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Leaving a legacy on the water

Dan Bertossa has retired from his post as legendary Winter Park Crew coach. He has been replaced by one of his former students, Stephen Freygang.

Dan Bertossa has retired from his post as legendary Winter Park Crew coach. He has been replaced by one of his former students, Stephen Freygang.

Isaac Babcock

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Standing atop a floating dock stretching 30 feet out into the dark water of Lake Howell, Dan Bertossa casts a long shadow from the last rays of the falling sun as a spear-shaped boat rises out of the water behind him.

It's all he can do to not give the small clutch of freshman oarsmen a bit of advice on how to keep the bow from dipping back into the water, but that's not his job anymore.

These days, the obsessive Winter Park crew coach has to deal with the strain of dissociating himself from a program in which he'd sculpted every detail. After 21 years as head of one of the most successful sports programs in state history, Bertossa is hanging up his bullhorn.

That decision came as a shock to devoted followers of what has become the unquestionably dominant crew program in Florida. The state's crew record book is so tattooed with the Winter Park name, it doubles as a yearbook for the program's own accomplishments.

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A plaque in honor of beloved Coach Dan Bertossa is forever cemented into the Winter Park High School crew team's boathouse along the shore of Lake Howell.

It's difficult to avoid superlatives in describing the team's history; the record itself speaks in dumb awe that one team alone could accomplish so much in so little time. In any given high school sport, a strong program may win a state championship every half dozen years. In 21 years, a great program may take home a handful of state championships. In that same time span, Bertossa's crew teams have won 33.

Most of those years, Winter Park's boys and girls teams won side by side, sweeping the varsity races. Bad years for the team have been enough to make other teams green with envy. Asking for a low point requires a keen memory.

"There was a five-year span in the mid to late '90s," Bertossa said, explaining that during two of those years, the boys and girls varsity failed to capture the championship. "We still won most of the team state championships though."

But inside the austere boathouse, there's almost no evidence of victory, no pretense — just a knowledge of the past, and focus toward the future.

Bertossa's history on the water started on a whim at what was then the Florida Institute of Technology. En route to a degree in engineering, he picked up an oar for the team, and rowed for four years along the waters of the Indian River.

"I wasn't really big or strong, but I felt like I listened a lot," Bertossa said. "I knew the only way I could get better was focusing on the details."

That eye for detail would pay off later. Three years after he graduated college, the wife of Winter Park crew coach Steve Coutant approached Bertossa with a job offer. He'd never coached any sports before.

The team was successful immediately. Bertossa calls it the luckiest first year he could have had.

"I was fortunate enough to have a tremendous crew team — all 6'2" to 6'4", 185 pounds, very strong," Bertossa said. "I thought I'd have it like that every year after that. I never had a team like that again."

He persevered anyway, taking whatever recruits he could and leveraging a keen interest in physics to tweak details with relentless precision. Technique, he said, would have to be everything.

Three eight-man boats glided across the water of Lake Howell on a cool fall afternoon in 2009, as Bertossa, wearing that familiar red cap and black Winter Park windbreaker, stood at the helm of a small motorboat, flanking their port side. Watching 24 rowers at once, he called out the one whose lower back was moving too much on the drive stroke. The boat accelerated a few inches ahead.

But those tiny pushes toward victory don't paint the whole picture of a man who invested deeply in his young athletes' lives. Some rowers' parents said Bertossa changed their childrens' lives forever.

"I've seen him change young men who came from very difficult environments — even those who had a police record — and turned them around into students who get college scholarships," said Jonathan Rich, a parent of a former rower.

"It wasn't just about winning," said Winter Park graduate and international-level coxswain Katelin Snyder. "You could tell that's not what he really cared about. He took a real interest in helping us grow as students and as people."

In a sport where inches can be the margin of victory, everything counts. But while sweating the details of the sport brought him victory, it also brought pain. Though he watched his son Alec and daughter Ellie grow and succeed as rowers in his program, he openly laments missing important moments.

In 2009, on Alec's 17th birthday, he watched as his son and daughter won state championships on the same day. If he could pick a high point in his career, that would be it.

But then there are the times he wasn't there — the moments he can't get back.

"There have been dozens of times where I was on the same lake as them, and didn't get to see them compete," Bertossa said. "I'd try to get a boat and go over, and [Ellie] is already across the finish line."

The waning twilight softens to blue as two small ducks wing their way overhead and disappear beyond a stand of trees. As Bertossa's children grow up and fly away, it's those missed moments that have made him rethink coaching. Alec is now rowing at his dad's alma mater, renamed Florida Tech. Ellie will be at Tulsa next fall. His youngest, Cameron, is in the seventh grade.

"I knew if I kept coaching, I wouldn't be able to see my son race once," he said. "Now I'm still part of the team, but I have that freedom to be with my family again. I'm happy with that."

Row for dough

The Winter Park Women's Club, 419 S. Interlachen Ave., is hosting Winter Park Crew Boosters Annual Silent Auction "An Evening on Boathouse Row" from 7-10 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 13. Visit winterparkcrew.com to buy tickets or call Meggen Wilson at 407-414-2947.