By Leanna Walters
On Friday, August 18, Bob Borberg competed in the United States Rowing Masters’ National Championship in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and won first place in Men’s 1x Sculls. He was back to work at Chiusano’s Brick Oven Pizzeria, a restaurant he and his wife own at the Legends, for the lunch rush the next day. He drove.
If you’re up early, walking the lake, taking the kids to school, going to work, you sense Bob’s drive, his dedication to the sport of rowing, a year-round, nearly-every-day pursuit, usually 40 to 50 miles a week except when the lake is iced over.
Bob, in his late 40s, admits he was nervous going into the race. Although he raced through college and spent over a decade training for an Olympic spot that eluded him, the last time he raced head-to-head against anyone was in 2014, and before that, in 2008.
Why now? “I like to race,” he says, simply. “If I lived closer to competition, I’d race a lot. If you’re able to put a carrot in front of yourself to chase, it gives you more motivation.” Oak Ridge was drivable, the date worked into his schedule, and they had boats from a top manufacturer available for competitors for use for the race.
Historically, and practically, the sport is more prevalent on the Eastern seaboard, the West Coast, the South, the Pacific Northwest—in cities and colleges with boat houses on the water’s edge and memories of competitive boat races attended by thousands and broadcast nationally like super bowls today.
Bob didn’t start rowing until attending college at K-State. “A large majority of rowers don’t pick it up until later,” explains Bob. “It’s a sport of longevity,” he says, pointing to Lake Quivira’s last rowing phenomenon, Fred Braun, who rowed into his 80s, logging each mile, celebrating each thousand miles, reaching 21,000 miles on Lake Quivira.
K-State had a good team, faring well against top teams in the Midwest and giving some of the east coast schools a run for their money. Bob made varsity his second year, and his team competed in the Dad Vail Regatta in Philadelphia (the largest collegiate regatta in the United States) his senior year.
After earning an engineering degree, Bob put a career on hold to train with the Vesper Boat Club in Philadelphia, living “hand to mouth” from 1991 to 1997. He and Nancy were married in 1996 and moved to Colorado in 1998, where he stored a boat close to lake Grandby. He continued training part-time through 2000.
Much as a seasoned bridge player can recall the cards, the bids, the play in games long past, Bob remembers the details of each qualifying race that could lead to a spot in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, the 2004 Olympics in Athens.
In Atlanta, team members were housed in local homes, and he and his doubles partner both contracted food poisoning. In 2004, he made it to the semifinals in New Jersey; in 2004 he trained in singles, only to see two-time Swiss Olympic medalist, Zeno Mueller, obtain American citizenship and declare himself a competitor in singles.
As a team member, Bob has competed in both sweep rowing (every other rower pulls with one oar on the same side of the boat) and scull rowing (each rower has two oars, one on each side of the boat). He likes the symmetry of sculling. And through the years, partly from necessity, competition has evolved from eight-man boats, to doubles, to single.
At Oak Ridge, Bob raced in the heavyweight, 40-49 age bracket. At 6’4” and 188 pounds, he says he’s small for a heavyweight. In 1990, when training for the National Finals, his coach told him he was too small and put him on a lifting regime to increase his weight to 220 pounds. “Weight can be an advantage, but I felt it slowed me down in the boat,” says Bob, who started running off-road to shed the excess weight.
Although Bob appears a picture of good health, he’s gone through periods of injury, including a debilitating back injury in 1994 caused from doing squats. At that time he moved to Newport Beach, CA, to heal.
As recently as three years ago, back spasms from the injury threatened his ability to row. But a chiropractor, seeing that Bob was plagued with bone spurs, deteriorated vertebrae and an arthritic spine, developed a stretching routine for him perform after rowing. Bob adheres to it faithfully and says his back spasms have ceased. He believes it’s the combination of rowing and stretching that allow him to function without pain, on and off the water.
Recently, Bob’s daughter Maureen expressed an interest in learning to row. Bob has coached other individuals and teams, but realized the problems inherent in a dad coaching his daughter. “I told her right from the start, when we were in the boat, I was her coach.” She understood that and picked it up quickly. But whenever the daughter/dad dynamic started to creep in, Bob reminded her, “I love rowing alone.”
Lately, Maureen is all about ballet. That’s fine with Bob, who believes “you don’t need to be super competitive at a young age to succeed later.”
Bob says at Maureen’s age–she’s a freshman in high school–sports programs need to be fun while stressing sportsmanship and fundamentals.
As for Bob, he found his sport a long time ago. “I like rowing because it’s both physical and mental,” he says. “When I shove off in a boat, I’m somewhere else. I leave work and drama at the dock.”