Back in 2006, Barb Regan accompanied her daughter, Emily, to a freshman orientation at Michigan State University. While walking around campus, Barb noticed there was a booth set up for women interested in the rowing team. She made a note of it.
“In the parents’ part of orientation, they made it very clear that the more down time you have in college, the less likely you are to be productive,” Barb recalled. “They were promoting getting involved in sports, doing work study, all different things.
On the drive home to Buffalo, she turned to Emily and said, ‘You might try crew. You’re tall. You never know.’
At first, Emily, who was 6-2, wanted nothing to do with rowing. She was a three-sport athlete at the Nichols School, but she had tried rowing as a fifth-grader and despised it. But when her 5-foot roommate tried out for crew as a coxswain, Regan decided to walk on and give rowing another shot.
Yeah, you never know. Regan was a natural, blessed with the size and competitive drive to be a great rower. Halfway through her freshman year, she got a scholarship. By her sophomore season, she was all-Big Ten second team. In her senior year at Michigan State, she was an all-American.
Regan joined the U.S. women’s team after college and spent more than a decade on the national program under Tom Terhaar, a Buffalo native. She eventually became part of the women’s eight that was one of the greatest boats in history and won Olympic gold in Rio in 2016.
Early in June, Regan, the only Buffalo native to win an Olympic rowing gold medal, was introduced as part of the 32nd class of the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame. She joins Terhaar, who was inducted into the Buffalo Hall in 2017 and was the best women’s rowing coach in U.S. history.
“My life is in a totally different place than I ever expected,” Regan said. “I went from trying to actively avoid rowing in high school to receiving this amazing honor less than 20 years later. So, it’s pretty special.”
Barb Regan said the honor meant a great deal to the family, especially as it came just six months after her husband, Larry, passed away from a long bout with cancer. Larry was a driving force and inspiration in Emily’s career, and the loving patriarch of one of Buffalo’s finest athletic families.
Larry played basketball at Amherst High and St. Lawrence University. Three of his four children became basketball stars: Kelly, the eldest, was the Buffalo News girls player of the year in 2005 and a college star at Manhattan; Jim scored more than 1,000 points at Daemen; Will was the New York Class A player of the year at Nichols and played on the first UB team to reach the NCAA tourney.
Emily once joked that she was the “forgotten Regan” child, the one who chose a different path and a different sport. She wanted to be a regular student in college, without the personal and social strictures of a sports career. But rowing touched the competitive spirit in her — something she got from her father — and never let go.
“When she walked on at Michigan State, I bet her she’d never make it through the year,” Barb Regan said. “I lost the bet.”
Emily won the bet, and she took her parents on a decade-long ride around the world. During her time on the women’s national team, the Regans traveled to over a half-dozen countries to watch her race — including South Korea, Slovenia, France, Bulgaria and Brazil.
Larry became an avid fan of the U.S. women’s team. He would keep the local media informed and call the American eight one of the most overlooked stories in sports. He observed the races with a knowing eye, nervous but confident about the U.S. chances.
The highlight, of course, came when Emily rowed in the eight in the Rio Games in 2016. The U.S. women — who had been labeled “The Unbeatables” in Sports Illustrated — won their third straight Olympic gold medal, with Emily in the bow seat, and extended their unbeaten streak to 11 years.
That was an unforgettable moment. I was in Rio, sitting in the grandstand along the lake near a group of more than a dozen of Regan’s supporters, which included her parents, her three siblings, relatives, family friends and former college teammates.
Larry stood alone, at the top of the stands, following the race on a video screen. Much of a rowing competition takes place outside the spectators’ view. He was a veteran of following it on the board. He was fretful when the Americans fell behind early, but soon knew they were going to win.
“My dad would be so proud,” Emily, now a rowing coach at Boston University, said of her Hall of Fame election. “I wish he could be part of this. He was my voice of reason when I was training. He was always able to talk me down off ledges. He was the one who helped me find perspective, calm, the bigger picture — the things that matter so much.
“When you’re participating in anything, you can only see it through your own eyes,” she said. “He always helped me find perspective and calm. My mom and I are wired at like 100 all the time. He was always that calming person you need when you start going down rabbit holes.”
There were difficult times on the women’s national team, which was intensely competitive under Terhaar’s leadership. Regan was cut from the 2012 Olympic team, when the eight defended its gold. She was in the eight that won the world championship in 2013. But she faltered in 2014 and had to discover a new level of commitment to reach her true potential as a rower.
“In her time on the national team, she was probably the most improved athlete I ever worked with,” said Terhaar, who left the national team last year to take a coaching job at Columbia University. “While she has the natural gift of height and endurance, it was never easy. Just watch her race, there is no arrogance or hubris at all. She earned every win and every inch ahead of her competitors. She outworked her competitors and was thankful for the challenge.
