'Wanted: Rowing Coach,' Twenty Years After The Fiction

The UCSB boathouse (Photo by Culver Lau)

Editor's Note: In 2013, Olympian Brad Lewis discussed his time coaching at the University of California, Santa Barbara, in a podcast for a website called Sports Coach Radio. In the interview, which covers a range of coaching-related topics, Lewis attributes the team’s struggles to drunk and hungover athletes, calls the program "the worst in the country, bar none," and states that most students at the university have a medical marijuana card (skip forward to minutes 39-42 for Lewis' thoughts on UCSB). As most readers of RR know, UCSB has long had one of the strongest club rowing programs on the West Coast, and as such we thought there was more to the story than the singular perspective that Lewis offers.

Here's a look at the reality behind the fiction.

After Brad Lewis wrote one of the best books ever about rowing, Assault On Lake Casitas, he wrote a work of fiction entitled Wanted: Rowing Coach. Although Lewis chose to present his work in this fashion, he had himself actually coached a year at the University of California, Santa Barbara, the setting for the book, and many of the characters portrayed were based on real people. Namely, my teammates and me.

"Upon our return to the dock, I got the best of Brad Lewis the coach. He talked about rowing, and about how to push yourself to the limit."It all began, like most ill-fated journeys, in a blaze of hope and promise. Lewis had become acquainted with UCSB's rowing program partly through me, or perhaps more accurately through my parents, whom he had met at the San Diego Crew Classic. That chance meeting led to the opportunity of a lifetime for me, a row in Newport with Brad in a double. A relatively brief row, at least for him, as his place in the boat was willingly conceded to a college rower who happened to be around at the time. I don't fault Brad for the brevity of that row, in fact I'm amazed we made it as far as we did. He was a gold medalist, I was a second year college rower who had basically never sculled before.

Upon our return to the dock, I got the best of Brad Lewis the coach. He talked about rowing, and about how to push yourself to the limit. We even did his famous test of mental and physical toughness—what he called “Hang Time” in Wanted: Rowing Coach, where the goal is to hang as long as possible on a chin-up bar without re-gripping. I was enthralled; this was gold medal material, straight out of the pages of my favorite book. I would later realize that this was Brad’s best coaching medium and subject matter, a one on one conversation with a rower who just wanted to go faster.

When the men’s varsity coach at UCSB left the following spring, Lewis was interested in filling the position. I don’t think many of us spent too much time wondering why, though perhaps we should have given that he himself had chronicled his many struggles relating to coaches. Later we wondered if his interest had just come from a desire to create material for a book, or if he truly wanted to be the coach he had always wanted. Perhaps it was both.

"The enthusiasm over the news that Brad had agreed to coach the varsity men was shared by everyone in the program, men and women alike."The varsity squad that fall was a promising one, numbering just over two eights. At the time, UCSB had a particularly strong tradition of lightweight rowing, with a streak of six consecutive Pacific Coast Rowing Championship titles in the men’s lightweight eight. On the heavyweight side, while we couldn’t claim a streak of titles like the lightweights, or a recently graduated Olympic silver medalist in Amy Fuller like the women’s team, there was enough talent and experience to believe that we could win some races.

The enthusiasm over the news that Brad had agreed to coach the varsity men was shared by everyone in the program, men and women alike. He was a gold medalist, and one of the most famous rowers in the United States. But he wasn’t just a famous gold medalist, he was a California kid who won his gold medal a few miles down the 101, and did it by beating the system. Brad didn’t have the pedigree of his domestic protagonists, and as club rowers from a school many associated with a Halloween street party, neither did we. It seemed like the perfect fit.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t.

Though Brad brought much of what had made him successful as an athlete, from workouts to mental training, he also brought the lessons of a single sculler, the need for independence and the desire to control one’s own destiny. He also expected to see in us a similar quantity of that which he possessed in abundance—self-direction. Like any Olympian, and certainly any Olympic gold medalist, he was exceptionally self-motivated, but also uniquely motivated to chart his own path. As chronicled in both Assault and The Amateurs, how else could he have endured thousands of hours of solitary training and the many setbacks before his ultimate success at Lake Casitas?

His athletes that year though, while not the disaffected, goofy beach kids portrayed in the book, didn't share Brad's passion for independence. We were normal college students, who ran the gamut in athletic maturity. We wanted to be pushed by Brad, but that wasn’t what he was there to do, at least in his estimation. He was there to guide us, to mentor, but ultimately to allow us to choose the path that we wanted to travel.

And that fit with who he was as an athlete; he didn’t need to be yelled at, he just wanted some feedback every once in awhile. It’s the sort of relationship seen in his interactions with Tony Johnson and Mike Livingston in Assault On Lake Casitas.

UCSB racing in San Diego

We needed more. Throughout our athletic backgrounds we had been pushed by coaches, told what success was, and how we measured up on a daily basis. When our team captain called Brad to ask that he push us harder on and off the water he responded somewhat dismissively with “well Captain, part of my job is to teach you to push yourselves.”

