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Coach Stan Bergman: His Turf is the Surf

Chuck Gowdy, a lifeguard’s aerobic challenge. Photo by   Rusty Silverman

Stan Bergman: His Turf is the Surf

As you loll on the beach at the Jersey shore and take note of the lifeguards’ muscular physiques, know that they didn’t get that way sitting in those towering chairs. Their sport – surfboat rowing –is as demanding as crew and many participate in both of these highly aerobic pursuits.

Stan Bergman as a younger coach

Stan Bergman epitomizes the ties between lifeguard rescue and the sport of rowing. He has spent his life with his oar planted in both worlds: as a celebrated crew coach at Holy Spirit High School and the University of Pennsylvania, and a major fixture in lifeguarding with the Ventnor City Beach Patrol.

I look forward to meeting Stan in person on Aug. 24 when I give a talk about Boathouse Row at the Katz JCC in nearby Margate (7 p.m.)

But I got a chance to speak with him by phone recently.  He told me about “Doc” John Holland, the local physician who brought crew to Jersey Shore high schools and launched the Viking Boat Club–the shore’s first rowing club–in 1957.

“Doc Holland was a Ventnor lifeguard for years,” Stan said. “He did a medical internship at Dartmouth College and saw rowing there and thought it would be good for our kids. He bought shells and started people rowing. It started with two high schools and now there’s rowing at about nine schools” near the shore.

Tom Curran in the 1930s

Through Doc Holland, Stan, then 24, got his start as the first coach at Holy Spirit High School in Absecon. Another rowing great mentored him: Tom Curran, who rowed in the Penn Athletic Club’s “Big Eight” which broke international records in the early 1930s.  Curran also raced in the 1936 “Hitler Olympics.”

By the time Stan Bergman was named Holy Spirit’s first crew coach in 1965, Curran had brought trophies to his LaSalle College crew and within a year would be named Temple University’s first crew coach. (I’ve got a chapter on Curran in my book.)

The colorful Curran, who worked as a beer salesman and lived in Northfield, commuted to Philadelphia to coach in a tiny Karmann Ghia.  Doc Holland “got a hold of ‘the Bear’ and he really got me started, mentoring me in coaching,” said Stan. “He was a big, tough, strong Irishman who taught discipline and knew rowing inside out. He got everyone to row as a team. From there, I just developed.”

Last spring, Penn Rowing renamed its annual Class Day, calling it Stan Bergman Class Day.  Alumni who rowed to numerous victories under Stan over  a quarter of a century, also pitched in to buy an eight, named for him, and to set up a student athlete award.

Meanwhile, he continues to inspire a new cadre of young athletes as chief of the Ventnor City Beach Patrol. Many are the children of those who first fell for rowing.

“Doc Holland was a longtime captain of the  Beach Patrol and now his grandkids are there with me. The generations of rowers are a huge connection.” 

My talk at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 24 is free at the Katz JCC in Margate, 501 N. Jerome Ave.