Lawlor / Coach Matt
Published 12:00 am, Friday, September 8, 2017
My daughter Caroline was not particularly athletic growing up. She was strong in creative writing and made a damn good Nutcracker mouse, but was not so in her element at the plate or in the outfield during 5th grade softball. She tried a few other sports before someone said “She is tall, long and lean—perfect for crew.” We went to The Norwalk River Rowing Association where we met Novice Coach Matthew Labine who took one look at Caroline’s almost 6-foot frame unfolding from the car, put her on the erg to see what she could do, and our lives changed.
Over the first few months, he not only encouraged Caroline, but he pushed her and soon she accepted and even looked forward to the grueling workouts. Along the way, her confidence level began to grow. She even started to think of herself as “sporty.” One day she had her pony tail out the back of her Norwalk rowing baseball cap and a t-shirt over her spandex jersey. She was posing in the mirror for a few minutes. “Don’t I look sporty?” She asked no one in particular. Yes, she did look sporty, because she was sporty. Under Coach Matt’s direction, Caroline became a rower, at ease on the water and in the boat with her teammates.
I loved her rowing also because I picked her up daily after her practice on the way home from work. It gave us time to talk for 20 minutes every day, more if traffic was bad. Those 20 minutes were the highlight of my day. The first year she rowed with Coach Matt, who patiently taught all the novices to row. The second year she rowed Varsity. By senior year, she had a few colleges interested in her for rowing.
We just learned that last Friday, Coach Matt passed away after battling cancer. Caroline, now a collegiate rower, was pretty shaken up to hear the news, as was our whole family. I learned that Coach Matt, after he left Norwalk, coached crew at Fairfield University. I learned there was another side to him. He was an award-winning soap opera writer, writing for General Hospital, Guiding Light, One Life to Live, and Ryan’s Hope. He won several writing awards, including an Emmy.
Coach Matt started his rowing career as a walk-on at Yale, where he graduated with a degree in economics. At Yale, one of his boats went undefeated for the season. After college, he was on two US National teams, winning bronze in the 1981 World Championships, and was a finalist in the US Olympic trials in 1980 and in 1984.
David Patterson, of Fairfield University added this about Coach Matt’s time there. “We were very happy to have him part of our set up at Fairfield University for three years. Our program is still young and for someone to join us with such a wealth of experience, both from his college rowing days at Yale and his time on the national team. While his rowing heart will always belong to Yale he definitely had a coaching affection for Fairfield University. He wore his Stags gear with pride. “
My daughter wrote me about Coach Matt’s death. “I don’t believe I would’ve stuck with the sport if it weren’t for him and his passion, and encouragement, He helped me to grow as an athlete, leader, teammate, and person. He was humble about his own rowing accomplishments. It was always about us. Rowing has been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, and I’ll always be grateful to Coach Matt and his wife Catharine, who coached me also, for fostering a love for the sport and a love for being a part of a team and something bigger. Thank you, Coach Matt.”
Caroline is considering, post-college, teaching and coaching novice kids to row. It was such an empowering thing for her; she wants to pass it on.
The week that Coach Matt died, my “non sporty” daughter was named the captain of her college crew team. We cannot thank you enough, Coach Matt. Your patience, sense of humor, enthusiasm and gentle spirit were a gift that will be passed on.
Thomas Lawlor lives in Southport with his wife and two daughters. His column appears every other Friday. He can be reached by email at Tlawlor@mcommunications.com.