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Joan Van Blom is the 2014 Ernestine Bayer Award Recipient

by Ed Moran ed@usrowing.org | Dec 03, 2014
Growing up in Long Beach, Calif., Joan Van Blom was surrounded by Olympic rowing history and didn’t know it. Just two miles from her home, there was a rowing course built for the 1932 Olympic Games.

 

 At home in her single, Joan Van Blom.

Growing up in Long Beach, Calif., Joan Van Blom was surrounded by Olympic rowing history and didn’t know it. Just two miles from her home, there was a rowing course built for the 1932 Olympic Games.

And in 1967, a new boathouse was built on that same course for the 1968 U.S. Men’s Olympic Sculling Trials, and three of the men’s scullers at Long Beach Rowing Association that year were Olympians.

“I was in high school at the time, and I was oblivious to all of it,” she said.

It wasn’t until she was a college freshman at California State University, Long Beach, sitting in class next to a guy who rowed on the school’s crew team, that she learned anything about rowing.

“I met a boy in a class. He was rowing on the crew team, and he said, ‘come down and watch.’ I came to watch him, and I told him, ‘that looks fun.’ There were two women rowing in the race, and the boy told one of the women, Melinda Collis, that I wanted to row.”

Collis brought Van Blom to Long Beach Rowing Association, a club that not only had several Olympic men scullers, including John Van Blom, her future husband, but also Tom McKibbon, who wanted to start teaching sculling to women and coach them in competition.

It was the beginning of a long, distinguished career in rowing that saw Van Blom, whose last name then was Lind, win a silver medal in the single sculls at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal and then again in 1984 in the quadruple sculls.

She was the first U.S. woman to win an Olympic medal.

Van Blom stayed competitive, and she now holds 11 indoor rowing world records. In October, she won gold in the senior women’s eight at the 50th Head of the Charles Regatta. She had a 35-year career as a physical education teacher and was instrumental in winning a million-dollar grant to put rowing machines in each of her school district’s nine high schools.

For all of her accomplishments, dedication to rowing and contributions to the sport’s growth, Van Blom was named the recipient of the 2014 USRowing Ernestine Bayer Award, formerly Woman of the Year, which recognizes outstanding contributions to women’s rowing and/or to an outstanding woman in rowing.

The award is named in honor of the late Ernestine Bayer, a pioneer in women’s rowing, who is seen as the matriarch of the sport in the United States. She will be honored on Saturday, December 6, at the 2014 USRowing Annual Awards Reception presented by Nathan Benderson Park in Jacksonville, Fla.

“I’m very honored,” she said of the award. “It was a total surprise. I didn’t know I’d been nominated, and when (USRowing CEO) Glenn Merry called me, it was out of the blue. Glenn told me during the conversation when he was telling me about the award, who had nominated me. It was a woman who takes rowing classes down at the boathouse.

“I was very happy, and I’m honored because of the name, Ernestine Bayer. I met her when I was rowing and even saw her at the C.R.A.S.H.-B.s when was she maybe 90. I’m aware of the legacy that she set for women’s rowing and the advocacy that she had to get women’s rowing going in the United States.”

The story of Van Blom’s start in rowing, and her eventual Olympic silver medal race, is one of those right place, right time, perfect storm situations.

After her chance encounter with her rowing classmate, Van Blom became part of a group of women scullers at Long Beach that included Collis and was coached by McKibbon. At a time when women were just getting started in rowing and not all that welcome in male-dominated clubs, Long Beach was welcoming.

“I started rowing in 1970 with these outstanding male scullers who were so open to teaching women how to row well, and that’s where I feel fortunate,” she said. “I hear these nightmare stories of women battling the men’s programs at their clubs and universities, and I did not experience that here and neither did the other women here. The men were welcoming; they let us use their boats.”

Collis put Van Blom in a training single and then rowed with her in a double to get her started. McKibbon began coaching that January, and in 1971, Van Blom won a national championship in the double with teammate Karen McCloskey. At the 1972 National Women’s Rowing Championships, the Long Beach women won all the sculling events.

Van Blom began rowing in the single at international competitions in 1973 and was the first U.S. woman to reach the final in the event at a world championship. She repeated the feat in 1975 and then won silver at the Olympic Games in Montreal.

“To win that medal, I felt like, finally,” she said. “It was a thrill. A dream-come-true. I came in fifth place in 1975. I was seventh in 1974, sixth in 1973, and there were always these hardships.”

By hardships, Van Blom meant that she was still living at home, still in school and student teaching and working toward her degree and teaching certificate. When she went to the world championships, it was on a restricted budget, without family support, without significant time to get acclimated to the time zone changes, and she had to row in a borrowed men’s boat.

But when the 1976 Olympic year came, Van Blom was again in the right place at the right time. The Olympics were in North America, and Ted Van Dusen built her a boat and delivered it to her in New Hampshire when she was training at Dartmouth College before the Games.

“So here it is, 1976. The Olympics are in Montreal, on our continent, and my parents are there. They have never seen me race internationally. I’m in a boat that fits me, finally.

“And we’re going against the East Germans; the East Germans had dominated those Olympics. I was in the outside lane, and it was the windiest lane. East Germany was in lane two, the sheltered lane, and she beat me by six-tenths of a second.

“It was a thrill to have my parents there. We had a lot of Long Beach people there, so not only did I get to be the first American to do that, but to finally be able to show I could do it was a thrill.”

Today, Van Blom is again battling a hardship. Last September, she was diagnosed with grade four glioblastoma multiforme, an incurable and aggressive brain cancer. She has had two surgeries, the most recent in August but, “I’ve managed to keep training, just not as hard,” she said.

Van Blom is upbeat and continues to teach indoor rowing and to encourage women to participate in the sport. And she said she feels extremely fortunate to have had the career she had, and continues to have, in rowing.

“When you ask me how I feel, I say I was a lucky girl. I was in the right place at the right time, happened upon this guy in the class who was on the crew team, and went down to watch.”

Watch a video of the 1976 final here.

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