In a perfect world, Politics and Sport would never cross paths. Of course, in a perfect world Pizza and Chocolate would be vegetables, but I’m afraid that’s not the case. In our imperfect world we’re left to deal with the reality that Politics shall always find their way into places you don’t want them to be, but they need to be.
I have been involved in Dragon Boat racing since 2004; first at a Corporate Team level, and then on the US National Team in 2011, 2013, and 2015. My Head Coach through those years was Dr. Robert McNamara, M.D., FAAEM, Professor and Chair for the Emergency Medicine Department, as well as the Chief Medical Officer of Temple University Physicians. He has been the coach of the Philadelphia Dragon Boat Association since 1986, and the Head Coach of Team USA since 1995.
That is, until last Friday. He was removed by the US Dragon Boat Federation as Team USA Premier Open and Premier Mixed coach, and given a lifetime ban from the United States Dragon Boat Federation. Thirty years of work gone in thirty minutes, judged by a Board voting behind closed doors.
So now instead of training, we’re talking about lawyers. Instead of thinking about Worlds in China next year, all of us in the program aren’t even sure who will be leading, or if we will even be going. The legal road will be a long, complicated one, and one without a clear way forward.
I have to leave the legal part to the lawyers, but I don’t do silence. I just can’t. I’m Italian. My emotions are worn on both sleeves in an effort to remain balanced, and keep my blood pressure low.
I wrote the following, and sent it to the powers that be.
If you are ever in the position where you think you might need to defend someone, don’t hesitate. Don’t let your energy simmer away into space; sit down, put pen to paper (or fingers to keys), and let your heart run.
Sometimes, that’s all you have. Go all-in.
USDBF Board Members,
I write to you as someone in the Team USA Program who fought to earn the right to wear the uniform, and who will fight until my last breath for the people in the boat with me.
I ask you, please.
I heard the launch come up from behind me, and my grip tightened. I could feel my stroke going to pieces as I tried to remember everything at once, and made a complete mess of it. I had heard so much about Bob McNamara, and now he was right beside me – a rookie in 10 seat, left (my off side), fighting to try and keep up with a team that was just three weeks away from USDBF Nationals at Long Beach.
I braced for what was certainly going to be a tirade. There would have to be yelling. I had heard about Coach McNamara and his record with PDBA, and there I was in the back of the boat, feeling hopelessly out of my league.
He looked for a bit longer, and then calmly asked me from the launch, “What size is that paddle?”
“Fif-fifty-one?” My answer was more of a terrified question than a statement.
Bob gunned the launch and moved on. There was no yelling, no swearing, and no tirade. The next day as I tried again to fight that 51” paddle through the speedwork, the sound of the coaching launch approaching once more caused my blood to run cold. The launch ran closer, sounding as if it was coming right into my seat.
Appearing in front of me out of the sky was the extended handle of a carbon fiber paddle. “Mina…you can’t use a 51 back here. You need a shorter blade.” Coach McNamara handed me his 49” ZRE, and went back to work sharpening the team for Long Beach.
He already knew my name. I never had to remind him.
“Mina, elbow swing.”
“Mina, feather the blade.”
“Mina, exit timing – don’t lag at the finish…”
To this day whenever someone new comes to practice, he never has to ask their name twice. He hears it once, he remembers, and that’s that. Rookies still get a paddle when they need one. Rookies still get as much coaching as they need. Rookies are treated to the same lessons as Premiers, always.
Because this is the Bob McNamara we see. Every. Single. Day.
I started paddling with a corporate team in 2004. After endless insistence that I join PDBA on the part of Chris Marquart, I finally gave it a shot in 2008. I paddled the entire 2009 season, and through the coaching of Bob, continued to improve. I tried out for the US Team in 2009, figuring I had no shot at all. I made it to the final round – I was cut on the last day.
Bob told me via email after the final test, “Stick with it. You’ll need a lot of miles between now and then, but you’re right in the middle of the Seniors who won medals in Sydney.”
I stuck with it.
In 2011 earned my first US Team selection in Senior A, and I was involved in a fantastic battle with Jim Morris for the final Premier Open seat. It went on for six weeks, and in the end I was the last man cut from Premier Open. I watched as Jim won his first Gold medal after 13 years, and the first man to greet him on shore after the race was over was Coach Bob McNamara.
