Rendezvous with a Challenge

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Ruling the Bay of Monaco: John Chatzky (coxswain), Bruce Ibbetson, George Tintor, Philip “Otto” Stekl, Sean Colgan.

Class of ’77, ’78, ’79, ’81 | Despite its glamorous setting on the Bay of Monaco, the Challenge Prince Albert II is not for the faint of heart. Held in late winter, the rowing event features both an eight-kilometer buoyed race and a 1500-meter straight sprint, and in rough weather the coastal Mediterranean waters can churn waves, boats, and stomachs. Launched in 2005, the Challenge is presided over by Prince Albert II himself, ruler of the principality and the son of Prince Rainier III and former film star Grace Kelly (whose brother, the late John B. Kelly Jr. C’50, was an oarsman at Penn and a four-time Olympian).

Last fall, George Tintor W’79 began putting together a crew for the 2013 Challenge. He lives in Switzerland, just a few hundred miles from Monaco, and having competed in the Challenge in 2007 and 2009, he was searching for a crew that could win. A two-time Olympian for Canada who says that he derives “happiness from achievement,” Tintor began by reaching out to his old Penn rowing mate, Sean Colgan C’77, a member of the US Rowing Hall of Fame and the 1980 US Olympic Team.

Tintor knew that Colgan was interested in ocean rowing events. What he didn’t know was that getting Colgan involved meant that he would put together an all-Penn squad in a matter of weeks. Their average age: 58.

“I got an email from Sean that basically said, ‘I volunteered you for a coastal rowing event in February, arrange your flights,’” says John Chatzky W’78, another member of the 1980 US Olympic squad.

Next to hear from Colgan was Phil “Otto” Stekl C’81 (yet another US Olympian, in 1980 and 1984). Though his initial response was somewhat half-hearted, “that was before I knew the lineup,” says Stekl, a resident of Austria. When he learned who his crew-mates would be, he quickly signed on. Colgan also contacted another 1980 and ’84 Olympic teammate, Bruce Ibbetson—who, though not a Penn alumnus, attended some graduate-level classes at Penn while training with Coach Ted Nash in the late 1970s. Nash, in fact, had coached all five men during his 16-year tenure as head coach of Quaker rowing. Though they revere him for his coaching and for his 11 visits to the Olympics as a rower or a coach, these days the men honor him even more for his role in bringing them together as teammates and friends.

And so the coxed quad entry of the College Boat Club of Philadelphia (CBC, the Quakers’ summer/club racing name) became: Chatzky (coxswain), Ibbetson (stroke), Stekl, Tintor, and Colgan. The two-day Challenge was set for February 16-17.

In 1980, these Penn rowers were among the best in their respective countries. Stekl was in a coxed Four that had just won the European Championships in Amsterdam, and had proven himself regularly in the engine room of US national team boats, including at the World Championship finals the two previous years. Chatzky, Ibbetson, and Colgan were in an Eight that won at Amsterdam, and some rowing insiders predicted them to be on the podium at the Olympiad.

“Ibbetson was the stroke of all the big boats from 1977-1984,” says Chatzky. Similarly, Colgan was “bow-seat” of almost every crew during that period. Ibbetson, Colgan, and Chatzky (coxing) had raced the grueling “pair with” at the World Championships in New Zealand. Tintor was in a Canadian Eight. He had been the youngest oarsman (19) at the 1976 Montreal Games, and was aiming to reach his full potential in the 1980 Olympics. Stekl and Ibbetson went on to row in 1984, both earning silver.

The 1980 Summer Olympics boycott, implemented by the Carter Administration in response to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, is not a subject that the athletes who were affected by it care to dwell on. They have long since moved on. They are also highly motivated individuals, and the determination that got them to the Olympics has not diminished—though it “has matured, thankfully,” says Ibbetson. “I have always enjoyed rowing on the water, and now I still enjoy racing with people who share the same joy. But I am very competitive and I hate to lose anything, so I try to prepare each time we race, so I can do my part to achieve that goal.”

For rowers who had spent most of their college and Olympic training years in a sleek, narrow shell rowing two kilometers in a straight buoyed line, the Bay of Monaco required some adjustments. The first involved the self-bailing coastal coxed-quad rowing shell—which, at 330 pounds, weighed almost three times as much as a contemporary traditional-style shell for four rowers. Then came the six-kilometer course (shortened from the original eight to accommodate the junior crews), whose buoys became moving targets as they bobbed on the whitecaps.

Even the invisible starting line, with its far-flung marker buoys, made alignment for the start nearly impossible. And as the officials prepared to sound the horn, it was clear that several shells had their bows jutting past that dubious starting line at the Yacht Club of Monaco. One was Bateau No. 45 from the College Boat Club.

The horn sounded and 54 shells began to pull away. Within 500 meters, two had separated from the pack. One was a French junior crew. The other was the Penn/CBC entry, whose average age was more than three times that of their nearest competitor.

The CBC rowers combined precise blade work (despite the rough water), well-timed bursts of power, and a certain je ne sais quoi that has fueled them since their Penn and Olympic days. Precision was of paramount importance as they approached the turn with open water all around them, since crossed oars can take seconds or even minutes to disembroil, and flipping a boat is a terminal error. But with the turn of the outsized rudder, a precarious weight shift, and instructions barked by Chatzky, the CBC entry sliced the turn and accelerated away from the buoy.

By then they were so far ahead of their competitors that the race was theirs to lose. Chatzky lined up the craft by the shoreline points and let the oarsmen do the work. And when they finally pulled past the pier, they had not only prevailed but had won decisively, by a minute and 47 seconds.

The importance of that large margin soon became clear when the referees handed down one-minute penalties to nine boats—including the CBC’s—for being over the line at the start. (“Never underestimate the propensity of French umpires to impose penalties, even when there are mitigating circumstances and no advantage is gained,” quipped Tintor later.)

“I had no doubt we would win by a large margin,” says Chatzky. “After a practice it was obvious these guys could handle the conditions. I have known these guys for almost 40 years, and for their age, no one is fitter—and none would be more determined to win.”

After winning handily that first day, the CBC also prevailed in the 1500-meter sprint on Day Two, despite the rougher water and colder temperatures. This time there were no penalties.

At the final medal ceremony, Prince Albert II arrived with the pomp and security force of royalty, but remained warm and welcoming to the crews. He shook hands with the winners, and posed with the Quakers for a photo.

But after the Penn rowers received their awards, their first toast at the Yacht Club of Monaco was a heartfelt one for their old coach:
“This is for Ted!”

—Janit Gorka

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