Donations Help Crew Stay Afloat

Approximately 100 students bussed from Steelhead Brewery just across from the UC Irvine campus to the Boathouse at Newport Back Bay last Tuesday evening amidst the world record dodgeball game that was being set just a few miles away at the Anteater Recreation Center.

They exited the bus to see two pearly white crew boats 65 feet in length jutting from just outside a warehouse towards the docks. Seagulls circled and screamed all around as the new recruits hesitantly made their way to stage two of their UCI men’s crew team info sessions. Lining the entry to the warehouse were two rows of hardened athletes standing tall, with hands resting respectfully behind their backs, and the letter I — signifying Irvine crew — stitched across their hearts on collared navy blue shirts.

It’s been three years since UCI athletics axed crew, swimming and sailing from its Division I lineup of athletic programs. The funding halted, the logos changed and athletes on scholarship became a thing of the past for the men’s crew program.

Since being demoted from UCI athletics to a campus recreation club team, no team has survived and thrived quite like the UCI men’s crew. Since 1965, the Boathouse has been home to UCI crew, yet rust has escaped the property on the bay.

“At UCLA, they pay $1,500 to row,” men’s novice coach Ben Hise said to the recruits. “What we ask from you guys is $100 for the fall, $300 for the winter and $300 for spring. Why is it cheaper here at UCI? Because all your money goes directly back to you.”

The team has four brand-new boats, each costing $45,000; 32 new oars at $350 a pop; and five new coxswain boxes totaling $500 apiece.

It’s all made possible by 82-year-old Head Coach Duvall Hecht, a former Olympic gold medalist, Marine Pilot and truck driver. The founder of Books on Tape, Inc.  and lover of all things crew, he still finds a youthful exuberance for the sport that is his life’s work. With a lifetime of connections in hand, Hecht has convinced charitable donors to match the dollars that he invests in the UCI crew program.

Hise informed the newcomers of the program’s rich tradition, which started in 1965 as one of six founding sports at UCI, with Hecht as the team’s head coach.

“You guys are joining something very special, something with a lot of history, and something you guys will learn to love if you stick around long enough,” Hise said.

“We compete as a varsity sport. I know that it says club rowing, but we compete against Division I teams that recruit from high schools and we beat them.”

Hise is a manager at the P.F. Chang’s restaurant at Fashion Island in Newport Beach. He, along with Hecht, doesn’t take a salary despite devoting each morning to their UCI family at the Boathouse.

“It is definitely the most rewarding sport there is,” Hise said. “I played football for six years, and the great thing about [crew] is you put a lot into it, and you get out exactly what you put in. When you win, you get the tank off the guy’s back that you beat. He’ll walk up to you, ‘Hey, good race man, UC San Diego, here you go.’”

“You’re not going to remember that one time at that one party at that one house in Newport. […] What you are going to remember is flying in a plane to Georgia to compete against Virginia, Notre Dame, Purdue, some of the fastest crews in the nation, and doing it with your best friends and hopefully coming away with 20 tanks in a garbage bag.”

Hecht coached the men’s varsity eight boat to a fourth place finish at the American Collegiate Rowing Association’s National Championship at Lake Lanier, Georgia in 2011. Hise was in the stroke seat of that boat, setting the pace for his teammates.

Last year was Hise’s first as a coach after captaining the men’s varsity team as a senior the year prior. Under Hise’s leadership, the men’s novice team had one of their best seasons in recent memory, finishing 5-1.

“It is by far the most competitive sport there is, and it is the ultimate team sport,” Hise said. “It requires nine people to come together and work as a unit in order to be fast and to win races.”

The team’s practices run five days a week, starting at 6 a.m. throughout the entire school year. Over spring break, they do two a day.

Weight trainer Serafim Hatzis wears a beard that could make a lumberjack jealous. He works with MMA fighters and at NFL combines, and he puts UCI men’s and women’s crew teams through workouts at a discounted rate.

“In the weight room, I’m going to teach you about your bodies,” Hatzis said. “You guys (new recruits) will learn that these guys (returning rowers) come in willing to give me their best. I ask for more, [and] they unwillingly find it but then willingly give it to me.”

Before allowing the new crop of talent to peruse the premises and do some soul searching as to whether they’ll make the commitment or not, Hecht told the group of young men before him that this was their program to own, from the expensive equipment to the excruciating workouts.

While smoking a pack of cigarettes at Stanford fifty years ago when he was a student, Hecht’s coach came to his apartment to recruit him back to the rowing team after he had given up on the sport. Hecht’s coach, Jim Beggs, approached and changed his mind when he saw the cigarette.

“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,” Hecht said in an interview last spring. “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.”

After developing as a rower at Stanford, Hecht took time off to serve his country. When he returned, Hecht won a two-man coxless pairs boat gold medal at the 1956 Olympics against the favored Russians amidst the Cold War.

“There is no height at which you cannot ascend out of this program,” Hecht, a former pilot, said after citing that his athletes have gone on to coach at Washington University and win Olympic medals.

“I can’t imagine life without rowing,” Hecht said, in closing, “and in one year, those of you who remain will say the same thing.”