COURTING SUCCESS: Sean McCourt surveys the scene on the dock at the Caspersen Rowing Center on Mercer Lake. McCourt, who has been the head coach of the Mercer Junior Rowing Club (MJRC) since its inception in 2002, is leaving the program to teach and coach crew at the McCallie School in Chattanooga, Tenn. During his decade at the helm of the MJRC, he built the program into a power as the club has earned a slew of medals, including four at the U.S. Rowing Youth Nationals, and has grown from around 40 rowers to 150 strong. (Photo by Lauri Bookholdt)
As 2002 approached, Sean McCourt was ready to move on from rowing after starring at Boston University and then coaching high school crew for three years upon graduation.
McCourt was all set to start a job with a financial services company in the Philadelphia area but then he had a conversation that changed everything.
“Two or three day before I was going to start I got a call from a guy named Nick McQuaid,” recalled McCourt.
“Nick and I had rowed together for one summer at Penn AC and he was the director of operations for the Princeton International Regatta Association (PIRA) at the time. He said we really want you to come and start this rowing program. It is going to be a little token program and we have this event coming up and we want you to work more on this event.”
Intrigued, McCourt decided to put his financial career on hold and devote his energy to the fledging youth rowing program that became known as the Mercer Junior Rowing Club (MJRC).
“I thought I will try this out and see how it goes,” said McCourt, who came to Mercer Lake in 2002 as the head coach of the club, responsible for oversight and training of all crews as well as organizing and overseeing the Princeton National Rowing Association’s (PNRA) summer camps and regattas.
“The guys at the financial firm were super nice about it, they were like try it and if it doesn’t work out, you can come back here. I thought OK, I have a safety net so let me give it a try.”
Once he made his mind up to take on the challenge, McCourt was all in. “When Nick told me it was going to be a ‘token program,” I was like no way,” said McCourt, who had coached for a year at the McCallie School (Tenn.) and two years at his high school alma mater, St. Joseph’s Prep before making the move to MJRC.
“If we are going to do this, we are going to do it right. It is going to be competitive. We built it off the St. Joe’s model. They were a powerhouse team with a lot of success so we tried to incorporate some of the things they did in terms of practices, training plans, and structure.”
Achieving his vision, McCourt succeeded in building MJRC into a power as the club has earned a slew of medals, including four at the U.S. Rowing Youth Nationals, and has grown from around 40 rowers to 150 strong.
After a decade leading the program, McCourt, 34, has decided to pursue a new challenge as he is heading back to McCallie in Chattanooga where he will guide the school’s rowing program and teach history.
In reflecting on his history with MJRC, McCourt chuckles when he recalls the program’s humble beginnings.
“We started in an office trailer in the back; that was our headquarters,” said a grinning McCourt, sitting in a conference room in the program’s headquarters at the Caspersen Rowing Center on Mercer Lake.
“Finn Casperson gave us a $10,000 gift to start the program. The only things we owned at the beginning were the launches, engines, and cox boxes. Basically I got on the phone and called everyone I knew and said can you loan us boats. It was really beg, borrow, and steal the first year. The first couple of years were crazy. There were days that if parts broke, I was making them because we didn’t have enough money to buy new ones.”
It didn’t take long for the new club to make a breakthrough as its girls’ novice 8 came through in that first spring.
“That year we had an international regatta where we had teams from New Zealand, Great Britain, and Croatia,” said McCourt.
“We had some high school races and our novice 8 girls won. That was the big run up the flagpole success moment for the year.”
The program experienced more and more success as its numbers increased and it gained a foothold in the youth rowing scene.
“In 2004, we had a boys’ boat get fourth at the nationals and that started a really good run for us in the mid-2000s between the boys and the girls,” said McCourt.
“We had a really fast girls boat in 2006 that won the regional and lost in the final of the Henley Women’s Regatta. All in all, Mercer has won four medals at the nationals. The girls have won three and the boys have won one.”
Rachel LaBella, a star on that 2006 girls’ 8 that took second at Henley, credits McCourt with having a knack for getting rowers up to speed.
“As a freshman, I thought Sean was tough but fair,” said LaBella, a WW/P-S grad who went on to row at UCLA where she was named the team’s Most Valuable Oarswoman and served as team captain.
“He is good at bringing the best out of his rowers. He always pushed us even when we didn’t think we could go that amount. He helped us push through barriers.”
LaBella noted that McCourt was a big help in her college recruitment process.
“I didn’t realize I could go to a big school like UCLA and row,” said LaBella. “Sean got me talking to coaches. He knows everyone and has a lot of connections.”
For McCourt, seeing novice rowers develop into college athletes has been one of the joys of his job.
“It is definitely a neat experience; I would say Mercer is a program built on spare parts,” said McCourt, noting that the MJRC has sent scores of rowers to college programs over the years.
“We don’t always get the best athlete coming out of the chute but we get people who work really hard. There are kids who come in and you say I can’t believe that this kid can tie their shoes and the next thing you know they are leaving and they are getting a scholarship. It is really cool to see that transformation.”
While McCourt may have provided the framework for such transformations, he credits the rowers for making it happen.
“I don’t think I am proud of anything I did per se; I am proud of what the kids have done,” asserted McCourt.
“It is their program, whether or not I am here or not here. They are going to get out of it what they put into it so I don’t claim anything as my accomplishment. It’s something they actually did the work for.”
Now McCourt is looking forward to working at McCallie, noting that he will be able to spend more time with his wife, Megan, a former U.S. national team rower and Olympic silver medalist in 2004, and their twins, Caitlin and Connor, who are turning two at the end of August.
He acknowledges, however, that it is tough to be ending his MJRC tenure. “I am definitely sad to leave because you have blood in the program; it is something you kind of created from nothing,” said McCourt.
“It is kind of like your baby in a way and you got it and raised it up a little bit and now you got it to the next level. I always tell the kids at some point you would have left me anyway.”
LaBella, for her part, believes that the MJRC kids will sorely miss McCourt.
“He is leaving really big shoes to fill; he did so much for the program,” said LaBella, who coached with the MJRC and the Mercer Masters this year and credited McCourt with easing her transition to that side of the sport.
“He did administrative work. He was a handy guy fixing boats. He did all that coaching. He was always there for the kids, whatever the situation.”
In McCourt’s view, bringing in new blood isn’t the worst situation. “Change is good as long as they bring in the right person,” said McCourt.
“Someone who is not about themselves but who still wants to win. You have got to bring the competitiveness. At the same time, it really is not about you, it is about the kids having fun.”
And McCourt certainly helped a lot of kids have fun at MJRC over the last decade.