THE SCHUYLKILL is a sacred place to Jason Read. For as long as he has been rowing, the river has called to him in a special way, not just a place to work out on but an evolving piece of ecology. From the vantage point of his boat, he has seen it change over the years for the better. Only the other the day he happened to see a "turtle the size of watermelon." New algae are growing. And he sees fish leap from the water that are big, with schools of smaller ones near the banks. Gazing out at the river one chilly morning recently at the Temple boathouse, he said, "The health of the river is improving."
So is the Temple women's rowing team, which Read was appointed head coach of last August. With his boundless enthusiasm, Read has rejuvenated a program, which only had 22 participants when he arrived and now has more than 50. Going into the Dad Vail Regatta this weekend, Read can look back on his inaugural season with a sense of accomplishment. The Owls placed higher than they ever have at the Atlantic 10 championships - third and won an event at the San Diego Crew Classic. Temple had not done that before. Nor had it ever had one of its boats ranked nationally by US Rowing. That has also happened this year.
But coaching duties are just one aspect of the busy world of Jason Read, who is attempting this year to claim a berth on the United States Olympic Team and add a second gold medal to the one he captured in Athens in 2004. He has also just completed his graduate degree in Homeland Security, which was inspired by his work as a volunteer firemen at Ground Zero during the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. Read is a staunch advocate of volunteerism, which is a concept that he said goes hand-in-hand with the characteristics it takes to succeed in the boat. Both require a collaborative spirit.
"Rowing is the quintessential team sport," Read said. "So, in a sense, volunteerism and rowing are two parallel tracks. In both you are working together toward a common objective."
Coming off a hernia and intestinal surgery, Read said he is a "longshot" when the Olympic Trials are held in Princeton on June 12. But he says he likes that. In fact, he been a longshot for as long as his can remember. In sport where the athletes tend to be big - which to say, 6-4 to 6-7 and 230 pounds or so - Read is comparatively small at 6-0, 185 pounds. Even though he has been on the United States National Rowing team for 13 years, he said the coaches have always looked to replace him because of his size. That he is now 34 does not help in a sport where the accent is on youth.
"No matter how many gold medals I have won, they have always looked to replace me in the boat," he said. "I have always been the underdog. Even last fall when I was training for the Pan American Game, I won every one of my races and they still switched to young guys. They continue to think they can come up with someone better. Maybe they can."
Does that irk Reed?
He said no.
"What it comes down to is this: I want the top people competing for America," he said. "If I deserve to be in the boat, I will be in the boat. If not, I should not be there. We should have top people competing, regardless of whether they are 13 or 39."
He smiled and added, "But I enjoy a challenge. Like Rocky."
But Reed does not feel old. In fact, he said he feels 19. He said he is in excellent shape and committed to the sport as he has ever been. Even with the lower-back issue that he has, which comes from executing "millions of strokes" through the years, he still looks forward to getting out on the river, which he said has become a tonic to him. When he is unable to get out there for a few days, he said he gets anxious, as if he is missing something. Good, long practices clear his head, and often provide him with solutions to challenges he is working through. To keep from getting stale, he does running, biking and swimming. In fact, he is such an ardent swimmer that he is considering switching over at some point to the modern pentathlon (which includes running, shooting, horseback riding, fencing and swimming.)
But Read has no plans to stop rowing, especially with another Olympics ahead. "When you find something that is this enjoyable, good for you; and when you have the opportunity to have the finest coaching in the world - why stop?" Read asked. "And there is no greater honor for a civilian than to represent your country at the Olympic Games. The Olympics are the ultimate festival of sport. The experience is intoxicating."
Read found that to be the case at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. "We were probably ranked second going into the event," he said. "Canada was the reigning champion, but we were on a mission to end years of frustration. And it came together. I still get goose bumps whenever I think of it. We set a world record that still stands."
Rowing helped elevate Read out of the gloom that had settled over him in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. As a volunteer chief of the Amwell Valley - Ringoes Rescue Squad in Ringoes, N.J., he was called upon to search for survivors in the rubble from the collapsed buildings. He found none - only some body parts. While he was working there, he was able to handle the ordeal because of the training he had received in emergency rescue. It was not until he departed New York City and returned home that he said "the tears began to flow and I became overcome with sadness." Read said he began having visions of an attack on Center City.
"My world view was redefined by working at Ground Zero," he said. "What we did there was incredibly inspiring. The level of destruction that had occurred could not be captured on TV. But it was not until I got home that began experiencing the symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome. I suffered from sleeplessness and lack of appetite. I have an intrinsic sense of direction, but I no longer knew which way was up and which was down."
Giving of himself is a attribute that Read honed at an early age, when began volunteering at the firehouse in eighth grade. In the years that have followed, he has been a conscientious citizen when it has come to keeping an eye for litterbugs. In fact, whenever he sees someone drop a piece of paper on the ground, he approaches them and says, "Hey, we have to set an example for our children!" Read said he is batting 1.000 when it has come to getting litterbugs to dispose of their trash. He said, "I am like the Gestapo when it comes to litter."
Read also stops in his travels and engages the homeless. "For whatever reason, there are a lot of homeless people in Philadelphia," he said. "People I work with say, 'You better be careful. One of them could have a gun.' But they come up to me on the street and I talk with them. I try to encourage them to get help. Everyone needs social interaction."
Read has imparted his views on volunteerism to his athletes. "He is adamant when it comes to giving back to the community," said Taylor Wasserleben, a senior. "Since he has been here, he has emphasized that, so we have done parks cleanup and volunteered out time in other ways. Being a volunteer is like the teamwork you have to display in the boat. Rowing is not an individual sport. Everyone has to help everyone."
Surveying the river as a boat crawled by in the horizon, Read laughed and said, "I am probably one of eight people who have the Philadelphia Water Department annual report." What is has learned is that the Schuylkill River has become a better source of drinking water. He said the area adjoining it is a "treasured piece of park land" and that it should be treated as such.
He said it is his home.
And he added, "I love it here."