Under Bob’s direction I continued to tweak, adjust, and learn. His eye for detail and his attention to technique was relentless. He worked with everyone the same way – Premier to Senior C – everyone received the same critiques, as he tried to create margins by hundredths of a second at a time.
In 2013 I didn’t even give trying out for Premier Open a thought; I couldn’t take the heartbreak again. This time I was going to get a solid Senior A seat, go to Hungary with a great team, and that would be that.
But a strange thing happened on the way: I earned a Premier Open selection on the first day of Time Trials. Bob walked down to the group of us waiting, looked at the timing sheet and pointed towards me. “Premier Open, 1K, 2K. But fix your timing, or you’ll be back in 10 seat.”
I couldn’t believe it. I still don’t, actually. But I should have seen it coming. I should have known what was happening. His lessons, his coaching, his attention to detail, had taken me from a corporate team rookie, to a starter on the fastest team in the world in just two world championship cycles.
Because that is the Bob McNamara we know.
Every. Single. Day.
I would win my first Gold that year – not with Premier Open, but with my Senior A Mixed teammates at my side. After missing out on my chance in 2011, Jim Morris was there with me when we held off Germany in a photo finish to win the first Senior A Gold for the US since 2001 by 0.04 seconds.
The first man to greet me when I got back to the team shelter was Bob McNamara. Before I could even see who it was, he hugged me and said, “You’re a WORLD CHAMPION!” I heard the anthem. For the first time in my life, I sang along with it on the top step of the podium.
Without Bob McNamara, there’s no way that would have come true.
My personal story should have kept on climbing in Welland, but I made the greatest mistake I have ever made in my racing life. When Senior A tryouts took place in June of 2014, I posted a time just to be sure I’d have a shot at a selection as a backup (Premier selection would not take place until the following Spring). When that selection came later in the summer, the Head Coach told me, “Now you have to commit to this seat. If you’re in this boat, I need to know it now. I know you’re thinking about Premier – you’re one of two guys on this roster Bob wants…”
“But if you go for Premier, you go for Premier only. You will be out of this boat.”
I blinked. I accepted his offer. I declined to pursue a Premier seat in the Spring of 2015, because I had given a coach my word.
I now know for sure that there is nothing more expensive in this life, than regret. Under the new coach, Welland was the worst Team USA I have ever been a part of: We were uncompetitive at all distances. I will never forget the Canadians laughing amongst themselves in Team Marshaling on the final day, “Hey, we won’t try and put open water on you this time…”
While we were getting laughed at and blown out of the water, Bob’s Premier Open program won Gold at the 1000, Silver in the 500, and Silver in the 2K.
I came home from Welland shattered mentally and physically; I spent three months in Physical Therapy repairing the shoulder damage I did fighting to save what I could from a team that was doomed from the start.
I focused all of my training in the off-season with a focus on 2017. I would not make the same mistake twice.
That was, until now. Because you have not only given the greatest coach in the history of USA Dragon Boat the Death Penalty, you have killed hundreds of us right along with him.
Those of us who have been fortunate enough to race for Bob want nothing more than another chance, and now because of your decision, those chances are gone.
With less than a year to go, when everyone is halfway through that long sharpen to the first time trial, you have cut us at the knees. The hopes of all those who have not yet made it, the closed-eye wishes of those who stare at the walls of basements at 5:37AM, grinding out miles on paddling ergs, dreaming of wearing the uniform, those are all finished before they ever had a chance.
You have settled a score – twelve of you – against one man, at the expense of the entire US Dragon Boat community. You have settled a score with one man whom none of you have ever trained with, raced for, or won and lost with. Not ONE of you.
Because you don’t know the Bob McNamara that we know. Every. Single. Day.
You have not given the Death Penalty to just Bob McNamara.
You have given the Death Penalty to the heart of USA Dragon Boat.
It took him 30 years to build the program. It took 30 years to build the core, expand the team, and build us into a truly NATIONAL program from all corners of the nation.
It took you less than 30 minutes to tear it all down.
I ask you, please – as a paddler, as a USA teammate, please reconsider this decision. Please have a look at the endless comments coming in. Read the letters from everyone – not just Philadelphia, but Tampa, Miami, Portland, New York, Honolulu, Houston, San Diego.
Reconsider. Give us the chance we deserve, the chance we need, the chance Robert McNamara has earned in his 30 years at the heart of US Dragon Boat racing.
This is the Bob McNamara we see. Every. Single. Day
President, Philadelphia Dragon Boat Association
Team USA 2011, 2013, 2015