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Crew Coach Is Force Behind Men’s Team

Season opener on Charles tomorrow

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Men’s crew head coach Tom Bohrer at the 2009 Head of the Charles. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

Tom Bohrer limps toward his office, leg brace in hand. Despite rupturing his quadriceps tendon six weeks ago, he’s just finished a grueling workout.

“I thought you’d feel sorry for me if I took off my brace,” the 46-year-old men’s crew head coach says with a smile.

In fact, it’s hard to feel sorry for Bohrer, who has two Olympic silver and three world championship medals and was recently inducted into the National Rowing Hall of Fame. In 2009, at the end of his first season at BU, he brought the Terriers to the national championships, where they earned the title of most improved team. He was named University Men’s Coach of the Year at the annual Joy of Sculling Coaching Conference in December 2009.

The Terriers are ranked sixth nationally coming into their season kickoff race on Saturday against Charles River rival Northeastern University, which is ranked eighth.

This season presents a challenge. Unlike last year, when the team had the luxury of climbing up from the bottom, success has built expectations for a strong performance, and pressure like that can wear on a team.

“Don’t let that pressure take away from your performance,” Bohrer tells his athletes. “Trust me, because I feel like I’ve been through everything.”

Well, almost everything. Bohrer’s path to rowing fame was almost accidental. At orientation at Florida Institute of Technology, he stopped at the first table he approached. It was the rowing table. “I don’t know if it was destiny,” he says.

Tall and broad-shouldered, Bohrer took to the sport naturally. “When I started rowing I felt like I made a big impact,” he says. “I could see results and the more I saw results the better I wanted to make them.”

Ted Nash, a gold- and bronze-winning Olympic rower and coach at the Pennsylvania Athletic Club Rowing Association, noticed Bohrer and invited him to train in Philadelphia. The young athlete hesitated, saying he had no job or place to stay. Nash told him not to worry — they’d figure that out later.

Bohrer trained in Philadelphia for almost a dozen years, competing in — and winning — several world championships. He made the U.S. Olympic team twice, winning a silver medal in the coxless fours at the 1988 games in Seoul, South Korea, and again in 1992 in Barcelona, Spain.

Thinking back to his first Olympics, Bohrer says he was a wide-eyed young kid fresh out of college. “It was more like a dream,” he says. “I couldn’t believe I was going to be on TV.”

During the 1989 world championship matchup against the East Germans, Nash remembers, Bohrer pumped out a solid performance despite being ill. Afterwards, the winning opponents approached the coach to say what a “special man” his rower was.

“They knew what a race they had been in,” Nash says. “Indeed, Tom is a special man, a special friend, father, husband, and coach.”

Bohrer worked in engineering for several years, but couldn’t resist the river’s call. When he started coaching clubs and junior programs three to four times a week, it hit him, he says: “I could make a living out of this.”

Over a 20-year career, Bohrer has trained rowers at the masters, collegiate, novice, youth, and national team levels in places as diverse as the Union Boat Club in Boston and Wayland-Weston High School (his team won three state championships).


In the slide show above, watch an early morning practice from the fall 2008 season. Learn more about coxswains on the team here. Photos by Vernon Doucette. Slide show by Caleb Daniloff

At BU, Bohrer leads his men on the water at least six days a week, pounding out 20 hours of practice from early mornings and afternoons. Men’s crew assistant coach Dave Padgett (SAR’99, SED’08) describes his boss at “quietly intense,” someone who’s always encouraging, but knows how to “get on the guys’ cases” when necessary.

Russ Cone, who has been BU’s boatman for 20 years, says the guys on the team worked hard before, but under Bohrer, they’re training smarter. “A lot of times, coaches get set in their ways and they’re resistant to change,” he says. “But I think Tom is always anxious to hear feedback, and I think that’s why he’s going to be a very successful coach.”

Bohrer still competes and still takes home top honors. He won the masters one-man race at the Head of the Charles in 2001 and 2002, placed second the next year, and won the masters eight-man race in 2005 with his former club, Penn AC.

Other crew staff accompany Bohrer on the river, occasionally competing against him at the Head of the Charles. Cone says the head coach is “the guy to beat”; he got 13 seconds from that goal last year during the senior-master singles event.

“I told him I was going to fire him if he beat me,” Bohrer jokes.

Cone still has a job.

Boston University faces Northeastern University in the Arlett Cup this Saturday, April 10. Racing begins at 7:30 a.m. from the DeWolfe Boathouse. The event will later be streamed online at the BU Athletics site.

Leslie Friday can be reached at lfriday@bu.edu; follow her on twitter @lesliefriday.

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