- Associated Press - Saturday, May 31, 2014

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - The Mississippi River sparkled with sunshine as it sped past the Minnesota Boat Club on Raspberry Island in downtown St. Paul. Overhead, American flags adorning the Wabasha Street bridge fluttered and flapped in the May wind. From the dock, seven sleepy-eyed rowers from the boat club’s junior team quietly slipped their boats into the water and began their early morning journey upstream.

Soon, though, a megaphone-kind-of-voice interrupted the peaceful river scene:

“DO NOT STOP IN FRONT OF A BRIDGE ABUTMENT!” shouted rowing coach Miriam Baer from the pontoon boat that trailed the high school crew. “IT CAN KILL YOU! THE CURRENT IS VERY FAST RIGHT NOW!”

Baer sounds like a drill sergeant, but she acts like a mother duck trying to keep her ducklings safe. At 70, this silver-haired coach with the cane next to her in the boat has spent more than half her life witnessing the power of this river.

“I’ve told them so many times,” says Baer with a heavy sigh. “They just have no respect for it.”

These young rowers might not respect the river yet — but they do respect their coach, the St. Paul Pioneer Press (https://bit.ly/1lVHd0J ) reported.

“She’s a bit intimidating at first,” says 17-year-old Daniel Holod of St. Paul, who just graduated from Cretin-Derham Hall. “But then you realize that she just wants you to be the best you can be. And she’ll get you there — if you listen to her.”

In the rowing community, Baer has a reputation for creating champions. Her alums include Micah Boyd, who rowed all the way to the podium at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, winning a bronze medal in the men’s eight category. There also have been wins at regional, state and national competitions.

It’s not just about medals, though.

“She’s tough and not for everyone,” says Elisabeth Johnson Holod, Daniel’s mom. “But she produces winners and kids who get into good schools. … Within the past two or three years, she has had students go to Harvard, Brown, Columbia, the Naval Academy and George Washington, among others. Daniel is headed to Cornell University next fall to row.

Baer’s roster also includes coaches: Boyd, the Olympian, is now the head varsity coach for men’s crew at the University of North Carolina. Boyd and his brother, Anders, both learned to row at the Minnesota Boat Club.

Looking back, Boyd is impressed at how this small club can train its high school rowers, who come from public and private schools around the metro, to compete at elite levels against rowers from powerhouse programs.

“Even if you’re not very athletic, if you work really hard, Miriam is going to see that and she’s going to pay attention,” Boyd says.

Baer, a farm girl with 11 brothers and two sisters, attended St. Scholastica in Duluth as a nursing student, not a rower.

“But I think I did pick St. Scholastica because it’s on the water,” Baer said.

Baer picked up rowing in 1974, at the age of 31, when she was taking extension classes at the University of Minnesota.

“I was playing volleyball once or twice a week, but I wanted to find a daily activity,” Baer said. “Then I read a story about rowers and how they were on the water every morning at 5:30. I was impressed.”

She found the sport suited her perfectly.

“I’m a water sign,” Baer says.

(She’s Cancer on the Zodiac — also known as, ahem, a crab.)

Baer also enjoyed the competition.

“I always pulled hard to get ahead of the next person,” Baer said. “I do that when I’m driving, too. And there’s always another car in front of me.”

Apparently, this strategy worked: All four years that Baer was a rower on the U’s team, which was then a club sport, the squad went to nationals.

In 1979, Baer switched to coaching. Once again, it came naturally — sort of.

“I was actually very timid and shy until I was 24. I never spoke up,” Baer says. “It changed when I worked as a nurse in a psychiatric unit. I had to get over being meek really fast.”

She went on to hone her leadership skills as a single mother and later as a surgical nurse.

“In an operating room, you have to be in charge, you have to be quick and you have to have common sense,” Baer says. “I can’t stand it when people don’t have common sense. I get really irritated.”

Baer has retired from nursing, but she still gets irritated as a coach. Still …

“Quite frankly, she’s mellowed quite a bit,” says Tom Perry, the coaching and program director of the Minnesota Boat Club. “The wonderful thing about Miriam is she tells you what’s on her mind. You know where she stands. It’s quite refreshing. And, as gruff as she is, she’s got a heart of gold. She’s looking out for those kids 100 percent. She just wants them to succeed. She has a passion for the sport, and she has a passion for teaching the sport. She’s certainly not in it for the money or the glory — it’s a minor sport, especially here in Minnesota.”

Beyond rowing, though, Baer is a kind of life coach.

“I try to teach them life lessons,” Baer says.

Such as:

“I get irritated when they say ‘I can’t,’ ” Baer says. “When they say, ‘I can’t come to practice,’ I say, ‘You can come to practice, you’re choosing to do something else.’ It gives them the power. I want them to realize they do have a choice about what they do in life. For every choice you make, you’re choosing not to do something else.”

So Baer was pretty pleased when one of her rowers recently said: “I am choosing to do my concert instead of practice.”

Baer has choices, too: She is holding off on follow-up surgery to her leg, which she badly broke last year.

“I told the doctor, ‘Not till rowing season’s over,’ ” Baer says.

In the midst of this rowing season, though, there’s a new kid who has found a way to soften up the coach: Her name is Leah Miriam Baer. She is 3 months old and the coach’s first grandchild.

“When my mom sees Leah, she just melts,” says Zephaniah Baer, 31, of St. Paul. “It’s pretty amusing. She makes baby noises and everything. When she’s around Leah, she’s pretty much the complete opposite of the intense woman that most people think of when they think of my mom.”


Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press, https://www.twincities.com



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