Sean Tulley saw enough rowing on Mission Bay as a kid growing up in San Diego to know it was a sport he might like. But a career in the Army as a Blackhawk and experimental helicopter test pilot kept him too busy, not to mention being posted to places that just didn't have rowing, like Alaska and Afghanistan.
He did like to stay fit and competitive, and cycling, running, and being in the Army kept him going. Until he retired two years ago. That's when he found himself with time on his hands, no cash flow problems, an unused GI bill tuition entitlement, and living near St. Mary's College of Maryland.
So, he enrolled. And found rowing. Now, just shy of turning 50, Tulley is a collegiate rower. How does an "old dude" (his words) end up in the five-seat of a first varsity eight on the start line of the Knecht Cup?
"I had just finished a 20-year Army career in June of 2015, and I got lucky and found myself in a good financial position from being so busy in the Army. I never had a chance to spend a dime. So, financially, I'm pretty good. My intent was never to work again and I had this GI bill and the perfect solution for me was to enroll in a local college get a four-year degree."
Tulley didn't know about the rowing team. But like most freshman on a college campus with a crew program, and one that was preparing to go from a club program to a varsity sport, he got an email looking for walk-on prospects.
"I have always wanted to row," Tully said. "I'm from San Diego and I've seen the boats out there in the bay, but I never had an opportunity to do it. I thought, I have to do this. I had no idea the school had a crew team. I showed up at practice, got in the boat and loved it from day one," he said.
"I knew I was going to love it. I've seen it and watched it on the Olympics. It's one of those sports that combines skill and technique and endurance, all of the things I love about certain kinds of sports."
St. Mary's men's eight
With no experience in rowing, the path to good strokes was a trying one, he said. Maryland is known as a good place for crabbing, and Tulley was catching his limit.
"Even though I loved it right away, for the first two weeks, I almost had a fear of coming to practice because every day I would catch between one and a half dozen crabs. I didn't know why. It was frustrating and I just had this sense that I'm holding the boat back.
"Internally I was thinking these guys must hate me. Then, the crabs decreased. First to once a week, and then once in three months, and then rarely. I don't think I've had one in a year, knock on wood."
His experience being on a collegiate team as the oldest guy - by a lot - has been more than a little fun, he said. "It's a hoot.
"One reason I went to school was I wanted to unplug completely from the life I had in the Army. I loved it, but I was done with it and wanted to start a new life. Rowing on the team, about ninety-nine percent of the time, I don't realize I am an old dude rowing on a team with these kids.
"I'm immature by nature," Tulley said. "I think I fit in in that regard. They accept me and I enjoy being with them. I actually forget I am 49 years old - until I walk past a mirror."