With a stiff autumn breeze at my back, I walked down to the rivers edge to see Gary Bohlin observing seemingly flawless rowers glide over the water at the Head of the Chattanooga race in Tennessee. My own team would be competing in the same event, partaking in the men’s collegiate 8 (man) race later that afternoon; but until then I wanted to understand our coaches background and love for rowing a little bit more.

Born in 1956 in Elgin, Illinois, Gary Bohlin always had an innate desire to find the inherent meaning in everyday existence. As a high school, collegiate, and then professional rower, this desire only intensified and bloomed under the intensely romantic and aged sport that is rowing. Anyone who has ever rowed can understand the intense beauty of the sport— the gentle yet methodical clicking of the oars, the soft “sploosh” that your oar makes when it dips into the water at the top of the stroke, the groaning sound the boat makes as every one of your teammates pushes against their foot stretchers and propels the boat down the river. Intensely painful yet rewarding, rowing is a sport of paradox’s. And no one understands this more than Gary Bohlin.

Attending Oregon State in 1975, Gary at once excelled as a collegiate rower winning the “most outstanding freshman oarsman award”. But for Gary this was only the beginning—in his sophomore year he made the intensely competitive Oregon state Men’s Varsity 8 (man) boat. With this 8-man boat, Gary and his team won the 2000-meter Preseason Nationals competition in San Diego. Progressing to a 4-man boat in his next season, Gary and his Oregon teammates went on to win the Intercollegiate Rowing Association National Championship in Syracuse. After this huge success, Gary tried out for the men’s lightweight (each member of the boat must weigh under 160 lbs.) “vespers team” in Philadelphia.

Gary Bohlin at center

Competing against the best rowers from all over the nation, Gary won a spot in the men’s boat. After intense training in Oslow, Norway, Gary represented The United States in the Denmark at the Rowing World Championship. Even today, stats are recorded in history from this race: Gary’s boat finished right behind Sweden with a 6 minute, 44 second 2000-meter race. All of this happened while Gary was a sophomore in college. This fact is especially particular for me in regards to the fact that I myself am a sophomore in college involved in collegiate rowing. Although the Wheaton Crew team is much smaller and less prestigious than that of Oregon State, Gary Bohlin’s own success has been a huge inspiration for me as a rower. Sitting here in this idyllic setting with him on the edge of the river, I couldn’t help but consider the tremendous significance that rowers have with each other all based a simple body of water—the river. No matter what age, every rower has this immediate connection to each other through the sport of rowing and through a common love for dipping the oar in the water.

To give you a better look into our conversation, here is some of the questions that I asked Gary:

In hindsight, do you see any aspects of your childhood that led to your success as a rower?

“A desire to succeed definitely was present at a young age. Also like any boy I was intensely competitive—you know—baseball games and wrestling matches with your buddies all helped to build a certain passion for winning sometimes against the odds… and that’s exactly what rowing is”

How has rowing shaped your ideas of what it means to be a Christian?

“My love of Christ and my love for rowing have definitely grown in a tandem role. Rowing really teaches you about faith and trust. You know… when you’re in the boat with your teammates and your heart is thudding you got to rely on them to have your back in the race. You’ve got to trust that they’re doing everything they can to make the boat as successful as possible and are performing the very best they can every single stroke. This has similarities to our faith—we must rely on something we don’t see—we must ourselves act in a certain way, maintaining the faith that God ultimately has our back and is working out his plan in us, daily.”

What are some of the more specific ways that you see rowing applicable to life?

*Laughing and smiling* “Well, Isaac, you’re a bit too young to understand this one, but there are a lot of similarities between rowing and marriage. Like marriage, its important to remember that the speed of a boat is not always about the strength of the rowers but that true success comes from being understanding of our weaknesses and being patient in overcoming them as one. Rowing teaches unity and this is such a crucial aspect of any marriage— in marriage you are one flesh”

What is your greatest weakness?

*laughing again* “My wife… and my love for good food”

What are your thoughts on the common idea that rowing is a predominantly, white, privileged sport? Have you witnessed any change in this stereotype as the years have progressed?

“Yeah, I’ve heard a lot of talk and discussion about this topic over the years— and as a witness I can see that its definitely changing. I mean look at this regatta [referring to the Head of the Chattanooga regatta surrounding us]— although its not perfect, more so than ever are people from all races coming to crew and realizing the stunning beauty of it all. Its just great having more people involved in the sport.”

There are two possible reasons for rowing’s past history of primarily white, elitist male participants:

  1. Rowing is generally considered a very expensive sport. Although it is not true in all cases, stereotypically, most people who can afford the costs of rowing are white. This steep participation cost tends to be a big down selling point.
  2. Rowing is, and always has been, a bigger sport in Europe. And because the vast majority of Europeans are also white, there are thus fewer minorities. And if there are no minorities on a team, there is less incentive for minorities to join rowing teams. It’s a perpetual cycle that’s been going on since the origin of rowing, that will soon see its end as more and more peoples join rowing clubs.

What makes you happy?

“When you boys set the boat and get your oars off the water for more than 10 strokes” *smiling*

The “set” is referring to the balance of the boat in relationship to the water. Quality rowing means the boat is resting on its center keel in the water and not moving wither left or right. If the boat is not set, oars tend to drag on the water, slowing the boat down.

Which of your life achievements is most significant?

“Well, you know, I’ve been truly blessed with all the experiences that I’ve been able to have been a part of in my life… my marriage to my beautiful wife, my kids.. and of course all the rowing I’ve been apart of throughout the years. Rowing never really leaves you—after you graduate college or move on from your club the ideas and core elements that you learned as a rower follow you for the rest of your life. You realize the beauty of early mornings, and the outcomes of hard work. Its lessons that will impact you positively for your entire life- in your marriage, in how you raise your kids, and in your relationship with Christ”


Elgin Sports Hall of Fame: Gary Bohlin