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Rowing coach Gil Birney retires after 22 years at Bowdoin

February 23, 2018

courtesy of Brian Beard, Creative Images Photography
Don’t row away: After 22 years of coaching, Gil Birney will retire after the spring season. Under his leadership, the crew program has made significant changes.

Coach Gil Birney has decided to step down from the position of head rowing coach at Bowdoin College after contributing 22 years of service to the program. During that time, Birney has dedicated a great deal of energy and enthusiasm to building the rowing program that Bowdoin students take part in and cheer for today.

“I’m very aware of how much I’m going to miss it. I’ve had a blast working with these terrific young people and great athletes. My coaching colleagues have been wonderful … working on the water has been a great privilege,” said Birney.

Birney took a unique path to his coaching position at Bowdoin College. His coaching experience began at Williams, just after graduating from Williams as a captain of the rowing team. His passion for teaching young people brought him to the St. Paul’s School, a boarding school in New Hampshire, where he coached the girls rowing team and taught religious courses.

Birney came to Maine to practice as a minister in the Episcopal Church. While he was originally brought to Bowdoin to serve as a volunteer coach, Birney’s love for teaching drove him to pursue both jobs for five years until he decided to coach rowing full-time at Bowdoin.

Birney’s enthusiasm for educating made him a perfect fit for the team. As a club sport, the rowing team often gets new rowers every year with minimal experience in the sport. His patience makes him an excellent leader for inexperienced rowers.

“As a club program at this school we really depend on bringing in first years and students from all classes who have never rowed before. He shows them in a short window of time what this sport is about and instills a love for the sport into them,” said Cirkine Sherry ’18.

Birney is well known for pushing his rowers to reach their highest potential while still making the learning process both fun and about more than just rowing.

“What makes him more than a great coach is that fact the he tries to teach us about life through the sport. I think that’s something that rowers and coxswains get to take away from the experience,” said captain Phillip Wang ’18.

At the start of Birney’s career, the rowing program had far less participation and did not compare to varsity programs at other colleges in performance. Former Athletic Director Sidney Watson had little expectation for the growth of the program.

“When I took [the program over] I told [the previous coach], ‘I don’t want to just babysit. I want to make a full-fledged competitive rowing program’ and he sort of laughed and said ‘Good luck with that,” Birney said. “Four years later our women were third at the Dad Vail Regatta and the men won it.”

Since 1995, under Birney’s leadership, the program has continued to grow. Bowdoin rowing regularly places boats both in the Head of the Charles and Dad Vail Regatta, medalling alongside the most competitive college rowing programs in the country.

This expansion has created an extensive network of Bowdoin Alumni who care passionately about the success and development of the program.

“I think that his character and presence has had a huge factor in how active our alumni are and how passionate they feel toward the program,” said Sherry. “Almost every time we race we have a group of Bowdoin alumni come out to support us, which means a lot.”

Birney’s career was recognized in 2008 when he won the Matt Ledwith Award, which recognized him as the coach of the year at the Dad Vail Regatta. This award provides a small snapshot of the larger influence that Birney has had on Bowdoin rowers for the past 22 years.

Birney plans on spending the first year of his retirement away from coaching of any kind. However, he looks forward to having more time to focus on his own rowing on the water and getting his referee’s license. Additionally, Birney is working on constructing a boat in his garage, which he hopes to take out on the water soon.

 

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