on time was their primary responsibility, that kind of commitment was a lot more palatable. But when there are businesses to run, mouths to feed and mortgages to pay, time management and personal motivation are critical. Thankfully, those who might’ve wavered when realizing the enormity of the task could rely on their teammates for support.

“Man, I hadn’t touched an oar or been on the water since ’86, but some of the boys had and they were pretty persuasive in getting us to come back,” offers Tasker. “The training 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.”

After 16 weeks of intense training (during which the eight crew members dropped 137 pounds, collectively) a lean, mean rowing machine arrived fit and ready for battle at the 2011 Crew Classic. As the crews swept away from the starting line, it quickly became apparent that this four-team final would come down to a battle between USD and their arch-rival, Kent Mitchell. Halfway through the race, USD had established a clear lead, but their lane #3 position in the middle of the bay did them no favors down the stretch, as a strong headwind combined with the Mitchell team’s advantageous positioning in the faster, shallow waters of lane #1 saw the lead diminish with 500 meters to go, and, ultimately, disappear.

While Stehly and his teammates take no great solace in their runner-up status, losing by a boat length to one of the premier rowing teams in the nation is certainly nothing to hang their heads about, especially when considering how their fans reacted as the two crews came ashore.

“There were several hundred people screaming for us on the finish and it was comical when we came into the beach because they were going nuts for our team,” Stehly says. “Kent Mitchell was baffled as to why everyone was cheering for us after they just won the race.”

Even 25 years later, these guys still know how to make quite a splash. — Mike Sauer