The Cal crew had started to pull away last Saturday in the final
of the men's varsity eights at the Intercollegiate Rowing
Association championships, the jewel of college rowing. Along
the banks of the Cooper River in Cherry Hill, N.J., two Bears
coaches, two Cal crew alumni and one oarsman's father urged the
team on from a moving van. "Keep pulling!" shouted a voice.
"Four seats ahead!" yelled another.
"No, six! Open water! Yes, all alone!"
From the front seat Steve Gladstone, the van's quietest
passenger, was taking in his eighth career IRA Challenge Cup
title--the most of any coach in the past 85 years--with
deceptive calm. "It isn't really a move," he said stoically of
Cal's widening lead. "It's just efficiency."
June 11, 2000
After the riders left the van to celebrate Cal's five-second
victory over second-place Brown, Gladstone stayed behind and
stared through the trees at the river. He crossed himself and
walked inconspicuously around the lake to meet his crew. "I don't
want anyone to dunk me in the water," said Gladstone, 59. "I just
want to soak it in from a distance." After such a race the
victorious crew, in a rite of celebration and revenge, usually
tosses the man who has drilled, scolded and prodded them into the
drink, but Gladstone stayed dry. Legends soak at their own
The class of '00 crew is Gladstone's masterwork. Three rowers
from last season's undefeated Cal eight deferred school this year
to train for the Olympics. Three others graduated. Gladstone's
2000 crew, coxswain excepted, featured two rowers from each of
the four class years and averaged only 188.6 pounds, compared to
Brown's 209.4. In April, Gladstone boldly replaced the strongest
man in the boat, 6'7", 225-pound sophomore Zach Salwasser, with
freshman Filip Filipic, a Serb whom Gladstone considered more
compatible with the rest of the crew. Last winter Salwasser's
time for 6,000 meters on the stationary ergometer, the modern
measure for individual rowing strength and endurance, was 18
minutes, 39 seconds. Filipic's erg score was an ordinary 19:40.
"Steve is winning with good singles hitters," says Craig
Amerkhanian, the team's ace recruiter and the coach of Cal's
freshmen, who also won a national title on Saturday. "It's in the
details. He's half an hour early for everything. He's a step
ahead of everyone." Before the varsity final, Gladstone had
addressed members of the junior varsity squad, who had finished
fourth two hours earlier, prepping them for their next race--which
was nine months away.
More than most coaches, Gladstone evaluates by feel, sometimes
starting his stopwatch and not looking at it. "Precision is
intuitive," he says. "I see it when I wake up in the middle of
the night. I never sleep straight through. I'm drawn to the
movement, not the quantifiable pieces. When a racing shell is
moving fast through the water, it is an art form. Most material
work lasts forever. The work we do here is ephemeral, transitory.
You'll see it today and never again."
Gladstone picked up his work habits--and certainly his commanding
voice--from his father, Henry Gladstone, a radio newsman in New
York who was one of the first to do daily business reports. "Dad
had total contempt for modern television reporters, nice-looking
men whom people would find simpatico," Steve says. "He was a real
reporter who loved and respected his work. He allowed us to do
different things, to 'follow your bliss,' as he'd say."
Steve was an average rower at Syracuse and skipped his senior
year, 1963-64, to live in Paris. There he married a Frenchwoman
with whom he had two sons: Ethan, now 36, a graphic designer, and
Wendell, 28, a sculptor. But Steve's bliss was rowing. He coached
Princeton's freshman heavyweights from 1966 to '68, then led
Harvard's varsity lightweights to four straight unbeaten seasons,
from '69 to '72, and spent nine years as Cal's varsity
heavyweights coach in his first stint in Berkeley.
In '94 Gladstone left coaching after 12 years and two undefeated
campaigns at Brown and later went through a painful divorce. He
and Cal also missed each other. In '96 the Bears placed 9th at
the IRAs, and some team members were unhappy with coach Mark
Zembsch, who had refused to discipline an oarsman who had cursed
at him in practice, according to Sebastian Bea, a '99 Cal grad
and member of the U.S. eight that won the '97 worlds. Gladstone
returned the following year. "We desperately needed a central
authority we were scared not to obey," says Bea. "Gladstone came
back [in 1997], and everyone pretty much shut the hell up.
Winning just follows this guy like a bad habit. He's a visceral
person, kind of an alpha dog. People don't squabble with him."
Cal's oarsmen recall one practice two years ago on their home
course at Redwood Shores, Calif., where their boat had to fight
particularly bad currents caused by private vessels. "You guys
know what a B.A.R. is?" Gladstone asked them. "When I'm old and
want to go to prison, I'm going to take a Browning automatic
rifle and put a hole in every one of these boats so we can have
just one perfect day."
The rowers have taken on Gladstone's orneriness. Word got to them
last year that a U.S. Rowing official had been asked which team
he wanted to win the IRAs. The official responded, "Anybody but
Cal." Bears oarsmen arrived at the IRAs with T-shirts that read
ABC in large letters on the back.
Gladstone often races his crews in boats of two and four oarsmen
to keep them competition-sharp. In recent years he has emphasized
low-cadence rowing in practice so his oarsmen can better
understand leverage. "He stresses the importance of getting the
oar in the water quickly rather than waiting for the catch," says
Bea. "The catch can seem messy when you drop the oar in the water
on your recovery, because it creates a lot of backsplash. He
wants your legs fully compressing so you row longer. It can be
harder to control, but you overcome the fear of the boat being
bobbly when you're all going for it at the same time."
Gladstone seems content these days, the contemplative man
watching from the van. He is married again, with a nine-month-old
daughter named Sonya. He runs as many as five miles a day, and to
relax he reads Dostoyevsky and digs trenches. But things can
always be better. He still flagellates himself for his decision
to do color commentary for NBC at the '88 Seoul Olympics, which
ran into October and caused him to miss several early-season
practices at Brown. "Unconsciously it was a statement to the guys
that the coach was doing something he thought was more
important," Gladstone says. "It ran counter to the commitment I
asked my athletes to make."
On Saturday, an hour after his most glorious IRA title, Gladstone
was still beset by well-wishers near the team's boats. "Steve,
what have you got to say for yourself?" a man in a Cal T-shirt
Answered Gladstone: "Well, I coached the jayvee too, you know."
Gladstone evaluates by feel, sometimes starting his stopwatch and
not looking at it.