When he was a teenager at Canisius High School, Jim Neil didn't think much about his rowing future.
Sure, he enjoyed the fun of the crew team, liked his teammates and certainly liked winning. He knew he was good at it, but he had no idea what would be in store for him. No clue that his prowess could take him to at least 12 countries, among them Finland, the Czech Republic and Croatia. No idea he'd meet so many interesting people, make lifelong friends, compete in the Olympic Games and win a world championship in his back yard.
With his competitive days behind him, Neil is back at Canisius. He took over as head rowing coach in August, and he and the Crusaders are preparing for the fall season.
"The timing was right," said Neil, who moved back to Buffalo from New Jersey with his wife and two children three years ago. "It was something I couldn't not do. Most kids don't know what they're capable of. They don't know their physical limits and they don't know the opportunities that are available to them. They don't yet see that a series of small decisions can lead to amazing opportunities.
"When I was rowing, it was something different. I liked it, I knew I would do well in the sport, but I didn't know all the doors it would open up for me."
Neil's resume is impressive. With Canisius, he went to the 1986 Junior World Rowing Championships in then-Czechoslovakia. He also won two U.S. and one Canadian Scholastic National Championship.
As a junior at Rutgers in 1989, he began an 11-year stint with the U.S. national team. He competed in two Olympics -- the 1992 Barcelona Games (fourth-place finish) and the 1996 Atlanta Games.
Then there are his gold medals: two from the Pan American Games (1995 and 1998) and one at the 1999 World Rowing Championships in St. Catharines, Ont.
The winning, that was good. But the people he met while rowing, they were even better.
"Mostly I remember the relationships and the people you come in contact with," Neil said. "When you go to a selection camp for the national team there are all these other people your age from across the country. You get to benefit from their experiences and learn all the different things they're doing. You then also have people who are former teammates that are in business and successful in business, and depending on what you want to do, that can open doors for you."
Business is what Neil had on his mind in 2000 when he retired from competitive rowing. He returned to school to get his master's degree and moved back to Buffalo to work in a real estate business with his father and brother.
The scene at his alma mater has changed since his graduation in 1986. While there were only about 20 rowers then, a steady stream of crew members numbering from 60 to 90 participate every year now.
"The profile of the sport is higher, particularly after the U.S. Olympic eight won a gold medal," Neil said. "We have our own Web site now and there are more media outlets covering the sport. Kids now can identify with personalities.
"When I was rowing, people looked at it as a sort of elitist sport. It's not. It's easy to learn and it's pretty accessible. And thanks to Title IX, more people are aware of college opportunities. Sometimes, if you're a good rower and have good grades, it makes some elite, Ivy League colleges more accessible."