Published October 10. 2012 4:00AM
East Lyme - Steve Hargis opened an envelope sent to him last week and found a note from one of his former junior rowers, Amanda Polk, who was an alternate for this year's gold medal-winning women's eight at the Olympic Games in London.
She enclosed a thank you note to Hargis for helping her along the way, as well as the trading pin for Olympic rowing, a pair of crossed oars with the five rings representing the Games emblazoned across the middle.
Hargis, East Lyme High School's athletic director, doubles as the head development coach for the men's and women's junior national rowing team, a task that keeps him on the run during the summer months. From 2004-08, he coached the United States Junior Women's National Team and was named Development Coach of the Year by the U.S. Olympic Committee in 2008 after the team won the gold medal at the world championships in Austria for the first time in program history.
Hargis had five of his former athletes on this year's gold medal-winning women's eight in London.
"It's what a true amateur athlete is," Hargis said last week, speaking of his 14-year involvement with U.S. Rowing. "Some of them work at Home Depot so they can work their training schedule around it.
"… We try to teach them about work ethic, that's for sure. And ownership. Own the changes the coaches are talking to you about. It's important for me to create these opportunities for the junior rowers."
Hargis, 54, remembers the first time he ever saw two-time gold medalist Caroline Lind race.
With Lind a member of one of Hargis' junior camps for a few weeks at that point, Hargis, in his first year with the program, brought a boat to the Independence Day Regatta in Philadelphia which included Lind. He immediately called the coach who was across the country in Seattle getting ready to pick the Junior National Team.
"I said, 'She's a woman among girls and you should see it,'" Hargis said. "It was my first year; I thought, 'I might be overstepping my bounds.' She said she had already picked the boat, but send her out. I said, 'Only if you're going to give her a fair shot.'
"I remember driving Caroline to the airport and I told her, 'When you get off the plane, you have no friends.' … The next morning at 10 a.m., 7 a.m. their time, she called to tell me she made the boat. It took them less than an hour after seeing her. She went on to row at Princeton. She was the real deal."
This summer, Hargis was coaching the Junior Men's National Team at U.S. Rowing headquarters in Princeton, N.J. He was in a hotel room on Aug. 2, watching the video of the gold medal race for the women's eight.
"Once they stuck their nose out in front, you knew they were not going to let anyone come back on them," Hargis said.
The U.S. won the 2,000-meter race in 6 minutes, 10.59 seconds. Canada was second in 6:12.06.
Of course, Hargis had seen the same thing four years before when the U.S. won the gold medal in Beijing. That one, because it was the first, brought Hargis to tears.
"I think it's a testament to the sheer determination and the heart of the women in the boat," Lind said at the post-race press conference that day. "I think that's what it comes down to, because I know that there are other women who are physically gifted and are amazing rowers, but the difference between everyone else and the American team is that we want it bad. We want it more. And I think that heart and togetherness is what makes us different."
Said Hargis: "For Amanda Knox to be the alternate and still send me a thank you note for helping to get her there, that just shows the pride they have in their accomplishment, the spirit they have."
Hargis, a native of Westminster, Md., who once had his photo taken with legendary Baltimore Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas, never rowed before he arrived at the Coast Guard Academy in 1976.
Before he graduated, however, the 6-foot-4 Hargis was a member of the IRA National Champion coxed four in 1978 and was in the first Coast Guard boat ever to race at the prestigious Henley Royal Regatta. In 2011, Hargis, who received his degree in marine science but was never commissioned because of kidney disease - then-athletic director Otto Graham intervened on his behalf to allow him to graduate, Hargis said - was elected to the Coast Guard Academy Athletic Hall of Fame.
It was after he graduated, as a member of the New York Athletic Club, that Hargis got really serious about rowing.
"That's where I became so passionate about rowing. I got to rub shoulders with Olympians and some other pretty amazing athletes," Hargis said.
Hargis found work marketing marine simulation systems and it was while employed by Ship Analytics in North Stonington that he returned to the area.
He coached the Coast Guard's women's crew team from 1998-2008, also serving as the academy's director of rowing. The Bears received invitations to the NCAA Championships in five of his last six seasons, as well as winning New England Women's and Men's Conference titles in 2007 and 2008. Hargis was the 2003 Division III Coach of the Year.
Hargis and his wife Sally have three daughters, Shannon, Brittany and Chelsea, all of whom were prominent athletes at East Lyme, but Hargis was unsure at first whether he could coach women.
He soon found that he coaches them just the same as he does his East Lyme High School boys' track team, the same as he coached the U.S. Junior Men's National Team at the world championship this summer in Bulgaria. Hargis is also currently the interim men's coach at Coast Guard.
"I'm not a yeller. I'm demanding. I want to know you're at least making an effort," Hargis said. "I want to see you demonstrating a good work ethic, being a part of a team."
It was while he was coaching the women's team at Coast Guard that he involved the academy in the U.S. Rowing program for junior women. When the women's development camps began for ages 14-19, there were six around the country. Now, they are all held at Coast Guard.
The process begins in January with identification camps held around the country that are open to anyone. Those who make the cut are broken into a Select Camp of 30-40 athletes, a High-Performance Camp of another 30-40 and a 15-Year-Old Camp. The first two are held at the Coast Guard, while the 15-year-olds row on Rogers Lake in Old Lyme. The athletes are housed at Connecticut College.
"They're all housed in the same dorm, so the 15-year-olds get to see what the elite rowers look like," Hargis said. "Sometimes we bring them down to Princeton, where the Senior A team trains, and we put the kids in mixed boats with the Olympic team."
Hargis said the Junior National program has "matured" since its inception.
"We're always increasing the expectations and requirements," Hargis said. "It's grown from the grass roots level. The kids are getting younger and younger and the athletes are getting better and better. It's been an interesting ride and evolution. It's been exciting. It hasn't seemed like 14 years.
"… Just knowing where the athletes have come from is pretty cool."