His job was to do that, but he was also fond of telling us that rowing should be a lower priority in our lives behind school, family, and relationships. It’s not that this was wrong, but the repetition of that statement felt disconnected from the competing message of self-motivation. Maybe we should have done a better job of being proactive, doing workouts on our own, and looking back I can’t blame Brad for having high expectations for our capacities, or for encouraging us to put rowing into context. It just didn’t translate to success on the water.

We were slow that year. Slower than we had been the year before, or would be the year after. This was largely a product of under-conditioning and a lack of cohesion, both technical and psychological. In his effort to empower us Brad had decided on an athlete centric decision matrix, wherein we decided what the lineups would be.

"Peculiar methods or not, we wanted Brad’s approval."That year, as a starboard, I raced in every odd numbered seat in the eight, with each position change representative of a response to a loss and the hope that the reorganization of personnel would lead to a different result. I can remember a few post-race conversations starting with “if I were at stroke”; in the Brad Lewis system such a statement was more than a hypothetical, it was a precursor to tomorrow’s lineup change. It was also how we broke down as a team. While it wasn’t intended, putting the decisions in our hands, especially after the losses mounted, pitted teammates, friends, and roommates against one another. That breakdown would culminate, at least in a team sense, in the defection of the lightweight eight from Brad to the novice men’s coach, a division that separated us from friends that we had shared workouts with for years.

Competition between teammates was a recurring theme, mostly in unique, and sometimes peculiar, ways. While we had many intersquad races in small boats around Lake Cachuma, we also had contests to see who was the best at punching the speed bag Brad installed in the boathouse, who could pull the best erg time with a five-pound plate balanced on our heads, who could race down a mountain the fastest, through thickets of Manzanita and poison oak, and of course, who could hang on a chin up bar the longest. We ran quite a bit as well, around the Santa Barbara Airport, up the old San Marcos pass, or along Goleta Beach. The prize for all of these competitions was usually a Crunch bar, a token of praise from our coach that most went to great lengths to secure.

Peculiar methods or not, we wanted Brad’s approval. In that race down the mountain my roommate, a caricature of whom would appear in the book as a stack of fabrications named "Moose Morse," knowingly went through poison oak to take the shortest path to the finish line, a decision that would ultimately lead to a trip to the hospital to treat the severe rash that was a byproduct of his determination.

Taken individually all of these workouts and practices were fresh and innovative, the kind of singular experience that would have been perfect to break up the monotony of more traditional training. Stitched together into a whole season, however, they left us lacking in the type of hard training and technical repetition that characterizes the sport. Shadow rowing can’t replace what it’s meant to simulate, and thus we returned again and again to the need to be pushed by Brad. For some reason he held back from prescribing to us the type of hard work that made him a champion.

And so it ended a frustrating year for us, and probably for Brad as well. As much as would I have liked to have it turn out differently, with a pile of shirts and medals to cap off a year under the tutelage of a famous Olympian, it didn’t work out that way. That it wasn’t a successful year was no one’s fault and everyone’s. He wasn’t suited to be a coach, and we weren’t suited to be eight single scullers who got together on the weekends to race an eight.

"In the immediate aftermath it was difficult to get past the frustration and disappointment, but in the long term I’ve learned to find value in the lessons learned. "I think that perhaps he thought that a club program, as opposed to a varsity one, would be the perfect lab for his experiments in athlete empowerment and unconventional training. Unrestrained by the trappings of an athletic department, with athletes so motivated to row that each was willing to pay for the opportunity, he would have willing subjects and the flexibility to do what he wanted. If it didn’t go well then who would believe that a bunch of kids from a party school could ever be disciplined enough to be rowers anyway. This would manifest itself in Wanted: Rowing Coach, and in comments since, wherein he reduced us to the types of shallow generalizations he fought for years to overcome as an athlete.

Despite all of this that year wasn’t a waste. In the immediate aftermath it was difficult to get past the frustration and disappointment, but in the long term I’ve learned to find value in the lessons learned. Ultimately, though that year was the most unsuccessful of my four years as a collegiate rower, I carry more from it than any other. Each day with Brad came with a lesson; mountaineers, religious figures, weightlifters, and rowers all contributed their teachings in an anthology edited by Brad.

In Wanted: Rowing Coach he, or his fictional counterpart, assumes his athletes’ weren’t listening. We were. I just wish he would have told the story differently, and explained his own limitations as opposed to just ours.

As Virginia Woolf once said, "If you do not tell the truth about yourself you cannot tell it about other people."

-O'Reilly McMahan

Popular posts from this blog

The 30 Best Rowing Coaches of All Time, Part 3: The Top 10

"I Row Crew" — Rowing in 'The Social Network'

Video Of The Week: Holland Beker 2013

The 30 Best Rowing Coaches of All Time, Part 1

Best Rowing Drills: 5 Favorites of Olympic Champion Esther Lofgren