Aug. 1, 2016
Kevin Sauer has been to the mountain top during his collegiate coaching career, leading the Cavaliers to a pair of NCAA rowing championships and an ACC-record 16 league titles. He excelled as a club rower at Purdue University and competed internationally for the U.S. national team. However, the one competition that has eluded Sauer has been the Olympic Games, where he failed to qualify as an athlete in 1976 and 1984, and in 1980 when the games were boycotted by the United States.
Sauer’s Olympic dream will finally be realized after 40 years when he coaches former UVA two-sport athlete Meghan O’Leary and teammate Ellen Tomek in the women’s double sculls rowing competition at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in August.
O’Leary, who competed in volleyball and softball at UVA from 2003-07, and Tomek initially asked Sauer last summer to be their coach for the Rio Games. However, Sauer declined the offer.
“The commitment to coach Meghan and Ellen and our team at UVA was just too huge,” Sauer said.
O’Leary and Tomek turned to Sarah Trowbridge, 2012 Olympic finalist in the same event and wife of U.S. men’s Olympic head coach Bryan Volpenhein. Trowbridge coached O’Leary and Tomek for several months until she unexpectedly became pregnant, with a due date in July. O’Leary immediately called Sauer and asked him to reconsider.
“Kevin was an obvious choice,” O’Leary said. “He is, hands down, one of the best coaches in rowing and has done everything from NCAA championships to world championships, but like me, this will be his first Olympics experience. I think it’s pretty special to be able share that with him.”
Ironically, O’Leary turned down Sauer’s invitation to join the UVA rowing team after she left the volleyball team in 2003. O’Leary picked softball instead and went on to earn four letters in that sport. O’Leary picked up rowing in 2010 and has fast-tracked her way to the Olympics six years later.
“It’s sort of as if everything has come full circle,” O’Leary said. “Kevin was the one to have planted the ‘rowing’ seed in my head so many years ago when I was in college, and now to have him coaching me at the Olympics – the apex of my rowing career – is pretty incredible.”
The realization of Sauer’s Olympic coaching dream is about as unexpected as his stellar rowing career, which started at Purdue in 1972. Sauer grew up as a three-sport athlete in Oaklandon, Ind., participating in football, wrestling and baseball. He headed to Purdue with hopes of joining the football team as a walk-on. After suffering an injury during the summer, Sauer turned to rowing after assistant club coach Kevin Thomas encouraged him to try out.
“I had no interest in rowing whatsoever when I went to college,” Sauer said. “I went to play football at Purdue and then I got hurt, and couldn’t play anymore.”
Sauer rowed in the freshman eight his first season, but found out he had an “engine” when he actually started training the following summer. After rowing with the varsity eight into his junior year, Sauer pursued a move out west where he landed at Northern Arizona, a school where rowing was not a varsity or club sport.
“It was one of the classic ‘go west young man’ stories, and I tried everything from throwing the javelin on the track team to waterskiing on Lake Mead, but I missed rowing,” Sauer said.
Sauer returned to Purdue and rowed with the varsity eight. He also decided to try out for the U.S. national team in the summer of 1975.
“I called and got a hold of head coach Allen Rosenberg and told him that I wanted to go to the 1976 Olympics,” Sauer remembered. “He told me it would be a good first step to try out for the national team first,” Sauer recalled with a laugh.
Sauer couldn’t produce an ergometer score for Rosenberg since Purdue didn’t have any of the machines and the drive to Wisconsin was too far to fit in before the camp commenced. So, Sauer did the prescribed 10-mile run (in 58 minutes) and 145-pound power clean (45 times) to earn an invite to the camp.
Sauer lacked elite rowing skills, but earned an alternate position for the 1975 Pan American Games because of his 6-foot-4, 210-pound frame and superior fitness.
“Rosenberg said I was the same awful at the end of practice that I was at the beginning,” Sauer recalled with a grin.
After the Pan American Games, Sauer was invited to the 1976 Olympics Rowing Training Cam in Florida in January and did well enough to continue through the spring for selection for the eight. Instead of staying with the team in Florida, Sauer elected to return to school to finish his degree, which most likely cost him an Olympic berth.
“I got a call back in March when a couple of the guys in the eight camp left, but I couldn’t do it. I joined a four-man boat for the Olympic trials, but didn’t win. It just didn’t happen in 1976.”
Sauer earned his undergraduate degree from Purdue in 1976 and worked briefly at his father’s insurance agency. He started coaching and continued to train after the U.S. Olympic Committee sent him a single scull boat.
Sauer competed internationally for the next three seasons and his second shot at Olympic glory ended on March 21, 1980, when President Jimmy Carter announced the U.S. boycott of the Olympic Games, scheduled to take place in Moscow that summer.
After returning to Purdue in 1980 to coach for two more seasons, Sauer accepted an assistant coaching position at Yale in 1982. He continued to train for the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, but the combination of coaching, training and a declining back injury proved too much for Sauer to handle as he lost in the pair during the 1984 Olympic trials.
“For every success story, there are 10 things that happen for somebody else,” Sauer said. “I’m not begrudging any of that, but 1976 was probably the one Olympics where I had the best chance with health and age.”
Sauer spent three years at Yale before returning to Purdue for two seasons from 1986-87. He worked one year for USRowing and served as a technical advisor during the 1988 Olympic year before landing in Charlottesville in the fall as the full-time head coach of the Virginia Rowing Club. Sauer oversaw the direction of both the men’s and women’s club teams until the women’s team was upgraded to varsity status in the fall of 1995.
Since 1995, Sauer has led the UVA rowing program to NCAA championships in 2010 and 2012 and 16 of the 17 possible ACC titles, while 39 of his student-athletes have earned All-America status. The two-time national coach of the year gives credit to UVA for helping him realize his Olympic dream.
“The best thing UVA has done for me is taking on rowing as a varsity sport in the fall of 1995 and making me the coach,” Sauer said. “UVA has improved our facilities with upgrades and has been supportive of my endeavors with the U23 national teams. UVA has created an atmosphere that allows a coach to have the latitude to take on projects like this and also what we’ve been able to do as far as the status of the program has gotten us recognized and I guess myself recognized as a coach.”
O’Leary and Tomek are coming off a disappointing performance at the 2015 World Rowing Championships in France after the duo won silver in their previous World Rowing Cup regatta in Italy.
“Anything is possible at the Olympics,” Sauer said. “Trowbridge did a great job of bringing them back and now it’s a matter of figuring out what it’s going to take to medal in Rio.”
“The women’s double field is unbelievably competitive and truly, any three boats could be on that podium,” O’Leary added. “It’s what makes this event so fun. We’ve had a great year and worked incredibly hard to prepare ourselves to have the best performance we can at the Olympics.”
Sauer and O’Leary will be joined in Rio by former UVA varsity rowers Susanne Grainger (Canada), Christine Roper (Canada) and Inge Janssen (The Netherlands) and UVA club rower Matt Miller (United States).
“It’s awesome to see such a large contingent of university kids from the same school compete at the Olympics,” Sauer said. “I’m just a coach but realize this is a big deal for our program. I realize how fortunate I am and the rest of the UVA athletes are to go to Rio.”
The 21-year UVA head coach also knows his journey to Rio would not be possible without the support of his wife Barb, who has been there every step of the way since the couple met at Purdue and married in 1979.
“It’s not easy for her and she’s been unbelievably supportive throughout my career,” Sauer said. “I promised I wouldn’t coach next summer, so we could take a trip out west to hike in the mountains for two or three weeks.”