A Coach’s Contribution
Rowing has always felt like a familial thing to me. My uncle introduced my sisters to the sport, and I eagerly followed when I began my freshman year of high school. As anticipated, my team became an extension of my family after going through a few too many rough practices with the same girls by my side. Fortunately, my coaches were also part of that family.
Most coaches do a great job teaching their athletes about their sport, but if you’re real lucky, a coach will come around and teach you about life.
Coaches who teach you about life are a rarity, and I have the pleasure of saying I have found one of them in my coach, Fred Duling.
Mr. Duling is an immense reason behind why I row. My teammates and I call him Pops. He is an old coach, forever friend, and just happens to be a world-class rower. He has raced at just about every regatta possible since the age of 15 and has represented the United States at the World Championship three times. He knows the sport better than anyone I have ever met, and he has a passion for rowing unlike any other.
In 2010, two weeks after Thanksgiving, Mr. Duling was at Malta Boat Club on Philadelphia’s Boathouse Row decorating the club's Christmas tree on a ladder. Although no one knows the exact details of the evening to this day, the next morning he was found on the floor of the boat club at a body temperature of 86 degrees. He had fallen from the ladder when he was decorating the tree. He broke his nose, cheekbone and fractured his spine in four different places. The fact that he survived the night already shows the strength and fight ingrained in his DNA, but the following years of his life would reveal that fully.
From that night on, Mr. Duling was paralyzed from the abdomen down, spending months in and out of intensive care at various hospitals. Since his accident, he has been hospitalized with pneumonia numerous times and has suffered from broken necks. While his sheer will to survive is inspiration enough, it is how Mr. Duling holds himself every day that makes him the most courageous human I have ever met. Two years post-accident, he was back on the water in an adaptive arms-only double. The first time I met him, he was wheeled onto the front of our coaching launch and secured onto the landing from the bottom of his wheelchair. This is where he taught me how to take my first strokes. This year with COVID safety measures and all, Mr. Duling continued his 61-year race streak at the Schuylkill Navy’s Turkey Trot on Thanksgiving morning. He shows up every day to the exact spot where his life was drastically changed with the biggest smile in the room, excited to watch young girls fall in love with the sport as he did. When asked why he came back to coach us, he would reply “enough was enough” and insist he had to get back to doing what he loved: teaching new rowers the sport. It amazes me how he can teach athletes how to find power and strength in a sport that took so much from him.
Simply put, Mr. Duling can do this because his strength never came from his legs. It was always so much more than a sport to him.
He rows with his heart, and the strength of his heart is what kept him here with us. And it is what brings him back to practice every day since.
In all sports, it can be so easy to measure an athlete’s strength and talent by a numerical value: How much do you lift? How fast can you run? How have you been your team’s MVP? It can be easy to feel weak when you miss your numeric goals or lose a competition. That said, Mr. Duling is a reminder that your strength is a state of mind—not a statistic. You are strong for showing up every day and displaying your willingness to perform, everything else is just what comes after that. He is a testament to the human spirit and what it means to push through painful experiences. Sometimes, on the water, I think about that. I think about what he would give to feel the seat’s wheels slide up to the catch or press off the footboards one more time. Yes, it helps me pull my oar a little harder, but it also reminds me how lucky I am to be a part of a sport that sometimes feels like it just takes and takes.
For Mr. Duling, his accident took an immense part of his life away, but he would tell us every day that it brought him to our team, and for that reason, he wouldn’t change a thing.
So when I’m in pain, I try to think about what it is bringing me: more strength, mental toughness, and grit. It reminds me to keep pushing through and row like I know he would, relentlessly looking for perfection while going through hell, feeling like nothing could hurt more but asking for the pain. I think mentally, Mr. Duling feels this pain every day he returns to the boathouse, forced to think about the “what if”s” and “if only’s” from that night in his head. Regardless, he shows up with the most optimistic attitude on the river, ready to start practice and persevere.
I’m sure everyone would agree that sports are so much more than physical activity. They are a celebration of passion, friendship, comradery, and the human spirit. Joining an environment like the group of student-athletes at UNC has shown me just how much we rely on those around us. Each individual is a compilation of those who have supported them throughout their life. All accomplishments, successes, and milestones require us to turn around and acknowledge the people that held our hands every step of the way.
To quote UNC’s beloved Dean Smith, I try to remind myself to “point to the passer”. In the sport of rowing, Mr. Duling is my passer. He has set an example of what it means to wake up optimistic, let go of grudges, and live every day to its fullest. Through his actions, I know no practice, race, or bad day is too tough to overcome. He is a true testament to the human spirit and the MVP among all my rankings.
- Taylor Gregitis