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Fords' Barker is a coach for the ages

Rowing's smooth, steady strokes have carried Jim Barker to Russia and Egypt, England and Ireland, Canada and Japan. The old water always calls him back. He has gone far. He has never left home.

Rowing's smooth, steady strokes have carried Jim Barker to Russia and Egypt, England and Ireland, Canada and Japan.

The old water always calls him back. He has gone far. He has never left home.

"Philly born and raised," said Barker, proud product of the old Brewerytown neighborhood at 28th and Girard as well as Dobbins Tech High School.

If it's spring in Philadelphia, Barker is working the boat deck at the Undine Barge Club, roaming the banks of the Schuylkill, and coaching another Haverford School team in the Stotesbury Cup Regatta.

Barker this weekend will bring the Fords back for the 50th consecutive year to the 85th annual staging of the world's oldest and largest high school rowing event.

This year's regatta will feature more than 5,000 athletes in 868 boats competing in 130 races, from boys' freshman eight time trials at 8 a.m. Friday to the boys' senior eight final at 5:50 p.m. Saturday.

Around 176 high schools from eight states, Washington, D.C., and Canada will be represented in what organizers are calling the largest high school regatta ever, and anticipated attendance at Philadelphia's historic home for rowing - counting competitors, coaches, parents, family, fans, and alumni - is 25,000.

Barker might not know everybody, although he'll chat up a large percentage. But everybody knows him.

"He's an institution on Boathouse Row," said Clete Graham, former commodore of the Schuylkill Navy, the association of 10 clubs on Boathouse Row, and current director of the Stotesbury Cup Regatta. "He's a legendary figure."

Since Barker's first season in 1962, his boats at Haverford School have won more than 150 city championships, and more than 100 Stotesbury Cup championships. This year's team is young and might not add to the total, although the old coach knows his guys will compete.

"We might have a chance in one or two events," Barker said. "This is a young group, so they need patience. It's a matter of staying with them and seeing what happens."

Barker's love for the sport, wisdom, and coaching ability provide unlimited opportunities for his athletes, according to Geordie Coffin, head coach of the Boston College crew team. Coffin rowed under Barker at the Haverford School, graduating in 2004.

"What's so unique and different about Jim is that you will get exactly how much out of his program as you want, with no limit," Coffin said. "You learn more than how to row. You learn how to be an adult. You learn how to compete. You learn how to take responsibility and how to be a sportsman. You learn everything."

When Barker was a teenager in post-World War II Philadelphia, football was his favorite sport. He said a guy in his neighborhood asked him to try rowing "as a way to build up for football."

Barker was 17. He never played another down.

A year later, in 1948, the son of a piano mover was the national singles champion. He won 24 national championships as a competitive rower, and even captured the singles title of Japan as a U.S. Army soldier stationed in that country in the early 1950s.

A member of the U.S. Rowing Hall of Fame, Barker has been a national-team coach in competitions in Russia and Egypt and England. He also was the coach of world lightweight champion Bill Belden, as well as Irish Olympian and three-time Diamond Sculls winner Sean Drea.

But for Philadelphia rowers, there's no place like home.

"I was in Russia in '74 and everybody I talked to wanted to come to Philadelphia to row," Barker said. "This is the mecca of rowing."

Despite his international credentials, Barker said there's something special to him about Stotesbury, the hometown event with its wide range of races for young rowers on the old river.

"I've seen the explosion of the regatta," Barker said. "We used to hold it on one day. Now, there's just so much going on. It's a wonderful event for the kids."

Barker's top assistant is his son, also named Jim Barker. The younger Barker was a standout rower at St. Joseph's Prep.

"He's the head coach; I just haven't told him yet," the older Barker said.

Barker, who joked that his age is "102" - records show that he's 81 - isn't sure how much longer he will coach.

"That's up to my wife [Joan]," Barker said.

But one of his sport's greatest ambassadors appears in no hurry to leave the water, especially not the familiar course with its curve under the Strawberry Mansion Bridge and its straight stretch where countless rowers have pulled for home.

"This sport has done so much for me, so much for my family," Barker said. "I feel like I owe the sport. I feel like I need to keep giving back."