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Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame: Tom Terhaar's rowing record sets the gold standard

Tom Terhaar had an odd response when asked for his reaction to being elected to the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame. He laughed, as he often does when forced to talk about his least favorite subject: Himself.

"It's comical, almost," Terhaar said. "A women's rowing coach inducted into the sports Hall of Fame. It was very humbling. My dad would have been very proud. So yes, I'm very honored."

Terhaar, who has been coach of the U.S. women's national team since 2001, is an intensely private man. He's perhaps the best rowing coach on the planet, but he doesn't have a Wikipedia page. It can take weeks to track him down for an interview when he's preparing for a major regatta.

A devoted family man and father of four (ages 13 to 5),  Terhaar lives in Cranbury, N.J., just outside Princeton where his athletes train. But Terhaar remains connected to his native Buffalo, where he took up rowing as a high school freshman and was a top competitor at St. Joe's under Bill Maggio.

Terhaar comes back home whenever he gets a chance. He said his wife, two-time former U.S. Olympic rower Jen Dore, loves Buffalo and "would move here in a heartbeat." This past June, he returned home for a St. Joe's high school reunion.

"It was a lot of fun, a great time," Terhaar said. "We're all still close friends, the whole bunch. We get together two or three times a year. It's probably a group of eight or nine of us."

Tom Murray, a former St. Joe's and Olympic rower, was part of that group. For years, Murray pushed behind the scenes for Terhaar to get more recognition for his achievements. After awhile, Terhaar, 48, couldn't avoid the attention as his national women's team became the best in the world.

Under Terhaar's leadership, the U.S. women's eight has become the most successful and celebrated boat in the world. They have won 11 consecutive international races, including the last three Olympics, and haven't lost since 2005. This week, the women's eight will put its amazing streak on line as the home team in the World Rowing Championships in Sarasota, Fla.

Terhaar can joke all he likes, but his record stacks up against that of other coaches in the Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame: Scotty Bowman's nine Stanley Cups; Tara VanDerveer's 1,000 wins in Division I women's basketball; Marv Levy's four straight Super Bowl appearances; Sally Kus's 292-match streak in high school girls volleyball.

There's an argument to be made for Terhaar as the best rowing coach in the world, men's or women's. He said there has been talk of him taking over to the U.S. men's team, but USA Rowing doesn't want to tamper with the women's success. But best in the world? It's an argument he wants no part of.

"Um, I know that I'm not," he said with a laugh. "I know there are quite a few other coaches who have had more success and more wins. So I know I'm not the most successful rowing coach. Again, I've been fortunate to be associated with the women's eight, but there's also been a lot of boats I have been coaching that haven't been successful simultaneously.

"I'm the guy with this job right now. I've got some great athletes."

Terhaar is at the pinnacle of his sport, and that's good enough for him. He's a fiercely competitive soul. He took up rowing between his freshman and sophomore years in high school. Because he was small, they wanted him to be a coxswain. He refused and sat on shore until the coaches relented.

He rowed as a heavyweight in high school and for one year at Northeastern. A year later, he transferred to Rutgers to row lightweights. He graduated in 1991 and got a job assisting Harmut Buscacher with the U.S. women's team. He jokes that what they really wanted was to make sure Jen stayed on the team.

But Terhaar had a gift for leading and teaching. While helping with the U.S. women, he coached Columbia University's lightweight squad for five years, leading the varsity eight to its first Eastern Association championship in 55 years.

Terhaar moved up to top assistant of the U.S. women's team in 1994, at age 25. Seven years later, he took over the women's national team, which had been foundering and hadn't medaled at an Olympics since 1984. Under Terhaar, they promptly won gold at the 2002 Worlds and silver at the '04 Olympics.

Then, after a loss in the '05 Worlds, the women's eight began its remarkable streak, which includes three Olympics golds and eight World Championships titles.

The athletes have changed. Buffalo native Emily Regan is one of three women from Rio who will compete in the eight in Sarasota. The venues change, too, and the rest of the world battles to catch up. The one constant is Terhaar, a noted taskmaster who denies the pressure of keeping the streak alive and cares only about helping his rowers get better and go as fast as possible.

"It's more the pressure to get the kids to go forward as best as they can," he said. "That's the biggest thing. We never set out and said, 'OK, we're going to win however many in a row'. It just rolls from one win to the next, like 'Let's see how fast we can go', and that's been it."

If it gains him personal acclaim, so be it. Terhaar feels that in a sense, he will be entering the Hall of Fame on behalf of the entire Buffalo rowing community, which has put more locals in the Olympics than any other sport in recent times but tends to get overshadowed by the major sports.

"Yeah, it's fantastic," Terhaar said "Rowing in Buffalo is great, and it's really nice to see that it's growing."

He regrets that his parents, Jack and Janet, aren't alive to see it. But Terhaar will be glad to have his St. Joe's pals and his relatives -- his brother John and sisters, Nancy and Sue, live in Buffalo -- on hand for his induction Nov. 1. As of a few weeks ago, he hadn't written his speech.

"That's funny," Terhaar said with one last, big laugh. "No, I have not yet. Sorry. Ahhh, no. Hopefully, I'll get a lot of practice while I'm waiting for racing and right afterwards."

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