Miriam Baer looked out from the pontoon toward the teen rowers and raised an old-fashioned red megaphone to her mouth.
Not that her booming voice needed amplification.
“Ready!” she shouted across the smooth surface of the Mississippi River. “ATTENTION! … Row!”
Baer is a 72-year-old grandmother. She’s also a longtime rowing coach for the Minnesota Boat Club who coaches rowers ages 13 to 18. But if you are expecting this to be a story of a sweet and kindly granny gently mentoring young people along life’s unexpected waves and wakes, well, this is not it.
Baer is tough and loud and blunt and demanding — and the dozens of young rowers who sign up to learn from her each year are well-advised to respond accordingly. To their credit, and Baer’s, they seem to. She’s coached several champions over the years and helped many earn spots on prestigious college rowing teams coast to coast.
Her seven seniors from the past year will be rowing this fall at the University of Minnesota, Princeton, the University of Washington, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Mercyhurst, Drake and Worcester Poly Tech. Others attend Iowa State, Cornell and Oregon. She even coached a kid who went on to row in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing — Micah Boyd.
“The kids are all goggle-eyed when they first start,” she said of the teens who hit the water just after 7 a.m. six days a week. “But they come around.”
Farming, nursing, rowing
Baer’s life is a lesson in grit and determination.
Born on a farm in Ontario, Canada, she was one of 13 children in a Hutterite family that moved over the years to Manitoba, then North Dakota, Georgia and Pennsylvania.
Her father left the Hutterite community in Pennsylvania to return to North Dakota for a farm job. Baer left farm life behind for good when she studied nursing at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth. She moved to the Twin Cities for her first job at the old St. Barnabas Hospital in Minneapolis.
She was an operating room nurse — and never really liked it.
“I always wanted to be a coach,” she said.
Working nights, she sought an outlet for her competitiveness through volleyball. But she says she wasn’t athletic enough — and she practiced only once a week. She wanted more. Then she saw an article in the Star Tribune about rowing. The dedication required to be on the river each day at 5:30 a.m. appealed to her.
“This seemed to fit me,” she said.
She started competitive rowing in 1974 at the age of 31. Nine years later, she began coaching. At 40, she had a son. A year and a half ago, she became a grandmother.
She admits it hasn’t softened her. She even admits that some say she’s mean — especially after long winter workouts in the old boat club’s cramped weight room. But many have flourished under her direction — and methods.
Twin sisters Sovigne and Grace Gardner are on the water with Baer from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. six days a week during the summer. Is Baer tough?
“Yes,” they said in unison.
“But in a good way,” added Grace.
“She makes you work hard, but it’s worth it,” said Sovigne.
Elisabeth Johnson Holod’s son Daniel was a freshman rower at Cornell this year. He came to the Minnesota Boat Club from the Minneapolis Rowing Club to learn from Baer.
“It’s just that she’s real,” Elisabeth Holod said of Baer’s reputation for toughness. “What you see is what you get with Miriam.”
4½ miles down, then back
On a clear and gorgeous summer morning, Baer works with several rowers in single, double and quad sculls — sleek boats that sit low in the water in which each rower has two oars. The Gardner twins are in a double together.
Then, before motoring her pontoon away from the boat club, Baer spies a young rower not moving quite fast enough in putting her boat on the water.
“Get it in!” she shouts, before saying to a visitor: “You kind of have to watch them at the beginning, make sure that they survive.”
They set out from the old boat club building — it was founded in 1870 — across from downtown St. Paul and row, fast, upstream past the High Bridge and back. Her students push themselves hard, reminded by Baer when they are halfway through a 1,000-meter heat.
“Keep your chin up,” she shouts to one. “It’s not prayer time. Sit up a little taller.”
On this morning, she has challenged a quad powered by four girls to not fall behind a double rowed by two boys. They don’t. The price paid? At the end of a heat, one of the girls shows her red and blistered palms.
“If you wear gloves, you’re not a serious rower,” Baer says, matter-of-factly.
Charlotte Moss, 17, plans to attend Princeton University in the fall. She has rowed for Baer for two years. Moss has played soccer and basketball, but rowing is the most demanding, she said, and to excel, you need a demanding coach.
“If Miriam says ‘Good job,’ you treasure it,” Moss said.
Baer jokes that the Minnesota Boat Club program is small, in part because “I’m really, really bad at recruiting.” She admits, too, she may scare away some kids “who have been coddled all their lives.”
So how long does Baer see herself coaching?
“Until I don’t want to do it anymore,” she said, smiling. “Or until they fire me.”