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In Memory of Joan Lind Van Blom

by Ed Moran, ed@usrowing.org | Aug 29, 2015
LAC AIGUEBELETTE, France – The news spread quickly through the boatyard and among the rowers and coaches in the United States rowing community.
joannown (1)In honor of Joan Lind Van Blom, those interested in joining her family in celebration of Joan's life are welcomed to attended "A Celebration of the Life of Joan Lind Van Blom" set to take place October 10th, , from 4 p.m. to sunset, at the Long Beach Rowing Association boathouse, with a reception at 4:00 on October 17th at the Head of the Charles Regatta at the National Rowing Foundation tent as well 4 p.m.

Those interested should contact JoanCelebration@gmail.com. The event will be held at the Pete Archer Rowing Center from 4 p.m. to sunset. 

LAC AIGUEBELETTE, France
– The news spread quickly through the boatyard and among the rowers and coaches in the United States rowing community.

Joan Lind Van Blom, 62, the first U.S. woman to win an Olympic medal in the women’s single sculls, had lost her battle with brain cancer and passed away Friday morning. The international rowing world is a small, tightly bound one, and Van Blom was a big name within it.

Many of the athletes had already heard the news and all were saddened to learn of her death. Most knew it was coming. In August of 2012, she had a seizure during an erg workout. Shortly after, she was diagnosed with grade four glioblastoma multiforme, an incurable and aggressive brain cancer. She had two surgeries, the most recent in August 2014 and talked openly about her illness.

Van Blom was a pioneer in women’s rowing and inspired the elite athletes here today, like Meghan O’Leary and Ellen Tomek, who are representing the U.S. in the women’s double sculls.

Three weeks ago, they learned that Van Blom had gone into hospice care and would pass soon. So they arranged to have Van Blom’s name placed on their boat. “When we heard that she went into hospice a couple of weeks ago, I emailed the National Rowing Foundation and (USRowing Director of High Performance) Curtis Jordan and said it would be really nice if one of the women’s boats would have her name on it at worlds to honor all that she has done for women’s rowing and especially sculling,” said O’Leary.

USA W2x“I said we would be honored to have her name on the double, even though she raced the single and quad and medaled in those boats.”

Everyone agreed, and a sticker with her name on it was made up and sent to France. It arrived and was placed on the boat Friday morning, the day Van Blom passed. For O’Leary and Tomek, honoring Van Blom has raised the level of emotion of racing here and attempting to qualify the double for the 2016 Olympic Games.

Both were emotional talking about Van Blom, but the determination they share to race in Van Blom’s honor was visibly sincere.

“The sticker went on yesterday, and we learned that she passed away yesterday, so it’s sad. But I like to think her name is carrying on with the women scullers. We remember all that she did and we’re just hoping to embody the sprit she took into the sport,” O’Leary said.

“I met Joan a few years ago when she was first diagnosed,” said Tomek. “But speaking with people who knew her, she continued to row and wanted to fight as long as she could. She brought that into rowing. She brought that into life and to have her name on our boat, we would love to bring that same thing into our racing.”

There is a video of the 1976 Olympic race in Montreal where Van Blom won a silver medal rowing from behind and in an outside, unprotected lane on a windy day.

“Watching that great race in the single was just incredible,” O’Leary said. “I watched it again this morning and it’s inspiring and motivating, and for me, has given this next week another level. I want to remember what this is about and carry a little bit more with us because of this.”

Born in Long Beach, Calif., and raised just two miles from the rowing course built for the 1932 Olympic Games, Van Blom knew nothing of rowing and didn’t hear about it until she was a freshman at California State University and a classmate who rowed on the men’s team asked her to come watch a race.

She did, and there met two women who were competing at the regatta. Van Blom told her classmate that rowing, “looked like fun,” and he told one of the two women, Melinda Collis. Collis approached Van Blom and asked her to come to the Long Beach Rowing Association, where she was introduced to two male scullers training for the Olympics.

joanandjohnOne was her future husband, John Van Blom, and the other was coach Tom McKibbon, who wanted to bring women into the sport.

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 in 1976 Olympic Games and then again in 1984 in the quadruple sculls.

But her path was never an easy one. Women’s rowing was not like it is today, a large and vibrant entity. There were only a few women in the U.S. sculling at the time. They rowed in equipment made for men. Many rowing clubs did not welcome women.

“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,” Van Blom said during an interview after she was named the 2014 USRowing Ernestine Bayer Award, which recognizes outstanding contributions to women’s rowing and/or to an outstanding woman in rowing.

“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.”

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 championships. She repeated the feat in 1975, and then won silver at the Olympic Games in Montreal the next year.

