Coaching. Coaches. Coach.
Wow. That is remarkable. Imagine having a top notch, skilled, dedicated, focused, professional coach guiding you from your first novice stroke to your crossing the finish line at the Olympic Games. It would be utterly fantastic. Is there an athlete on earth who doesn’t envy Michael Phelps? Count me it.
The rest of us mere mortals have to content with a whole long, often bizarre, array of coaches. If we’re lucky, we’ll have a good coach early in our rowing career. In my case that person was Bob Ernst.
I rowed at the University of California, Irvine. Bob Ernst was the varsity crew coach.
Bob Ernst. He was a lifeguard. He had played water polo. Somehow he discovered rowing. I’m pretty sure he never took a decent stroke in his life. But that doesn’t particularly matter when it comes to coaching. It’s far more important that the coach be a good student of rowing. Ernst was definitely a good student of rowing. He consciously applied himself to the task of learning to be a top-notch, professional coach.
Ernst created an environment that fostered intense competition. We had a small team – not enough guys for two 8+’s – so we rowed lots of small boats: straight pair, pair-with coxswain, a few single sculls, and two Pocock tub pairs, (which are still in use). Rowing in a 4+ was like riding in that back of a limousine. An 8+ felt like it was on rails.
Ernst’s best coaching move was to convince a bunch of water polo players that they should switch to rowing. (In the great pantheon of tough-as-nails sports, water polo is right at the top. It’s a mean, nasty, grim, unpleasant sport with absolutely nothing to recommend it.) One such water polo player-turned rower was the legendary Bruce Ibbetson. Pound for pound, Ibbetson was the toughest rower I’ve ever met. One December morning Ernst saw that he needed another starboard. I rowed port. He told me that from now on I was also a starboard rower, and that I should jump into a straight pair with Ibbetson, who was at that moment standing on the dock waiting for me. Ibbetson proceeded to turn the boat in circles. That was a very long practice.
Morning after morning, Ernst lined-up the small boats at the top of Lido Island and said ‘Go’. Pride and testosterone did the rest. From a technical standpoint, it probably wasn’t the most elegant rowing one might imagine, but oars did bend some decent speed was acquired.
Back then the big West Coast championships was called the Western Sprints. In 1974, UC Irvine finished second in the Varsity 8+ to Cal, beating Washington in the process. (It should be noted that was not in that Varsity 8+; nonetheless we had a pretty good time in the Varsity 4+.)
After 1974, Ernst moved on to University of Washington, and has been coaching there ever since.
Overarching this remarkable team that Bob Ernst created was fun. Ernst created an environment that fostered good old fashioned fun. On many afternoons a half-dozen guys would show up at Ernst’s small office on campus and sit around and read back issues of The Oarsman magazine and talk rowing. Somehow he made the rowers want to hang out with him. It was a cool, exciting, fantastic, fun fraternity with which to belong.
Good times and a good start to my rowing career thanks to Coach Bob Ernst.
My Coach… is an occasional series in which athletes write about the coaches that inspired them. Do you have a story to tell? Get in touch if you would like to write about your coach.