RIO DE JANEIRO – In the summer between his freshman and sophomore years of high school, a skinny Amherst kid named Tom Terhaar showed up with a couple of his pals for a “Learn to Row’ camp at the West Side Rowing Club.
“They tried to put me in the coxswain’s seat,” Terhaar said some three decades later. “I refused.”
This was typical of Terhaar, who even as a boy possessed the tough, competitive and defiant personality that would come to define him as one of the world’s finest rowing coaches later in life. He sat stubbornly on the shore as the bigger kids went through the first rows.
“Eventually, they let me in a boat,” Terhaar said. “I liked it right away. A year later, I transferred into St. Joe’s and started rowing there for Bill Maggio.”
Thus began a rowing career that would forge one of the great dynasties in the history of the sport. Terhaar had a solid career at St. Joe’s, then went to Northeastern University, where he rowed as a heavyweight as a freshman.
Terhaar then made a concession to his diminutive stature by transferring to Rutgers, where he rowed lightweight at 142 pounds. Upon graduating from Rutgers in 1991, Terhaar heard that Harmut Buscacher, a German national coach now working in the U.S., wanted help with the women’s national team.
His girlfriend, Jen Dore, a nine-time national team member and two-time Olympian, was a candidate for the women’s team. Buscacher offered Terhaar a coaching job. Terhaar says it was “incredible” luck, because they wanted to make sure Dore stayed with the national team. It was the break of a lifetime.
Terhaar helped out with the women’s team while coaching the Columbia University lightweight men for five years. He led the Columbia varsity eight to its first victory in 55 years in the Eastern Association of Rowing Colleges championship.
After serving as the top assistant for the women’s national team from 1994-2000, Terhaar took over as head coach in 2001, at age 32. The improvement was instant and dramatic. The women’s eight, which had a reputation for losing big races and hadn’t medaled in an Olympics since 1984, won gold in the 2002 World Championships. In ‘04, they took Olympic silver in Athens.
Terhaar transformed the women’s national team with sound technical changes, a tireless commitment to hard work, and a demanding motivational style that brought out the best in his athletes.
He’s a modest and self-effacing man. He and Dore are married and have four children. It can take months to get him to submit to an interview. Terhaar, the most successful rowing coach on the planet, doesn’t have a Wikipedia page. He credits the success of his program to an expanding talent pool spawned by Title IX.
“The sport is exploding,” said Terhaar, who will be 47 next month. “It’s just incredible how big it is now and how many great athletes we’re getting.”
Sure, but someone has to mold them, and there’s no denying his stunning record of success. His women’s eight could be the most dominant boat ever. It has won its last 10 international races and hasn’t lost since 2005. And at 10 a.m. this morning on Lagoa, in the heart of Rio, the eight will attempt to win its third straight Olympic gold medal.
The eight is a huge favorite Saturday. It won its qualifying heat by eight seconds and was more than three seconds faster than the Great Britain boat that won the other heat. Still, Terhaar is ever wary. He was not amused by a Sports Illustrated headline that called them “The Unbeatables.”
“You know me well enough to know I would put no stock in such a foolish statement,” he said. “I haven’t read the article but I heard the title. It’s hard. Very, very hard. If everything goes right, they have a chance at winning, nothing more. Then they have to earn it.”
No team is invincible. There’s enormous pressure to keep a streak alive. Terhaar said there’s nothing quite like the pressure of a big international race. But he concedes that some of the most fierce competition takes place when the American women go against each other in national team workouts.
“The team does compete consistently against one another,” Terhaar said, “and the effort and habits needed to do so does push them to another level they didn’t know they were capable of.”
Buffalo native Emily Regan thought she was doing all she was capable of a couple of years ago. But Terhaar pushed her and made her realize she had another competitive level, that she had greater possibilities as a rower than she imagined. A year later, she was in the World Championship eight.
Regan said the fact she was from Buffalo never entered the equation. They never talked about their hometown, except perhaps for a random lament about the state of the Bills.
“He keeps his distance from the athletes,” said Regan, who will row in her first Olympic final Saturday. “He’s in an incredibly difficult position, because there is no country in the world with as many women as talented as we have. So he has the tough decision of trying to figure out who the right athletes are for each boat.”
Regan said the women in the eight don’t think of themselves as unbeatable. Terhaar wouldn’t allow it. He has convinced them that nothing will be handed to them and they have to earn the gold. The other boats will surely be primed to take down the “unbeatable” American women.
“They performed very well on Monday with a solid first race,” Terhaar said. “For the final, we will need to be even better to earn a medal. It’s a good group and they like to race, so I think they will be ready.”