Tom Scifres & Iona College Rowing

By Sparks Editorial Staff | January 23, 2013

I used to dream of living in a location where I could commute via rowing. I would have a small dock with a beautiful lightweight, wooden scull on chalks, waiting eagerly for me to put her in the water. Every morning I would grab my sticks and pick up an easy 10-15k to and from work, beating traffic and the onset of old age with every roundtrip to the office. Oarsman and women at Iona College in New Rochelle, New York live my dream, at least theoretically. Launching out of their Glen Island Country Park boathouse on the Long Island Sound, practices occur a stone's throw away from Manhattan (about 10 miles North of the city), a geographical reality not lost on women's and men's Head Coach Tom Scifres. "Someone applies to Iona because they want an education that will lead them directly to a career. A typical student is looking to get their foot in the door at a job before they leave school, and by leveraging the proximity [of the college] to Manhattan, they can gain experience outside of the classroom in a business setting." Indeed, from its inception the focus of this private Catholic college has been to move students out into the workforce as "a small, affordable college for the sons of New York's working class… opening new paths to economic and social advancement." (http://www.iona.edu/About/History-Mission.aspx)

"I look at internships in a positive light, because when the student-athletes come back they are more serious, because the business environment is real work." says Scifres

The rowing teams support that vision wholeheartedly, believing not just in the value of work experience or internships for the sake of career development, but also for development as an athlete. "I look at internships in a positive light, because when the student-athletes come back they are more serious, because the business environment is real work," says Scifres, and he believes it carries over onto the water. "[At Iona], you have to be a student before you're an athlete. We limit the total amount of time with rowing, especially in the Fall when Juniors and Seniors do internships, which they've done pretty much anywhere: Fox News, Pepsi, the Secret Service, Ernst and Young, Rachel Ray," he finishes, listing just some of the companies his athletes have interned for recently.

"[At Iona], you have to be a student before you're an athlete. We limit the total amount of time with rowing, especially in the Fall when Juniors and Seniors do internships, which they've done pretty much anywhere: Fox News, Pepsi, the Secret Service, Ernst and Young, Rachel Ray."

The Gael's compete in the NCAA Div. I Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) for 21 varsity sports, including men's and women's rowing, both of which have had varsity status for eight years. Prior to receiving varsity status, the team operated as a strong club program for over 50 years, and now enjoy the generous alumni support that goes along with such a long history. They have just built a brand new gym and indoor rowing facility directly in the center of campus, including rowing tanks. Not that they need them, Scifres boasts, because we have "a 6-lane 2100m course, where the 1964 Olympic Trials were held, and we have flat water every single day of the year. Because we row on the Long Island Sound, the water never freezes." Combine that with a skill-oriented focus, especially early in the year, with every athlete obligated to scull in a single and row both sides, plus "the best strength and conditioning coach in the country," he adds, "doing the football kind of training with them, you know, lots of tire flipping. It's good for team building, outside of a super rowing specific environment," all this adds up to a rock-solid foundation for fast racing in the Spring.

"One of the testaments to what people take away from this program is that five of my seven coaches are Iona alums, some unpaid volunteer coaches."

The goals of which are very clear to Scifres, who splits his time equally between the two programs while maintaining dedicated staff specific to each squad. Due to restructuring of the invitation rules to the NCAA championship, for the first time ever, if the women win their conference they receive an automatic bid to the big show. The men focus on the conference championships and Dad Vails, working for the depth to have each boat entered racing for medals. "It's a young varsity program," he points out, "new programs start at the bottom and we've been working our way up, we're not at the top. [So I challenge my teams], what are you going to do about it?"

When asked what the best part of rowing for Iona is, he answers with conviction, "One of the testaments to what people take away from this program is that five of my seven coaches are Iona alums, some unpaid volunteer coaches. At our home regattas we have 10-15 alumni helping run the races because they want to give back. Our alumni care about the program and what the program gave them, they feel connected to the spirit, and the challenge of rowing, and the school."

Look to see the Gaels competing at the Sacred Heart Invitational April 6 in Sheldon, Conn.

- Donny Simkin