Duvall Hecht showed up at The Boathouse, home of UC Irvine crew, at Newport Back Bay last Thursday morning as if it were any other day. The 81-year-old man donned a floral Hawaiian shirt that protruded from under the zipper of a UCI Rowing jacket, suggesting that this was his paradise.
For some, retirement is filled with daily rounds of golf and months of travel, but Duvall – who still does financial writing as a career – says he never wants to retire, and it’s obvious that coaching “the boys” is his passion.
The founder of the UCI crew program, Duvall coached the Anteaters from 1965-1969, then led UCLA from 1973-1979 before returning to coach UCI from 1992-2001. Duvall most recently made his second UCI comeback in 2009 when the program was demoted to club status and axed from UCI Athletics.
“I came back when the program was cut,” Duvall said. “A fella named Scott Charette was coaching, he’s now at UCLA. He needed the money and I didn’t, so I came back to help out.”
Six days a week, routinely at 5 in the morning, the varsity men’s team’s coach parks in the first spot closest to the warehouse-style building that overlooks the team’s private dock; it’s the same Boathouse that he coached from back in 1965 at the inception of the campus and athletics program. He’s not just any other coach. In fact, Duvall’s reputation draws more comparisons to the figure from the Dos Equis commercials, tabbed “The Most Interesting Man in the World,” than he does any Average Joe coach.
A floppy blue hat that has seen many days of sunshine sat atop Duvall’s head as he slowly made his way around the beachfront property. As his bleary-eyed athletes stowed cell phones, keys and wallets away upon arrival, two generations were about to mesh for one cause: rowing.
“You can definitely tell he’s from a different generation,” junior Chad Palsulich said. “He’s unique. He never gets in your face, but he gets everything out of you.”
The crew lifted their boats off racks that lined the warehouse’s walls and headed down to the docks in preparation for launch. As the process carried out, Duvall – who stands taller than most, despite hunching shoulders – walked alongside his boys, instilling responsibility in young men born six decades after him.
Speed coach Dan Emrich, always present for Tuesday and Thursday practices, prepared to untie and share a catamaran known as “the launch” beside Duvall, but when the boat was almost ready to leave, Duvall backtracked.
“Ah damn,” he said, putting down a giant megaphone with a wooden handle as he shuffled back to The Boathouse, “I’m getting my stopwatch.”
A few moments later Duvall returned with the device’s black string hanging out of the pocket of his cargo shorts, prepared to measure the speed of his advanced rowers as they practice for the program’s first out-of-state tournament in years in Gainesville, Georgia. The May 28-29 American Collegiate Rowing Association Championships will host some of the best teams in the nation, including Duvall’s eight-man varsity boat.
“They’re one of the best boats I’ve ever coached. It’s all about them, I’m just their coach,” Duvall said modestly, a strong statement from a man who has an extensive résumé.
On this particular day, Duvall gives way to Emrich because, as he explains, “The boys need to hear a different voice. Dan gives them a fresh perspective and they don’t have to listen to the old guy so much.”
Known around The Boathouse as “Duvall,” the players often talk about their leader as if he were a legendary figure, making it seem as though the man should be referred to with a “sir” or at least “mister” in front of Hecht. However, the coach blushes when admitting his past accomplishments. Because of this, most of his team learned his story from his Wikipedia page, which details his versatile background that ranges from receiving a master’s in journalism from Stanford University, his service as a pilot for the Marines and an Olympic Gold Medal in the 1956 games in Melbourne, Australia. Duvall is also the inventor of audio books, with his patent Books on Tape, Inc., which he later sold to Random House Publishing.
There’s more to this man than just being an aged coach. His few remaining high school friends are retired and traveling the world, while Duvall would rather continue working and coaching crew until he passes away.
“My dad never retired … I’m going to keep coaching here until these boys throw me overboard. I never want to overstay my welcome though,” Duvall said. Indeed, he has left UCI twice already because he thought he and the players weren’t in sync and that it was in the best interest of the team for him to leave.
“Not a single person would ever disrespect him, talk back to him or not listen to him on this team,” sophomore novice rower Kevin Miller said. “People hang on his every word.”
Duvall began rowing at age 19. In order to fulfill a physical education requirement, he had a brief initial stint on the Stanford crew but didn’t see a future in rowing competitively. In September of his sophomore year, Stanford’s coach Jim Beggs stopped by Duvall’s fraternity house to recruit him back to the program.
“I was on the third floor smoking a pack of my Lucky Strike cigarettes. He came up to me and said, ‘You know, I was going to ask you to come back out,’” Duvall said with watering eyes and a quivering voice.
“He said, ‘I thought you might amount to something, but I don’t think so. You’ve got that?’ And he turned around and walked away. Nobody treats me that way. It was like child psychology, God, he hooked me. So I came back out to show him what I could do and it changed my life. With Jimmy, I trained, I didn’t drink and I gave up smoking. I had smoked since I was 14.”
At Stanford, he eventually teamed with his best friend and captain, James Fifer, to race in a two-man coxless pair boat that qualified for the 1952 Olympics and was eliminated in the semi-finals.
Following college, Duvall and Fifer joined the service, but when the 1956 Olympics rolled around, the two began training as representatives of the Navy, having not rowed for three years.
“We would line up – 12 boats across the river – and they’d fire cannons at the start and your heart goes through your mouth and you’re off,” Duvall said of the Olympic trials.
After a year of preparation, Duvall and Fifer won the gold medal over the favored Russians.
“I had the feeling,” he said, “that nobody in this world could’ve beaten us. It wasn’t going to happen.”
The last time Duvall rowed was in 1998, but he wouldn’t dare let that stop him from coaching. On the water, driving the launch is second nature.
“[Duvall] always talks about beauty and perfect efficiency and how they are the same thing,” Palsulich said.
As Emrich and Duvall launched for a workout last week, the 81-year-old looked at his watch.
“They’ve got to get back in, in about an hour, hour and 10 minutes,” Duvall said as they left the docks.
With his back arched over a railing, Duvall’s right hand steered while his left pushed the throttle aggressively.
“Let the hand rise or your blade flies,” Duvall said.
Approaching rapidly within five feet of the rowers’ boat, Emrich didn’t say a word or show any expression of concern that Duvall didn’t have it under control.
“What’s the sixth man’s name?” Emrich said.
“Jason,” Duvall replied instantly.
The crew isn’t very fond of Emrich’s training regiment, which often overexerts them.
“Your workouts are difficult!” senior Brandon Cooper said. “Michigan isn’t doing this.”
“You get college kids in a weight room and you’d be surprised,” Emrich replied.
“Man up!” a teammate said.
Following the disagreement, the team stroked for one of its final sprints of the morning. Duvall, who had been silent during the exchange, shouted for the first time.
As the coxswain commanded the team to row, Duvall shouted to motivate a grimacing Cooper, “We need that power Coop! (‘Row!’) We absolutely need it at the center of the boat. (‘Row!’). Attaboy Cooper, attaboy! (‘Row!’) Attaway Coop (‘Row!’).”
Lost in the moment, Duvall forgot to notice a single-manned boat passing by and forced her to slow her progress.
“Sorry for the wake!” he said after motivating Cooper. “I’m sorry,” he said again, disappointed that he hadn’t noticed her while slowing the catamaran down.
The 81-year-old coach returned with the team to The Boathouse and reinforced their hard day’s work. Just like the day started and much like it will be tomorrow, Duvall hovered over his team as they handled the fragile equipment.
“Excuse me, why aren’t we putting this on the rack? Listen fellas, help Ben load these boats in here,” Duvall said as his athletes obeyed. “Careful, guys.”