Former Temple rower Claudia Loeber almost didn’t graduate.
Two months before Loeber, a photography major, was scheduled to present an image-based senior thesis, her hard drive crashed – as she lost more than two years of photographs she hoped to use for her project about the rowing team.
When her rowing teammates found out, they decided to help.
“That Saturday, all of my teammates came together and they presented me with this envelope with all of this money in it and a signed card,” Loeber said. “They donated their own money to help me to find a company to recover the data on that hard drive. I was just sobbing for the rest of the day.”
“It is a really big family,” Loeber added. “They are really amazing.”
For more than two months, the women’s rowing team believed its “family” was going to be separated after the Board of Trustees approved a plan in December to cut seven sports. But after an unprecedented reversal by the university, the board voted in February to reinstate crew and rowing.
Coach Rebecca Grzybowski and her women’s rowing team are set to return to a renovated East Park Canoe House within the next 18 months following a $2.5 million donation from the city and a $3 million donation from trustee H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest’s foundation.
“It’s a relief,” Grzybowski said. “I’m optimistic about what the future holds and that we can continue what we’re building.”
Based in the rowing capital of America, the women’s rowing program has contributed to Philadelphia’s rowing history since it began more than 25 years ago.
Two Wooden Boats
After two years of competing as a club team, the women’s rowing team rose to varsity status in 1987. Former California-Santa Barbara coach Debbie Rilling Bronder became the first person to lead the program on the water.
The sport was beneficial to the university because, with a large roster, it helped evenly distribute the athletic department’s male-to-female student-athlete ratio. Title IX, a federal mandate that requires universities to maintain such a ratio, was used as one of the primary reasons for cutting the teams in December.
During Fall 1987, Bronder spent two months recruiting rowers for what was Temple’s newest sports program. Flyers were posted throughout campus, yielding 24 committed women comprised of past club team members and walk-ons – a far cry from Bronder’s 150-member rowing team on the West Coast. The rowing team has continued its walk-on recruitment efforts, as the team held an information session to join the squad as recently as this past fall.
Bronder quickly realized that the team lacked experience. In a 1988 interview with the Inquirer, Bronder said “the girls weren’t nearly as proficient as I’d expected.”
“Even my novices at Santa Barbara were more advanced than the girls here,” Bronder added.
As a result, Bronder and then-assistant coach Joe Sullivan invested a lot of time in developing her new team’s rowing fundamentals and techniques throughout the fall.
“I remember one time we had a week of intense workouts and I remember literally walking up the stairs to my apartment at Temple Towers and being acutely aware of every muscle in my leg and back,” Lisa Marsh, one of the first rowers in the program, said. “I remember thinking, I am in pain but this is fantastic. This is the most amazing thing ever because I was so aware of how I was working and how it was improving my body.”
With only two wooden boats, Bronder divided the teams’ daily practice throughout the day as the varsity 8 and the junior varsity 8 boats would sometimes row in the morning, while the novice 8 trekked to the Schuylkill in the afternoon.
Despite having boats with mostly novices, the varsity 8, JV 8 and novice/freshman 8, all qualified for the Dad Vail Regatta – the largest intercollegiate rowing event in the country – in the program’s first year of existence.
Temple’s JV and varsity 8 boats both made it to the finals of the Dad Vail, which feature more than 30,000 competitors.
In 1988, the varsity 8 boat finished in fifth place behind the University of Minnesota, Trinity College of Hartford and the Naval Academy.
“It was the atmosphere, the expectations was that Temple was going to win the Dad Vail every year because we were on a roll and the women were just an off shoot of the men,” Marsh said.
The next few years saw a series of changes. During the 1988-9 season, the rowing team received its first uniforms, practice clothes and strength and conditioning coaches.
The program saw four coaching changes in the next four seasons, from 1988-91. In the spring of 1990, with Tony Neczypor at the helm, the varsity 8 placed fifth in the finals of the Dad Vail for the second time in the program’s short history. That same year, the JV squad finished second behind one of the premier rowing college teams in America – Navy.
‘All Guts and No Glory’
In 1991, the women’s varsity 8 boat from Holy Spirit High School in Absecon, N.J., won its third consecutive high school national championship. Jerry Flood, who became the fourth head coach in as many seasons for the Owls, took notice.
“I offered almost the whole eight a scholarship,” Flood said. “Five out of the seven seniors came to Temple, which the next year was a huge help.”
Flood, a former Temple rower, and his coaching staff also did on-campus recruiting. They hauled a varsity 8 boat onto the middle of campus near the Fox School of Business in an effort to recruit walk-ons.
“They just had a bunch of brochures and said, ‘You look like an athlete, why don’t you come out to a meeting about rowing and you can try a practice?” Michelle Busza Fencl, a former Temple rower, said.
That was how Fencl started her rowing career at Temple. A few Canadian rowers and recruits from Holy Spirit also joined the program that year.
Now with a team, Flood continued his second-year stint as coach in 1992 alongside Vince Fitzpatrick and Rob Plotnick as his assistants. For the next couple of years, the Owls secured medals at regattas and continued to build the program.
