The year was 1994. The place was Indianapolis, Indiana, and the U.S. Men’s Eight was the underdog heading into the FISA World Rowing Championships. Only six weeks earlier, they had finished a disappointing second in Lucerne, Switzerland. For this race, they were out for revenge. They were also racing in memory of Jeff Klepacki’s father, Henry, who had passed away just before the race in Switzerland. Klepacki, now a resident of Princeton, is a senior vice president with Allianz Global Investors. Back then, he rowed in the stroke seat in front of the coxswain. An intense competitor to begin with, he had extra incentive to win this race. He put his dad’s business card in his sock before the start for good luck. His teammates knew it was there. All nine of them were determined to win this race not just for the United States but for Klepacki’s father. And they did, holding off a charging Dutch crew to take first place and set a new world record for World Championship competition.
"It was probably the hardest race I ever rowed," says Bob Kaehler, who brought home the gold that day along with his teammates Klepacki, Jamie Koven, Jon Brown, Don Smith, John (Chip) McKibben, Fred Honebein, Sean Hall, and coxswain Steven Segaloff. Kaehler, who lives in Holland, Pennsylvania, parlayed his athletic accomplishments into a career as a fitness and wellness expert. He is a partner in Princeton-Lawrenceville-based Pinnacle Therapy Services, an outpatient orthopedic physical therapy practice. Last year, he started another new business called Redline Maximum Fitness (www.redline-maxfit.com) in Newtown, which focuses on strength and conditioning for rowers, runners, triathletes, and other endurance athletes.
Recalling that long-ago victory in Indiana, Kaehler says, "I couldn’t even stand up on the awards podium, my legs were so rubbery, and I felt like throwing up for an hour after the race. We were rowing for Jeff’s dad, and I had never raced that intensely before."
Next week, eight of the nine men in that 1994 U.S. Men’s Eight World Championship gold medal boat (minus Chip McKibben, who lives in Brisbane, Australia), will be reunited at the 2006 FISA World Masters Rowing Regatta, Thursday through Sunday, September 7 to 10 at Mercer Lake in West Windsor, the "home lake" for the 2008 U.S. Olympic rowing team, which will compete in Beijing. Thousands of rowers representing 45 countries will descend upon Mercer Lake to go for the gold. Masters rowers range in age from 27 well into their 80s and 90s. The regatta is being hosted by the Princeton National Rowing Association.
Unlike many competitive sports, crew places few age limitations on athletes. Members of the 1994 World Championship boat will gather for one practice session Thursday night, September 7, and then will race on Friday, September 8. It will be the first time they will be rowing together as a team since the Pan-American Games in Argentina in 1995. McKibben’s seat will be taken by Porter Collins, who competed with the team in 1995 and 1996.
"I’m very much looking forward to seeing old friends, now with families, and competing all weekend," says Klepacki. "Rowing is more than a sport, it’s a way of life. The character, commitment, and friendships I have gained truly helped shape me into the person that I am today."
Other rowers who will compete and who live and work in the area include these members of the Carnegie Lake Rowing Association of Princeton: Don Bergman of Princeton, retired from David Sarnoff Research Center; Allan DiSciullo of Princeton Junction, Citigroup Inc.; Lisa Fischetti of Princeton, Ralph Lerner Architect PC/Broadmead Design; Rose Ford of Hightstown, the Massage Garden; Graham Hill of Princeton, Bristol-Myers Squibb; Alan Kitty of Lawrenceville, Educational Testing Service; Margery Mark of Princeton, Robert Wood Johnson Medical School; Veronique Oomen of Lawrenceville, Dupont; Linda Strange of Princeton, Robert Cerruti, Architect; and Toby Taylor of Princeton, Merrill Lynch; among several others.
In addition to rowing together and winning medals all over the world, Klepacki and Kaehler also share another strong bond – both rowed for Rutgers University, though not together: Kaehler graduated in 1986 and Klepacki graduated in 1990. They are both members of an alumni group (www.friendsofrutgerscrew.org) trying to save men’s rowing at Rutgers, which, because of budget cuts, is scheduled to be dissolved next spring. With the blessing of Rutgers head coach Steve Wagner, the 1994 Reunion boat will row with the Rutgers colors on their blades in support of the program.
At Rutgers, Klepacki was captain of the crew team and named MVP in 1990, while earning a degree in economics. He continued to row after college, winning multiple medals at world championships and other international regattas. He is also a three-time Olympian who represented the United States in Barcelona, Atlanta, and Sydney. The oldest of three children, he was born in Kearny and graduated from Kearny High School in 1986. Rowing runs in the family. His brother, Brian, also rowed at Rutgers.
Like Klepacki, Kaehler is a three-time Olympian who competed in Sydney, Barcelona, and Atlanta. A 10-time national team member, he has four World Championship gold medals in the men’s eight, the most ever by an American. He was named U.S. Rowing’s Male Athlete of the Year in 1998. Kaehler was born in San Mateo, California, where he lived until he was five years old, when his family moved to Huntington, Long Island. His father, Hans Jurgen Kaehler, was an aerospace engineer and consultant. His mother was a teacher. Kaehler started rowing in his junior year of high school at the Sagamore Rowing Club in Huntington Harbor after being cut from the high school baseball team. "I was too skinny, a late bloomer," he says. "The rowing sounded interesting as I grew up on the water so I thought I would give it a try."
Kaehler would go on to row at Rutgers, while earning a B.S. in chemistry. He earned a masters in physical therapy in 1991 at Columbia University in New York. He has been a licensed practicing physical therapist for over 15 years with a special interest in sports orthopedic rehabilitation and training programs. His wife, Kimberly, teaches sixth grade in the Council Rock School District. Daughter Kira is six years old, son Jack is three.
Just this year, Kaehler started a rowing club in his community, the Bucks County Rowing Association. Members train on Lake Luxembourg just a few minutes from his home. "There is nothing like getting out on the water early in the morning or in the evening while you are training and watch the sun rise or set on the water. Rowing is also the only sport you can do spring, summer, and fall outdoors that essentially trains your whole body and requires good physical power. Plus, there is a real sense of community in the rowing world because most people belong to a club and you have to work together, pull together quite literally."
Over the years, Klepacki has also done his part to share his love of physical fitness and rowing, especially with young people. He and his teammates have talked with hundreds of schoolchildren about competition, rowing, and competing in the Olympic Games. He and several others, including Mike Wherley, a long-time national team member, have brought Olympic magic to the New Jersey Scholastic Rowing Championships to hand out medals to the winners. Whether or not he, Kaehler, and their teammates bring home new medals of their own from the Masters competition next week, rowing has already showered him with blessings better than gold. "After all the practices, races, and travel the one facet I cherish most is the quality of the people and the friendships that I have garnered over my career. It’s been amazing."
Watching Klepacki race will be his wife, Melissa, who was coxswain of two National Collegiate Championships women’s eights while at Boston University. And joining her onshore will be a little boy named Henry, a handsome seven-month-old named after his grandfather, whose spirit was with that victorious World Championship boat on that unforgettable day so long ago.
FISA World Masters Regatta 2006, Thursday, September 7, 3 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, September 8 and 9, 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; and Sunday, September 10, 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Princeton International Regatta Association, Mercer Lake, Mercer County Park, 609-799-7100. 33rd annual World Rowing Masters Regatta on a seven-lane certified course. Special attractions: The Lincoln Showroom Tour – test drive the 2007 Lincoln MKX, and chef tastings. Use Hughes Drive entrance.