Michael O'Gorman died of natural causes last week at the age of 53. A coxswain, coach, genius and cynic, he was well known to many and a close friend to only a very few. He cared very deeply about a handful of things and didn't give a shit about anything else - and was very happy to tell you so.
It's tough to summarize a life like that. His accomplishments were incredible: he cox'd six national teams, won three world championship medals and inspired countless crews as a coach. His stories were mythical: he mixed passion, intelligence and attitude to leave a long trail of stories both on and off the water. Whatever can't fit here (and that's most of it) will be told in full at a memorial service at the Irish Pub at 2007 Walnut St. on Saturday, October 27th after the Head of the Schuylkill (a race Michael won several times).
Michael was born in Massachusetts on August 16, 1965. He grew up in Florida and started coxing while at Edgewater High School. He came to the University of Pennsylvania in 1983 with full load of AP credits and a perfect 800 on his math SAT scores. According to what Mike told friends, rowing was much more important than college. Although he developed a lifelong love and respect for Coach Stan Bergman, he left college after coxing the Men's Heavyweight Freshmen Crew for one year - reportedly leaving Penn with as many credits as he had when he entered.
Michael stayed in Philadelphia, often living upstairs at the Vesper Boat House, and often winning on the national club level while a coxswain for the Vesper lightweights. For roughly a decade, Mike's boats won at Canadian Henley, the Head of the Schuylkill and the Head of the Charles. Mike's boats won the Elite Lightweight 8+ National Championship every year from 1986 through 1990, and again in 1992.
The story of how Mike helped his crew beat St. Catherine's to win the Head of the Charles in 1986 is best told by Coach Larry Wittig; "Mike took a tape recorder in the boat with him so he could critique his own performance and more importantly insulate him from any false accusations from anyone that he may have come afoul with during the race. By mile 2 Vesper was up 10 seconds and ready to overlap St. Kits at the Cambridge turn. Mike had negotiated his bow on the inside of the St. Kits stern entering the Cambridge turn, but the Canadian crew did not move. Mike figured out in a split second that the next turn was in the opposite direction (to starboard) which meant if he got caught on the inside of the Kits he would be caught on the outside of the next turn. He had the crew ease up on starboard (ed. in fact, he had them stop rowing) to un-overlap the boats, after which he took a power move. When Vesper came out of the last turn on the course they had a length of open water over St. Kits and (as we say) the rest is history ."
Starting in 1987, Michael was named to six straight US National Teams (1987 thru 1992) as coxswain of the men's lightweight eight. He won a bronze at Copenhagen in 1987, a silver in Milan in 1988 and another bronze in Vienna in 1991. Michael was known for his expertise on the water, his prowess when trading national team gear and, per several sources, his math skills. According to Ed Hewitt, who rowed in a number of boats with him, "Mike was so good at figuring out how fast a crew was going during seat racing based on time past all kinds of custom markers that he was banned by (Coach) Dave (Vogel) from saying anything other than stroke rates, as he tipped off everyone in the boat to exactly what was going on. His coxing was so good that he was banned from coxing."
After the 1992 Worlds, Michael started a long and successful career as a coach. He was the Women's Coach at Vesper Boat Club from 1992-1994, winning several national championships and the Women's All-Event National Championship Title in 1993 and 1994. He returned briefly to his home state of Florida to take over the head coaching job at Stetson University from 1994 through 1997. The story that ran in the local paper of Michael arriving on two days notice, with no room, no car and only a black shirt and boots, was quintessential Michael (as was the story of his departure).
After Stetson, Michael moved to Chicago in 1996 to work at Alpart Trading Company, founded by Penn lightweight rower Ken Alpart, which traded on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. While there, Michael and Ken founded the rowing program at Manley High School, an inner-city school on Chicago's West Side. It was an innovative rowing/academic program that became the subject of the book Suga Water by Manley rower Arshay Cooper. Jessica VandeVusse, a teacher at Manley and coach for the program, later became Michael's wife (they were married for 10 years).
O'Gorman coaching at the Head Of The Charles
In 2000, Mike became the first coach at the fledgling Chicago Rowing Center, which went on to win numerous national titles. According to Andi Omtvedt, Founding Member of CRC, "Nine of us founded this crew in April of 2000 after Michael put together a full set of bylaws and rules to keep the crew a 'women's only' crew and to ensure that only active competing members could vote. Six months after we established the crew, we won the Head of the Charles in the Women's Club 4+ Category."
Although Michael continued to coach formally (he most recently coached St. Louis Rowing Club from the Fall of 2017 to Spring 2018), he was well known for simply lending a hand whenever it was needed. Michael would help coach high school football teams (he could tell you the champion for every state in the nation for every year going back decades) and he traveled many times to act as a "finishing coach" (as he called himself) for other crews (often for old friends and teammates).
Dale Hurley, then in his 3rd year as lightweight coach at Navy, remembers calling Michael to help give his crews some speed and "within a week he was there." The other Navy coach at the time, Kit Vallhonrat, recalled that before Michael took over, his Harriton high school varsity lightweight eight "was literally still at the top of the island when Prep, Bonner and others finished." The following year, "we won Cities with only a few weeks of his coaching."
Michael inspired his athletes to be their best with the very same approach that threatened so much of the rowing establishment. According to his ex-wife Jessica, "When I first met Michael in our boathouse/parking lot. He was wearing a black leather coat, cowboy boots, and sunglasses… it was 80 out. He rode in the launch with our then coach. I was fat, out of shape, and 5'4'. Rowing had become my passion and I eagerly ran up to him hearing of his national team experience. I asked him if he thought I had a chance to make the national lightweight team, after losing some weight of course and getting my erg lower than 8:20. He looked at me and said, why not?"
A life well lived. The rest of the stories will need to wait until Philadelphia on October 27th.