With more rowers came intense training. In the fall and spring, the student-athletes were on the Schuylkill as early as 5 a.m. and then back on the river in the evening for nearly two hours. During that time, the women’s team shared 9,000 square feet with the men’s team and high school teams at the East Park Canoe House.
“The women’s space was the foyer to the men’s locker room,” Fitzpatrick said. “The men were gracious enough before they came out of their locker room to knock, saying ‘I am coming out’ and the girls would say, ‘Wait.’ So there wasn’t much space at all. It wasn’t as bad as it is today, rowing out of tents, but [it] wasn’t much better. It only had one toilet for every rower in the locker room.”
Three times a week in the afternoon, the women were in the weight room, which was then called Thomas Hall, but was later renovated and renamed Shusterman Hall.
“The first two years I call them all guts and no glory in a sense,” Athina Ginis, a walk-on, said. “We are working out in an abandoned church. It was really bare. We have ergs there. There were 30-40 plus people in and out, working out. It was grouchy, but honestly everything that we need to train like our ergs, we had weight and bears, we had. We spent hours there. We spent half of our lives in that erg room.”
TASTE OF VICTORY
In the 1994 Cherry Blossom Regatta, Temple faced schools like Navy, Georgetown, Delaware and George Washington. Temple’s varsity 8 was trailing Navy in second place with less than 500 meters to go, when the water got choppy. The Owls lowered their stroke rate and maneuvered through the race with a gold medal performance, beating Navy in a close finish for the first time in program history.
“I don’t think any of us expected us to win,” Ginis said. “I don’t think our coach expected us to win. I don’t think any other school or coach there expected us to win. They were basically like, ‘Who are they? Where did they come from?’”
The medals were not the only thing the women won in Washington that day, however. They also took home the opponents’ shirts.
“To get the shirt off the back of the team that you just beat, it was almost like a trophy,” Fencl said. “So I was rowing the five seat. The five seat from that boat would hand you their shirt. So I have a ton of shirts in my closet.”
The rowing team continued its success when it outraced cross-city rival University of Pennsylvania in the Petite Finals of the San Diego Crew Classic, one of the nation’s largest rowing competitions.
After establishing themselves as a dominant team throughout the spring, the 56th anniversary of the Dad Vail Regatta arrived in 1994. With both sides of Kelly Drive closed, people began tailgating as more than 30,000 people converged on the banks of the river.
“When we got to the finals, we felt even more confident that ‘Yes, we can do this,” Ginis said. “Not only did we want it for ourselves, we wanted to be the first because no other women’s team before us had done it. We had this chance to be the first.”
With 2,000 meters separating the women’s varsity 8 boat from the finish line, the Owls out-rowed all of their competitors, becoming the first women’s team in program history to win the Dad Vail Regatta.
The women’s team also shared the victory that year with the men’s crew team.
“They were always so good and in their own league,” Stacy Schott, the coxswain of the 1994 women’s team, said. “We felt like we were up to par with them now. I think we got a lot of respect from the men’s crew at that point.”
The following year, Temple received new boats and moved their indoor training to Pearson-McGonigle Hall. The Owls continued their success on the water, winning regattas and qualifying for the Dad Vail again, which was televised. The varsity 8 boat, however, could not out stroke the University of Michigan in the finals, as the Owls finished in second place.
Despite going through coaching changes mid-season, the Owls captured their second Dad Vail title in 1996, beating Purdue and Delaware.
Later that summer, the varsity 8 boat was selected to row in Great Britain’s prestigious Henley Royal Regatta. As opposed to a multi-lane race, the Owls rowed in head-to-head races in the heats throughout the semifinals, winning each of their competitions.
In the finals, Temple faced off against the University of Dublin, but the Owls came up just short.
Since then, the Owls have had four coaching changes since Jamie Gordon left after the 2001 spring season. The Owls have won the Kelly Cup in 2006 and the Bergen Cup in 2007. In 2013, for the first time since 1992, Temple had three varsity 8 boats in the finals of the Dad Vail – although the team has not won the regatta since 1996.
After serving as an assistant coach under Jason Read, Grzybowski took to the helm in August of 2012. Without much time to grow the program, Grzybowski said she focused on preparing the more experienced rowers.
Now in her second season, Grzybowski is leading a Temple women’s rowing team of close to 60 student-athletes – which consist of mostly freshmen and sophomores.
“This past year we had enough time to do an on campus push so we did flyers, emails, post cards everywhere,” Grzybowski said. “We were at TempleFest for three days with boats in the middle of campus just sort of grabbing anybody that looked tall and athletic and just sharing the energy.”
The Owls received new boats ahead of their season and are set to have a renovated boathouse within the next year-and-a-half.
So now after months of training and competitions, the women’s rowing team will have its first race of the spring season on March 22, which Grzybowski said is just the start of a very promising future.
“The sky is the limit, I feel,” Grzybowski said. “Our goal this year is to get everyone in the finals of Vails. To win a conference championship in the next two years and then from there we have to get to NCAA. If we win our conference championship we’ll get a bid and then from there the level of competition steps up big time. So I think first is get there. Win your conference championships.”
Danielle Nelson can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @Dan_Nels.