Michael (Zig) Danziger, author of Small Puddles, The Triumphant Story of Yale’s Worst Oarsman. Ever. passed away two weeks ago. He was scheduled to be my guest on RowingChat this week.
Rather than cancel, I invited his rowing friends to join theRowingChat to talk about Zig, his book and what his life taught them. Dave Vogel (Zig’s rowing coach at Yale), Alix James (a Yale alumnus and now CEO of Nielsen Kellerman) and Carole Claps (Zig’s publisher) will be on the RowingChat next week.
Today, though, I am publishing this memoir from Mike Hard – Zig’s best friend. He can’t make the call time and generously gave Rowperfect an exclusive interview.
Mike Hard on Zig Danziger
Zig was both a rower to me and he was my best friend. He wasn’t always my best friend.
And so there are two things I’d like people to know about Zig from a rowing perspective.
First, he was a very bad rower – he had a passion for rowing that equalled my passion and I went on to row in two World Championships and I love rowing and for obvious reasons. Zig came nowhere near that level and yet he was just as dedicated to the essence of rowing as I was. He taught me and I believe he can teach many other people what rowing is all about because of that.
Secondly, as a friend – Zig was particularly unique and unfortunately I just had to say this at his memorial service so it’s emotional repeating it in front of 1,000 people who were there packed into the church on Harvard Yard. The thing that made him wonderful as a friend is that he was most likely the funniest person I have ever met. The times you spent with Zig were always more fun than any time you ever had. The stories he told later about those experiences were ten times better.
With Zig you weren’t just good – you were brilliant. With Zig you weren’t just a brilliant rower, you were a “God” and he was unique that way.
What motivated Zig to write his book?
Zig was a very charitable person – very smart and he could have done many things in his life. He was involved in the family business which was successful. He helped start a Foundation to help underprivileged kids get into college. When he stopped rowing – as most people in US do after college – he walked away from the sport for 25 years. I believe that what he wanted to do is reconnect with why rowing was important to him, bring it back into his life and tell his story to other people.
He had a rowing experience which was unlike anyone else’s that got written into a rowing book, Small Puddles. The Triumphant Story of Yale’s Worst Oarsman. Ever.
When most people read a book about rowing, the book follows the same standard format – young athlete, misunderstood, gets discovered at their university, overcomes adversity and makes the national team where s/he wins a medal. It’s the same.
His experience was the opposite. He wasn’t a champion. Most people’s crew experience is that you row for hours and hours and you are not the champion. The book is inspiring to a lot of people.
When Zig was recruited to the Yale squad he thought he had been recruited for his athletic ability. But every man between 5’10 and 6’2” got the same letter inviting them to try out rowing. He was crushed because he thought he was special.
The thing about Yale rowing in ’80s was that there were no cuts to the squad as long as you didn’t quit you made the team. That was one thing he could do – not quit. He was a young impressionable man. In US most young people don’t touch an oar until they are 18 years old. At that time in life, you want to be a part of something special and I think that when he was given the chance to be a part of something special that rewarded toil and effort, he was drawn to it. Young people starve to be a part of something meaningful in their lives.
Yale rowing has a deep, deep tradition – the championship tradition and we were very lucky to have some strong teams for lightweight men, heavyweight men and women all at the same time. Zig was nowhere near as good as any of those people but the fact that he could get on the dock with those people, get in a boat with them, compare blisters and stories and complain about the workouts and the weight loss with those people made him part of something bigger than himself.
Then when he graduated from Yale he channeled that energy into starting the Foundation – he refuses to give up and he is one of those people who refuses to believe in bad news, that something’s not possible. He likes to dedicate himself to causes that are larger than life.
Why rowers should read Small Puddles
One final thing – I believe that this is honestly an amazing book about perseverance, it speaks to why most people row – they never make the Olympics, they may never even make the first boat – but they will be inspired.
This is about two different people – Mike Danziger, the man with no athletic ability and the passion he had going for him.
The other person in the book is his coach, Dave Vogel. They couldn’t have been more different – Dave was the opposite in almost every way to Zig, save one. He was incredibly disciplined, he was athletically talented, he’d been on numerous national teams and represented USA at World Championships. On paper these two people had nothing in common, and yet they both loved rowing and so by the end of Zig’s life I can honestly say they loved each other.
They are two of my best friends. They respected each other because they discovered different things about rowing from each other. And I hope that you do too.