When Kevin Sauer arrived in Charlottesville in 1988—originally to coach the men’s club rowing team—the men’s and women’s club teams shared a rundown boathouse with no electricity and no bathrooms. They had no truck to tow the boats.
“The first few years, it was really hard,” Sauer says.
Still, Sauer stayed put as UVA’s rowing coach, transforming the facilities and the programs. In the last 18 years, he’s led the women’s team to seven consecutive top-six finishes at the NCAA Championships, 12 ACC Championships and two NCAA Team Championships while being named the ACC Coach of the Year nine times.
Most important to Sauer, however, is that he’s helped hundreds of students navigate collegiate life, offering support on and off the water. “I love the fact that you see the growth that happens in these kids between 18 and 22 years old and that you as a coach may have a little bit of an impact in that,” Sauer says.
Before arriving at UVA, Sauer, a graduate of Purdue University, was a member of the U.S. National Rowing Team and the coach of rowing teams at Purdue and Yale University. After working for the Pan Am Games and then U.S. Rowing, he came to UVA in 1988.
As club sports at the time, neither the men’s nor the women’s teams received financial support from the University. With a loan from the Alumni Association, Sauer bought new boats, laid an asphalt floor, wired the boathouse for electricity and had a well drilled. As assistant coach Brett Sickler says, “He literally built the boathouse with his own hands.”
Sauer agreed to take over the women’s team while still coaching the men in the fall of 1993, after the women’s team’s 26-year-old coach, John Preston, took his own life.
“His death was devastating for everyone.” Sauer says. Preston had rowed for Sauer as a student. “It was probably the worst year we ever had, results-wise, but that wasn’t the most important thing,” Sauer says. “That was a transition time.”
When UVA added women’s rowing as an official varsity sport in the fall of 1995, the Cavaliers named Sauer the first official head coach and he stopped coaching the men’s club team, currently coached by Frank Biller.
In its first season as a varsity sport, with only one scholarship split between two athletes, the team went undefeated and finished sixth in the country. The following year, UVA placed fourth in the inaugural NCAA Championships.
Recruits began calling and the number of available scholarships increased. This season, Sauer has 83 women rowers and 20 scholarships.
“We train really hard and these girls handle it as well as or better than any guys’ program I’ve ever coached,” Sauer says.
“He’s so tenacious … he reminds us that we wouldn’t be as happy if we weren’t as competitive as we are,” says fourth-year rower Emily Pik (Batten ’14).
An avid reader, Sauer often shares adages with his teams, such as the words of Cal rugby head coach Jack Clark: “Entitled to nothing, grateful for everything.” Sauer has had his own aphorism for years, which is one of the team’s mantras: “Humble and hungry.”
“I figure that no matter how much success you have, if you ever lose your humility, you’re done,” Sauer says. “And if you ever lose your hunger, you’re done. So have a lot of success and stay humble and hungry.”
Another team mantra this season is “three out of five,” articulating their hopes of winning a third national title in five years.
Fourth-year rower Fiona Schlesinger (Educ ’14), a native of New Malden, England, had never heard of UVA when she began her collegiate search. “When I spoke with Kevin, I got the feeling that he wanted to support me for the whole four years, and I hadn’t felt that anywhere else,” Schlesinger says.
Pik agreed. “College is a whirlwind. I don’t know if I would’ve been able to stick it out without knowing I could come to Kevin. He is the father figure, coach figure, friend and mentor.”