By the end of the summer, Louis Zubek, the former rowing coach for Lyme-Old Lyme High School, will be able to say that he has coached not one, but two Olympic athletes.
That’s because Lyme-Old Lyme alumni Austin Hack, 29, and Liam Corrigan, 23, will be part of the U.S. men’s eight boat that races on the Sea Forest Waterway in Tokyo at this summer’s Olympic Games.
Although Hack and Corrigan are competing in the same boat, Zubek said it was a shame that he didn’t have the opportunity to coach both athletes together at Lyme-Old Lyme — Hack graduated in 2011, and Corrigan in 2015.
But Zubek said it was an amazing experience to have been able to coach them at all, especially competing against prep schools that recruit specifically for rowing.
“As a coach, to get that caliber not just [of an] athlete, but that caliber of kid, I was very lucky,” he said.
He remembers Hack and Corrigan as tall, athletic, intelligent and mature for their age and strong leaders. Both stood out to Zubek for the same thing — their work ethic.
“They totally understood they needed to put in the work to make them successful,” said Zubek. “The harder the workout, the more excited they got, which rubbed off on the team.”
“It’s Pretty Remarkable”
Hack, who comes from a family of rowers — his mom rowed for Dartmouth and his dad for Brown — started his own rowing career in 8th grade. Hack says he particularly remembers the support he received during his time at Old Lyme.
“People often told me that I had a lot of potential,” he said. “It kind of became up to me to deliver on the potential that I had. So that’s what I’ve been trying to do since.”
Hack agreed that endurance is a key attribute for a strong rower.
“You can teach someone how to row, but you can’t teach someone to be tough and to go really hard,” he said. “You need to have both in order to be successful.”
Corrigan credits Old Lyme’s small community and the fact that the rowing team is free and supported by the high school for giving him the opportunity to join. He had no experience or background in the sport before Zubek recruited him off the high school basketball team.
“It made it very accessible for me as someone with no background, whose parents hadn’t rowed, who didn’t come up in that world at all,” he said.
Corrigan joined the team the year after Hack graduated, but said he knew Hack’s name from the moment he set foot on the team. Hack was the guy who was rowing at Stanford University, and later on, the guy who went to the Olympics.
“I think that, you know, the back of my mind, I probably thought that it [would be] really cool if we rowed together at some level,” said Corrigan. “Now that we’re here … in the same boat, I mean, it is pretty remarkable.”
“A Gritty, Working Sport”
Hack has worked for the consulting firm McKinsey and now in finance in San Francisco. He went to Stanford for Political Science, minoring in German and Arabic, competing in the World Rowing Junior Championships, the World Rowing Under-23 Championships, and was twice named a PAC-12 Athlete of the Year.
The best thing about rowing, Hack says, is the people — his teammates helped raise his expectations for himself and his future.
“The guys in the boat that I row with are all really smart. They all went to top universities,” he said. “Being with such a high-performing group of people, it helped set me up with a strong work ethic and, and, just, high expectations for achievement in life.”
“I think [crew] attracts a certain kind of person — who’s really dedicated, who really wants to work hard. Who really isn’t in it for any personal glory,” he said.
Corrigan, along with several other rowers on the team, is a Harvard graduate. He majored in physics and astrophysics — the result of a fascination with the night sky — but currently works part-time at an investment firm in San Francisco. Like Hack, he competed in the World Rowing Junior Championships and the World Rowing Under-23 Championships.
While Corrigan was aware of the legacy of crew at Harvard — a history underscored by a 120-year-old boathouse filled with pictures of crews from the 19th and 20th centuries — he pushed back against the idea that it’s a sport reserved for the elite.
“There might be this conception that these elite prep schoolers are the ones doing it, that it’s sort of a gentleman’s sport or something like that,” he said. “But I think really it’s a gritty working sport in the sense that, if you want to get good at it, you just have to really put your head down and just work really hard.”
An Olympics more focused on the competition
Brute force won’t make a winning boat — you also need skill, which is what makes it possible to get the greatest amount of distance out of every stroke.
“I’d say it’s as technical as something like figure skating or synchronized diving,” said Corrigan.
The last critical factor for a boat is a team’s ability to row perfectly in sync at a rapid pace, something that requires long hours of practice. Hack and Corrigan both said the “chemistry” in their boat is really strong, and that the coronavirus pandemic had actually helped with this, forcing them to spend even more time in a “bubble.”
Hack said the pandemic restrictions make this summer’s games a very different experience from his first time competing at the Olympic in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro. But both Hack and Corrigan said they didn’t think that was necessarily a bad thing.
“It makes the event even more focused on the competition,” Hack said. “I think it will help to bring home the mindset that, ultimately, we’re there to race. And, ultimately, we’re there to win.”
The Olympic rowing events will begin on July 23. The men’s eight final and medal ceremony is on July 30.
Banner photograph credit Zach Franzen.