“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 student teaching and working toward her degree and a 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.

joanpodiumIn 1976, 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.

Christine Scheiblich-Hahn was representing the East Germans and got out in front. Van Blom rowed near the back of the pack but held contact with the leaders. As the race progressed, Van Blom rowed into third and then second and as she and Scheiblich-Hahn neared the finish, they were ahead and battling for the gold.

“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,” Van Blom recalled. “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.”

Van Blom stayed competitive and she now holds 11 indoor rowing world records. In October 2014, 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 districts’ nine high schools.

Van Blom was a model of determination and compassion. She stayed close with many of her teammates, one, Jean Strauss, is a filmmaker and has been working on a documentary of Van Blom’s life and rowing career over the past year.

The film is near completion and is in the editing stages. Strauss spent a lot of time with Van Blom over the past few months and was called to California by John Van Blom when it became clear the end was approaching.

Scheiblich-Hahn, her East German opponent sent Van Blom a letter. She never got to read it, but Strauss did. “She got that letter on the last day of her life. It was a very touching letter.

“Words elude me tonight,” Strauss said. “We have lost someone so special, so unique, so loved.

“Joan inspired everyone. Everyone. I had the privilege of training with her at Long Beach Rowing Association, weightlifting, running Signal Hill, and doing five hundreds in the Marine Stadium. She quit her job that year, moved back home with her parents, and lived off her savings only to have the U.S. boycott the Games. She handled that situation the same way she handles everything, with grace and dignity and humor,” Strauss said.

“We began working on the documentary this past January. It will celebrate her incredible impact on women's sculling, from the moment she walked into the Long Beach boathouse in 1970 as an 18-year-old looking for something to do, through her meteoric rise in the sport, representing the United States for eight-straight years in the single, through three Olympics, to her racing as a master, setting world records on the erg and on the water, to today. Her work ethic, competitive drive and elegance set the bar high for us all. Everyone wanted to be like her.”

Another of her teammates who is here, Gregg Stone, remembered Van Blom fondly.
“We overlapped on the team. Watching her in ‘76 was inspirational. Here was this thin, skinny woman in the outside lane, in a boat no one had ever heard of, come up and snag the silver medal,” said Stone, who is here coaching his daughter, Gevvie, in the women’s single.

“She built her life around rowing. She was an athletic director and helped people and always had a great smile, very courteous. She was a great lady.”

estherjoanLondon Olympic gold medalist Esther Lofgren and her parents rowed at Long Beach and grew up as family friends.

“I grew up pretty much in awe of this rower that my parents would tell stories about, how competitive, talented, and gracious she was, this one woman, Joan Lind. Finally, when I was about ten, I asked my mom where Joan Lind was, and she laughed and said, ‘It's our Joan.’ I was totally blown away that this friendly, funny, incredibly loving family friend was the insanely competitive athlete who led the way in U.S. women's rowing for more than a decade, for my mom, for me, for all of us.

“I will forever remember Joan as the wonderful, caring woman I grew up around, and the incredibly talented and competitive rower I heard stories about and then saw in countless races during my own career. She showed that women's rowing in the U.S. could be internationally competitive right from the start, and broke countless barriers for women throughout her career. I'm incredibly grateful that I got to know her.

“Joan was a mentor to me in so many ways. A lot of years, I would be home for Christmas and see her, and be all wrapped up in minutiae of training, erg scores or what was happening with one boat or another. She always wanted to know about the good things I'd forgotten along the way, the beautiful venue we'd raced at, or the technical things I'd figured out in the pair or single. I think it was her way of encouraging me to think about not just the destination, but to also appreciate the incredible journey I was on.”

Through the whole time Van Blom was ill, she kept rowing and never sought pity. Instead, she worried about leaving her husband, John and son, Johnny, without a wife and mom.

In a video interview at the 2014 USRowing Annual Convention before her award presentation, Van Blom talked about being sick, but also about being grateful for the life she had.

“Crying about it is just wasting time,” Van Blom said. “I just feel like I have a wonderful life. And when I was in the hospital, for the times I was in for surgeries, and you see how bad it can be, I’ve been lucky. I’ve been healthy until this. I’ve been healthy all my life, and I’ve been able to compete at a high level, and I just feel so fortunate to have had what I had and if it all ends tomorrow, I’ve had a great run.

“I feel sad for my husband, for my loved ones that are caring for me,” she said. “I’ve just been so lucky because I have a wonderful husband and a wonderful family. I stay upbeat because I’ve had a lot of good fortune in my life.”

Services have not yet been announced.

To see a Van Blom’s taped interview, go here.

To see the presentation of the 2014 Ernestine Bayer Award, go here.

To watch her 1976 silver medal race, go here.
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