Last week, Emily Regan began getting emails from her former Nichols classmates about her 10-year high school reunion. She was immediately struck by how much time had passed, and where it had taken her.
“I was thinking, ‘Wow, this is not where I pictured myself,’ ” Regan said Thursday from Princeton, where she is in training for the U.S. women’s national rowing team. “I never, ever pictured myself on this path.”
She looked at the date of her reunion – June 3 – and realized that she would likely be unable to attend. Regan will have more pressing matters, like trying to qualify for the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro late this summer.
Regan, a Buffalo native, has a strong chance at making the Olympic team. At 27, she is approaching her peak as a rower. She was part of the U.S. eight that won gold at the 2013 and ’15 World Championships.
Still, you can never be sure in rowing, especially if you’re part of an American women’s program that has become the envy of the world under head coach Tom Terhaar – coincidentally, a fellow Buffalo native.
Terhaar is a quiet, self-effacing sort who works his rowers hard and waits longer than most of the international coaches to pick his squad for the Olympics. His lineup for the Games is expected to be announced by June 20.
So Regan, who was cut from the 2012 Olympic team, continues to train and tries not to dwell on the stress that comes with waiting four years to find out if your athletic dream will come to fruition.
And yes, she couldn’t have imagined being in this spot when she graduated high school a decade ago. Regan was a good natural athlete, but had never quite found her niche in a career that included swimming, lacrosse, cross country, basketball and a few untimely leg injuries.
Regan was part of an elite basketball family. Her dad, Larry, played at St. Lawrence. All three siblings (sister Kelly, brothers Jim and Will) played in college. Kelly and Will were News players of the year in high school. Will helped UB to its first-ever NCAA Tournament as a senior last year.
Emily jokes about being the “forgotten Regan child,” the one who chose a different, more obscure sporting path.
“Sometimes when people think of the Regan family, it’s Kelly, James, William and they’re like, ‘Wait, they have another sister,’ ” she said with a laugh. “That doesn’t bother me at all.”
The path less traveled has resulted in Regan being rated as the 12th-best women’s rower on the planet by World Rowing, the sport’s official site. And to think, she never rowed, aside from one summer in a West Side club in grade school, until she got to college at Michigan State.
Larry Regan said Emily was always a bit of a rebel. Her siblings had gone to small colleges; she chose Michigan State. She figured she could kick back and be a typical college student there.
“I was not really serious about any sport,” she said. “I went to college thinking, ‘I’m done, I want to have a good time and enjoy the experience.’ ”
Her mother, Barb, had different ideas. She and Larry wanted Emily to be involved in group activities in college. Barb remembered how the Nichols athletic directors used to say Emily, who is 6-foot-2, would make a great rower.
During a freshman orientation, Barb saw a booth set up for the women’s rowing team. She told Emily to check it out. By a stroke of luck, her new roommate, who was 5 feet tall, wanted to join to be a coxswain.
“I think there was a lot of fate involved, how everything came together,” Larry Regan said. “You just never know what’s going to happen in life.”
He knew Emily had a strong competitive streak that would thrive in any sport. But he had no idea what would happen next, that she would quickly move from walk-on to scholarship rower and eventually become first-team all-American as a senior.
From there, it was gold in the women’s eight at the under-23 World Championships in 2010 and a gold in the quad at the 2011 worlds. Regan’s career moved fast, like a shell flying across a lake. But in 2012, she was cut from the Olympic team that had a terrific meet in London.
“Looking back, I was so new to training and I didn’t realize how much more I was capable of doing and how much better of an athlete I could be,” she said. “It was definitely disappointing to not make the team. But I was definitely not ready as an athlete.
“I did not have confidence in myself,” she said. “I looked at the older girls who had already had so much success as out of my league.”
She made her first big leap when the U.S. team reassembled in the fall after the London Games. Regan kept improving and felt she was equal to the newer women on the team.
“It took away the intimidation,” she said. “I was like, ‘Oh, I can do this. I can be faster.’ ”
Regan was in the women’s eight that won gold in 2013. The American eight is the glamor boat of women’s rowing. It has not lost a major international race since 2005 under Terhaar’s leadership. She was also in the eight that won gold and set a world record of 5:54.16 at the World Cup in 2013.
But in 2014, she slipped back again. Regan said injuries, illness and personal issues hurt her performance. She didn’t make any of the top women’s boats and dropped toward the bottom of the national team.
Regan had some long talks with Terhaar, who told her she needed to expand her workouts if she wanted to go to the next level. Regan figured she was following the team program. Why wasn’t that enough? But Terhaar knew she was capable of more. Deep down, she did, too.
“I’m a pretty stubborn person,” she said. Terhaar “would tell me things early on in my career, but I was like, ‘That’s crazy. We’re already doing so much.’
“I don’t know what it was in my brain, but I was unhappy with where I was after the 2014 season. I started doing extra workouts and seeing huge improvements the next year, just realizing I was capable of doing more than I thought. It was like, surprise! I guess the coach does know best.”
Last year, she was back in the eight that won gold at the World Championships to extend its staggering win streak. Regan was in the five seat, generally where the tallest and most powerful rower sits. Now, two months from final selection, she has a good chance to be in the eight when it attempts to win a third straight Olympic gold medal in Brazil.
“Ideally, I would like to be in the eight,” she said, “but I would definitely not be upset racing in any boat at the Olympics. If I could just make the team, I’m imagining that I would cry my eyes out.
“The amount of work and effort and time that my teammates and I put in is so much. To just make the women’s Olympic team is going to be one of the biggest battles of all of our lives.”
Rowing is a grueling, largely anonymous existence, with little or no financial reward. Everyone knows the UConn women won four straight NCAA titles in basketball. What casual sports fan knows about the U.S. women’s rowers being unbeaten in the eight since 2005?
“She’s told me rowing made her discover within herself that she can do anything,” Larry Regan said. “She has learned she has tremendous discipline. She’s come a long way. But it’s not like this competitive spirit came on all of a sudden when she went to college. She’s a redhead, for crying out loud! She’s got fire, believe me.”
Larry called the U.S. women’s rowing team one of the great untold stories. Some day, Emily can tell her old high school pals how she spent the last 10 years, and how it felt to reach the top of the world.