is a Philadelphia writer
It was early in December, and Gavin White had just shed a tear.
Temple's legendary men's crew coach had received word that the university would be dropping his sport from its intercollegiate athletic program.
The tear wasn't for himself. He was thinking about the kids in the program. Just as the 62-year-old coach has thought about his kids during more than three decades of coaching at Temple. He has always been about others.
In February, the decision was reversed, and men's and women's rowing were restored.
White's happiness then for his kids was tempered. He has been battling Parkinson's disease, and he knew this might be his exit season. And that means possibly his last Dad Vail, the nerve center of rowing in Philly, and the biggest and most prestigious college crew competition, fought in the blush of cherry blossoms along the Schuylkill every springtime - this year on Friday and Saturday. "My health will be the deciding factor if this is it for me," he admits.
White has little control of his lower body and requires a walker to get around. At Dad Vail, he will use a motorized golf cart. Because Parkinson's reduces the dopamine in the brain, White has had a pacemaker installed to stimulate brain activity. He has lost his senses of smell and taste, he often slurs his speech, and his energy falls quicker than a snake's bite. "Parkinson's is very humbling," he says, "and it only gets worse, not better."
Since the disease was diagnosed in 2002, White's life hasn't been a splash in the water. Those 6 a.m. practices on the Schuylkill in February and March became both suffering and challenge. The icy winds left icicles on his eyebrows. His hands and legs ached so much that he wished he could chop them off. His immobility restricted his movements in the coach's boat for fear of falling in the river. He never surrendered. "I love being out here with the kids," he said. "I love the kids. I love coaching. I want to be here next year, so yeah, it would be very tough if I have to give all this up, but ... "
Ask around and all you hear is this: The strength and success of the program is measured precisely in the labor and dedication of White's mentorship, particularly when it comes to the crown jewel prize of Dad Vail - the heavyweight-eight event. Make no mistake, when it comes to winning heavyweight-eight championships, White is the Big Daddy Coach of Dad Vail. His teams have won 20 of them. No coach has won more.
He will never tell you about his role in the program's success. Instead, he will deflect the kudos to the kids and his assistant coaches. The students know better. For 34 years, they've been coming back to tell him what a great effect he has had on their lives, not just in rowing but in teaching them values to live by.
White's attitude remains quintessentially positive, even sanguine. But still, he is human, and there are those moments. "Sometimes, in lonely moments, it can get bad for me," he says. "But then I know: Somebody else has it worse."
And then he gets back in the boat.