RIO DE JANEIRO – It has become a quadrennial ritual for Buffalo native Tom Terhaar at the Olympics. After his women’s eight wins gold, he is nowhere to be found. For a good 90 minutes, he wanders away and allows his athletes to glory in the moment and bask in the attention.
On Saturday, Terhaar’s eight won a third consecutive Olympic gold, its 11th straight win dating back to 2005. When Terhaar finally met with reporters, the U.S. women’s head coach recited a common, humble refrain.
“I’m really, really lucky,” he said. “There are a lot of coaches who would love to have this job. So I’m aware I’m very, very fortunate. Yeah. I got in at the right time, I think. I’ve got great athletes to work with.”
But it’s got to be more than luck, said a writer from New Jersey, where Terhaar lives with his wife and four children and runs the national team.
“I know,” he said. “We try to work hard, too. But yeah, I’ve got good kids.”
It does help to have talent. Terhaar points to the rich pool of athletes, channeled through the nation’s many fine collegiate rowing programs. There’s truth to it. The Romanians, who finished third Saturday, said they have eight women’s rowers in their program. Total.
One of the Romanians said if her country had half the talent pool of the Americans, they’d have a chance. Of course, this is the same country that won the women’s eight in three straight Olympics from 1996-2004.
Terhaar laughed out loud when he heard the Romanian lament. “That’s funny,” he said. “That’s hilarious. They did just fine three Olympics in a row. So whatever.”
Well, at least someone got a rise out of him. While Terhaar is quick to credit the talent pool for his success, talent only gets you so far. Rowing insiders hold him in very high esteem and consider him a genius when it comes to tactics, training and motivating young women.
The proof comes on race day, when the U.S. eight becomes a vivid expression of Terhaar’s rowing philosophy. On Saturday, they rowed their race, settling into third when two of their rivals surged to an early lead and waiting to make their big move at the 1,000-meter mark.
“If people are going to try to beat you, they’re going to get up in front or save it and try to charge later,” he said. “We kind of anticipated the ones who basically were throwing in their hat and saying ‘This is all we’ve got’ and going hard.”
But it’s not as if Terhaar instructed his team to hang back and be trailing halfway through the race, which is rare for the eight.
“No, I wouldn’t say it was part of the plan,” Terhaar said with a smile. “We knew it could happen, but they’re a very fit group. They’ve worked very hard to get very fit, so we knew in the second half of the race they would be good.
“I’m very relieved and happy,” he said. “But it’s a pretty tough week. It was challenging. Conditions were extremely challenging and the schedule was tough. So there’s a tremendous amount of relief.”
He had good reason to be relieved. Until Saturday, the U.S. didn’t have a single rowing medal, men’s or women’s. His women’s quad and pair, both expected to medal, finished out of the top three. So his reputation would have taken a hit if his celebrated eight had been upset in Rio.
But Gevvie Stone took silver in the single sculls Saturday morning, getting the U.S. on the board. Then the women’s eight gave Terhaar his only gold of the week, the one that mattered the most, in the very next race.
“Yeah, yeah. Absolutely,” he said. “It’s been a really good group. You hear them and they sound like they’ve been brainwashed. We don’t brainwash them. They really do feel it. They really do rely on one another. So when they don’t do well, it’s really hard.”
Terhaar keeps an emotional distance from his athletes. But he was thrilled with the eight’s performance Saturday and let them know it.
“He was just proud of us,” said Emily Regan. “In addition to us on the team, our coaches are the only ones who know how much work we put in. I think 99 percent of the year, he keeps it hidden. But he definitely let us know he was proud and thankful for the work we put in.”
Terhaar, who got his start at the West Side Rowing Club, brightened when he was told that Regan had become the first Buffalo rower to win an Olympic gold medal.
“Really?” he said. “First Buffalonian to win? It’s awesome.”
You’ve won gold, someone said.
“No, I haven’t,” Terhaar said.