1987 Dad Vail Regatta champions, left to right: Pete Hernke, Brad Melby, Tom Altenhofen, Kevin Diaz-Lane, Jessica Vanderscoff-Moede
Photo by Mark Luinenburg
A pile of rowing medals rests on a shelf in Brad Melby’s office in Arden Hills, Minnesota, the red, white, and blue ribbons faded by time. Behind his desk, atop a bookcase, is a photo of Melby (B.A. ’91) and his teammates on the 1987 University of Minnesota men’s heavyweight four with coxswain team at the famed Dad Vail Regatta in Philadelphia.
Minnesota won that day at the Dad Vail, the largest collegiate crew event in the nation. But that’s not the race Melby wants to talk about on this sunny morning. It takes him more than half an hour to describe what happened to the Minnesota team a few weeks later at the Intercollegiate Rowing Association (IRA) Regatta in upstate New York, the de facto national championships. The Gopher men’s four gutted out an improbable bronze medal finish, in a borrowed boat, after their magnificent Italian-made shell called the Nietzsche hit a submerged pier and sank the day before the final.
Minnesota’s first IRA Regatta medal earned the crew of Melby, Kevin Diaz-Lane, Peter Hernke (B.A. ’89), future U men’s coach Tom (Tucker) Altenhofen, and coxswain Jessica Vanderskoff Moede (B.A. ’91, M.D. ’96) a place in U men’s rowing history. Since then the Gophers thrived, winning five IRA championships and about a dozen more at Dad Vail while producing two-time Olympian, three-time world champion, and Hall of Famer Michael Wherley (B.A. ’95).
“We weren’t the greatest rowers who came out of the university,” says Melby, a financial adviser. “But we were pivotal in Minnesota being taken seriously on the rowing stage because of what happened in our special year.”
Crew— a club sport for men and NCAA sport for women at the U— exists in an insular world. Rowers and coxswains rise for 6 a.m. workouts on the Mississippi River, oars chunking in the morning mist before most students roll out of bed. Intercollegiate rowing in the U.S. dates back more than a century. Ivy League and northeastern colleges dominate, with a handful of exceptions, such as the University of Wisconsin and University of California at Berkeley. Minnesota rowing wasn’t highly regarded nationally when Melby arrived on campus as a freshman in 1985 from Bismarck, North Dakota. Like many rowers, he had no rowing experience. He never even gave it a thought until Vanderscoff Moede, the coxswain and a pal of Melby’s from Bismarck, invited him to sign up. She knew about the sport from her father David, who rowed at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1960s.
“I ran into Brad on campus and said, ‘You’re tall, we need some tall novices, why don’t you come to our recruitment meeting? There’ll be food there,’” recalls Vanderscoff Moede, now a family practice physician living in Savage. “And he said, ‘Well, if there’s going to be food there, sure.’”
As Melby tells it, he landed at the U after struggling to graduate Bismarck Century High School, shaken by the death of a friend with the same name in an auto accident. Vanderscoff Moede took piano lessons from the same teacher as “the other Brad Melby,” and confirmed that the surviving Brad fell in with a rough crowd.
“I wouldn’t call them druggies, but they weren’t known for being great students,” Vanderscoff Moede says. “He kind of did get lost for awhile, and didn’t really find himself until he came to the University of Minnesota.”
Melby, Hernke, and Altenhofen rowed together at times as novices. Diaz-Lane, a transfer from Wisconsin, arrived the following fall. Coach Lee Fielder spotted Diaz-Lane working out in the Williamson Hall weight room and asked him to join.
“He was maybe the glue that brought a lot of it together,” says Hernke, who was the “stroke,” the pacesetting rower. “Kevin was very disciplined to an extreme almost, which I thought brought a lot of seriousness and really got us to focus. I think that was a key component for the whole boat. Kevin and I were able to connect real well.”
Exactly when or how Fielder acquired the Nietzsche is unclear; Melby thinks he found it in Texas during a spring regatta. (Fielder could not be reached.) Manufactured by Filippi, a renowned Italian boat maker, the Nietzsche was one-eighth-of-an-inch-thick Honduran mahogany with teal trim—delicate, yet light and maneuverable. Vanderscoff Moede says she could steer it with one finger.