“Along the way, Emily encouraged and supported her teammates and indirectly pushed them to make the entire team better,” he said. “I see the Buffalo in her — appreciative, self-deprecating, hungry for success, hard-working and kind — and I am fortunate to have been able to watch her grow and succeed.”
Larry and Barb Regan always emphasized the importance of being a good teammate to their kids. They were especially pleased to hear that Terhaar, who could be a harsh, unsentimental coach, felt that Emily, his fellow Buffalonian, was one of the best teammates he ever coached.
“That’s probably the proudest thing you can say about a child,” Barb said, “being a good teammate, who’s willing to work with anyone and teach anyone and help anyone get better, because that’s the only way you have a strong team.”
Emily cared deeply about her teammates. She cried the day before the women’s eight won the gold medal in Rio when she found that one of the U.S. boats that had been favored to win had come in fourth.
“When they have a heartbreak,” she told me after winning gold,” you feel like you have a heartbreak, too.”
But a national team wasn’t the same collegial environment she had at Michigan State. Everyone is fighting to win seats in the big events, often at one another’s expense.
Things were difficult for Regan toward the end of her career with the national team. She was excited about going to Tokyo in 2020, where the women’s eight would go for four Olympic golds in a row. In 2019, she had been ranked as the No. 2 women’s rower in the world.
Then the pandemic hit, postponing the Japan Olympics for a year. Regan contracted Covid and had a rough time getting over the illness. At 33, she was one of the oldest women on the team as many of the veterans moved on. Hampered by a back injury and weakened by a Covid vaccination, she struggled in the lead-up to selection and didn’t make the Olympic team.
“I was really, really struggling mentally,” she recalled. “One of the things was hearing my dad’s cancer was back. I look back now and my life played out the way it was supposed to. And while it was hard in the moment (not making the team), I got those extra moments with my dad.”
The women’s eight lost in Tokyo last summer. It was a miserable Olympics for the American rowers. Terhaar, who had coached the women’s team for two decades, left to become director of rowing at Columbia. Four months earlier, Regan was hired as an assistant for the men’s rowing team at Boston University.
Terhaar saw the makings of a coach in Regan. In 2018, at an event in Lucerne, Switzerland, he told her as much when they were discussing her future.
“He told me, ‘Oh, you’re definitely going to be a coach,’” Regan recalled with a laugh. “I said, ‘Absolutely not!’ But he knew before I knew, a long time before I knew.”
After 15 years of rowing, Emily thought she’d had enough. She wanted a more normal life, with real weekends, a flexible schedule, and a real job. But one day, she heard from BU head coach Tom Bohrer, who won silver medals in the coxless four for the U.S. at the 1988 and ’92 Olympics.
Bohrer’s wife had asked him why he never hired any women to coach the men’s team. He said no woman had applied. Emily, despite her reservations, decided to apply.
“I never would have even thought to apply to a men’s program,” she said. “I know he really values having a diverse set of opinions and ideas and backgrounds on his coaching staff. He doesn’t want his co-workers to be yes men and women.
“So yeah, he was intentionally seeking out hiring a female, and my name kept coming up with the people he spoke to. All these pieces came together and he reached out to me in late July. I had other plans of where I thought I was going to go this year. But the more I talked with Tom, the more I felt like it was a really good opportunity. And it’s been a really fun change.”
Regan loves her new gig. She certainly understands Terhaar better now that she’s coaching. Last week, she was working a girls’ camp in Maryland. She came to Buffalo the previous weekend to take part in the Ride to Roswell in her dad’s honor. She and Will rode 100 miles, along with Larry’s sister, Colleen, and one of her uncles. A number of other relatives also participated.
Larry didn’t live to see her elected to the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame — though Barb says he helped her get nominated behind the scenes. But he saw her become a crew coach last August.
“Oh, he was thrilled,” Barb said. “I have a picture at Boston University. The week after he was in the hospital, he climbed four flights of stairs to see her apartment. He saw where she worked and got to meet the other coaches. It just meant so much. It was so special for him.”
It was special for Emily, too.
“Oh, man,” she said. “My dad didn’t know I had a thought-out plan. He was worried that I would sit around and do nothing. I’ll never know how he walked up four flights of stairs to get there. I didn’t realize how sick he was. I sort of intentionally tried to block that out.”
Larry died on Dec. 7, after collapsing at home. That day, a photo of Emily and her dad popped up on the Memories on her phone. It was a shot of them in early 2020, before the pandemic, looking so young and hopeful. Shortly before his death, they had spoken by phone.
The thought of that photo had her sobbing over the phone.
“We FaceTimed. He was happy and he was good,” she said. “The last message I have on my phone from him is him saying he loves me. People don’t usually get that. How did I get so fortunate to have that last beautiful conversation with my dad?”
Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.