Tom Terhaar has a reputation for keeping an emotional distance from his athletes. Terhaar, a Buffalo native who has coached the U.S. women’s rowing team for two decades, is tough and taciturn by nature, a man with little appetite for small talk or publicity.
It’s good to have a certain remove when you’re making decisions that affect young women’s lives. Terhaar also wants his teams to develop its own internal culture. Above all, he wants to see them succeed, and he has done that very well since taking over in 2001.
From 2005 to 2016, the U.S. women’s eight won 11 consecutive international races in their sport’s glamor race, including three Olympic gold medals. Terhaar, who turned around a program that had been known for falling apart in the big races, had to be on any short list of the best rowing coaches in the world.
But last spring, Terhaar faced one of the biggest challenges of his career. As his rowers were about to ramp up for the Tokyo Olympics at their Princeton training center, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. On March 24, the word came that the Games had been postponed for a year.
As Terhaar and the team were contemplating that staggering news, things got worse. In late March, soon after New Jersey issued a state-at-home order, the team’s physical therapist, Marc Nowak, tested positive for the virus.
Over the next month, a dozen of the U.S. women — roughly a third of his team — came down with the coronavirus. That included Buffalo native Emily Regan, 32, who suffered fever, exhaustion, problems with breathing, and was ill for a month before getting back to normal.
So the women’s national team was doubly impacted by the pandemic. Their Olympics had been put off for a year and now many of them were struggling with the disease — though no one wound up in the hospital. It was a difficult test for their coach.
“Yeah,” Terhaar said. “I think personally for me, it changed everything As you go on, you start to realize there are more important things in life than just getting an Olympic medal or something like that. You realize they’re kids. A lot of them are kids.”
Terhaar, who turned 51 on Thursday, has four kids of his own, ages 16 to 8. Family gives you perspective. The pandemic requires physical distancing. But it’s also a crisis that can pull people closer.
“Personally, we still don’t know how many exactly got sick with it,” said Terhaar, who rowed in high school for St. Joe’s. “The doctors don’t share everyone’s medical information. But I do know we were talking to them on a regular basis, every athlete, kind of checking in.
“It was a whole bunch of things,” he said, “the stress of returning (from a California regatta), the stress of selection probably being removed. A whole lot of collapsing. It was natural to have a letdown. Everyone kind of felt down in the dumps for awhile.”
Regan said Terhaar and the other coaches sent nightly emails to all the rowers in April and May, giving them rough workout plans but emphasizing that their health was the priority. They all had the option of going home with their families during the lockdown.
“I know that was comforting to a lot of girls on the team, because it was so stressful,” said Regan, who was home in Buffalo this week. “Personally, I feel our coaches handled the situation the best way it could have been handled, because it was so unknown and so difficult.”
Terhaar said it was tough seeing Emily, a nine-year veteran of the national team, physically compromised by the virus. He said it helped to talk to Regan on Zoom and be assured she was improving.
“It’s not fun to see someone who works so hard — Emily of all people — see her fitness go away as she’s sick,” Terhaar said. “She worries about these things a lot. It was hard.
“It was almost like when she first started,” he said. “We told her to be patient. I feel that even if the body takes a step back, you give it a little bit of time and it’ll still move forward. It’s just going to take a little more time than you want.”
One thing the U.S. women have is time. Regan said as things slowly got back to normal, she allowed herself to acknowledge that it was a good thing for the Olympics to be postponed.
“Yes, it definitely ended up being a blessing in disguise for our team,” she said.
Terhaar said the athletes began trickling back to the training center in Princeton during the summer. He said all but a handful of the U.S. women’s rowers are back in training — albeit in singles to enforce social distancing.
“We are definitely taking steps toward getting a routine and more consistent schedule. After the break, one of the big things the athletes realized was, ‘Hey that was nice, but if I’m going to go for this, I need to be at least within eyesight of my teammates’. They started to realize how much they like training with their teammates.”
The U.S. women are looking ahead to the Tokyo Olympics, which was rescheduled to July 23-Aug. 8 of 2021. They have no events currently scheduled between now and Tokyo. It’s a long wait, but Terhaar wants to keep things in perspective. Health and safety are paramount.
“So we’re being patient,” said Terhaar, who was inducted into the Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame in 2017. “We are fully aware that our competition is getting back into things faster than we are. Especially Australia and New Zealand, Great Britain and the Netherlands and Germany. There’s European Championships going on next weekend.
“They just ran an under-23 World Championships in Germany. So they’re a little ahead of us, that’s for sure.”
Terhaar might be closing the emotional distance, but it doesn’t mean he’s turned in some softie. He’s the same relentless competitor who showed up for his first rowing practice as a skinny teen-ager at the West Side Rowing Club and refused to be a coxswain (and who still follows his beloved Bills from afar).
“I still want the athletes to win every race they’re in,” he said. “That has not changed. Yes, missing out on a year of competition, I know it’s very hard on the athletes. I’m trying to keep it in perspective. Things could be much worse. Everyone is going to recognize that this Olympics will be very different, in every way you can think of.
“It has definitely not diminished my competitive urges, that’s for sure.”
He can find motivation in the fact that the rest of the world seems be catching up. The U.S. women’s eight finished fourth in the World Championship in 2017, ending its legendary win streak. They bounced back to win gold the next year, but were third in 2019.
Of course, rosters fluctuate in rowing, much like college sports. The athletes receive little compensation. Most put off careers to row for the national team. Only three of the women from the 2016 eight, including Regan, were around in 2017. The fact that Terhaar has kept his team on top for so long is a tribute to his skill as a teacher and motivator.
There’s a standard that exists in U.S. women’s rowing. Terhaar admits it hasn’t been easy to sustain. But he said it’s never been about winning streaks or medals. It’s about each rower making the best of every opportunity and reaching her true potential.
Yes, there was pressure when the women’s eight, which was tabbed “The Unbeatables” by Sports Illustrated before the Rio Olympics, was on its historic win streak. Perhaps it was a relief when it ended.
“Well, I don’t know about that!” Terhaar said. “Relief is not the first word that comes to my mind.”
The women’s eight still hasn’t lost an Olympic race since 2004, when the U.S. took silver. They’ll be shooting for four straight golds when the Olympics finally arrives in Tokyo next summer. Terhaar makes no guarantees. But after a lost season in which his team battled a virus and couldn’t compete in the sport they love, he’s sure of one thing:
“I do think we will appreciate it a lot more,” he said. “At the next regatta, everyone will be smiling.”