“The Stradivarius of rowing shells,” Melby says. “When you saw this boat, guys would just stare at it. Beautiful lines. It was a very difficult boat to keep upright. But once it got set, it went like a sword through the water.”
In the Nietzsche, the rowers, all of them 6 feet 3 inches tall, said they developed a remarkable cohesion and synergy they never experienced in any other boat. The Nietzsche won race after race in the Midwest. Then the Gophers headed east to Dad Vail, which attracts crews nationwide generally a notch below the Ivy League. Minnesota crews won there in 1980 and 1985.
According a May 13, 1987, account in the Minnesota Daily, the Gophers won their first heat by four boat lengths, dusted Duke by 15 seconds in the semifinals, then cruised to a 5-second victory over UConn in the final. That earned Minnesota an IRA invitation, Melby says, which it accepted.
But when the Gophers arrived at Lake Onondaga, in upstate New York, the privileged rowing community dismissed the scruffy newcomers. Most Ivy League schools had their own boathouses on the lake. Melby and Diaz-Lane recall being told to stow the Nietzsche behind a shed.
“There was not a lot of respect,” Hernke says. “It was like, `Minnesota? What are you guys doing here?’ kind of thing. And to a certain extent, rightfully so. We had no tradition, no history. That kind of fueled our desire to try to prove a point, that we could compete.”
Minnesota won its first heat to qualify for the final. The next day, the Gophers were practicing on an unfamiliar stretch of the lake when the unthinkable happened. The coxswain, Vanderscoff Moede, remembers Fielder, on a motorized launch, calling for a series of full-out strokes known as a Power 10 or Power 20.
“Coach wanted to show off a little bit and pass a couple of boats as we were rowing through this channel,” Vanderscoff Moede says. “It looked like we were going to have fine clearance. There were no suggestions of any submerged dock pilings there. I vaguely remember somebody shouting from the shoreline. I didn’t hear what they said. The next thing I knew, the boat was coming to a very sudden, severe stop, and filling with water.”
The launch pulled alongside, and the five untied their foot straps and scrambled in. Nothing could be done to save the Nietzsche, which sank to the bottom.
“I was pretty distraught,” Vanderscoff Moede says. “All I could think about was, we were going to show these guys and beat them all, and there went our beautiful boat and our chance to do that. I was kind of emotionally devastated at that point.”
Fielder had been a coxswain at Brown years before, and several rowers say Bruins coach Steve Gladstone loaned Minnesota a backup boat to race in the final as a favor to Fielder. (Gladstone, now at Yale, did not respond to an email.) Vanderscoff Moede struggled to keep the clunky substitute on course, making the bronze-medal finish something of a miracle.
“It was a good boat, but it was a tub,” Diaz-Lane says. “Once you get used to rowing in a certain kind of shell, it’s difficult to switch to something else without a lot of practice. It was probably 60 to 70 percent as efficient as the Nietzsche was. It would have taken a lot more effort to get it going at the same speed and the same performance as our boat.”
The magic ended at Lake Onondaga: The crew never rowed together again. Diaz-Lane withdrew from school that summer for health reasons a few credits shy of his degree. Vanderscoff Moede quit the following spring to concentrate on premed studies. Melby sustained a serious head injury in a campus bicycle accident but recovered to graduate.
Early in Melby’s financial career, he met the actor John Carroll Lynch, then at the Guthrie Theatre, later known for playing Norm Gunderson in the classic Coen Brothers film Fargo. Enthralled by Melby’s tale of the Nietzsche, Lynch shared it with screenwriter Tess Clark. Since 2007 they have been trying to make it into a movie. Melby says they have raised $7 million, and need about $3 million more to begin production.
“I give Brad a lot of credit for taking this and running with it,” says Hernke, a commodities trader with Cargill who lives in Minnetonka. “When you’re in it, you don’t really think this is too special. Now when you think back and go through all these different scenarios and bring back the memories, you go, ‘huh, this is kind of interesting.’” Vanderscoff Moede agrees. “It’s exciting to think about those times again. It was a heady year and a wonderful, wonderful experience.”
- Pat Borzi