By Lori Burke
Having struck gold in the 2010 U.S. Rowing Masters Championship, Richard Ulsh ’66 is now training for the 2012 masters championship race.
Associate professor of chemistry at University of Pittsburgh, Johnstown, Pa., he is also sharing his rowing expertise with Pitt students, using the sport to mentor them on life skills for navigating everyday challenges.
Ulsh was introduced to rowing eight years ago while conducting chemistry research at the University of Hawaii with Professor Robert Liu. They investigated a light absorption-induced cis-trans isomerization of retinol, an animal form of vitamin A. The work built upon Nobel Prize-winning research into the vision cycle that Liu contributed to as a post-doctoral fellow under the direction of the late Harvard professor George Wald.
While there, a few faculty members invited Ulsh to join their eight-person rowing team. He enjoyed the experience so much that when he returned home he and his wife, Marie, joined a mixed team with Three Rivers Rowing Association, Pittsburgh.
Ulsh quickly became a standout.
Just two months before the 2010 U.S. Rowing Masters Championship, he was invited to become the oldest member of the association men’s team. On the final day of the competition, Ulsh and his teammates won the gold in men’s quad, sculling boat, and took the silver in the men’s four, sweep boat.
While the medals are gratifying, the team experience is what holds Ulsh’s interest.
“I was interested in staying in shape in a non-contact sport,” says Ulsh, a chemistry graduate who was center midfielder on the College’s lacrosse team during the mid-1960s. “I discovered rowing has a tremendous team appeal—something around which you can develop great friendships. I find that a pleasant surprise and something that is going to keep me in it for a long time.”
According to Ulsh, rowing is a sport for all ages. “Older competitors can stay in the game because it’s a balance between physical capability and sharpness of technique,” he says. “You can’t compete totally with younger teams. But, older competitors can develop the technique that is as important as physical condition in rowing.” In fact, at this year’s Head of the Charles® in Cambridge, Mass., his team, comprised of members over 60 years of age, crossed the finish line within 30 seconds of Lafayette College’s team.
Ulsh recently formed a student organization on the Johnstown campus.
“These students are not here on an athletic scholarship. They’re walk-ons—just looking for an opportunity,” he explains. “A lot of them are my former chemistry students. I find it very satisfying to continue our relationship outside the classroom, where I’m no longer referred to by a title.”
As he prepares his student team to compete this spring on the Allegheny, Ulsh is also training with his masters team for the August 2012 Masters Championship in Worcester, Mass. As they practice, his teammates and his student-athletes are finding more than just camaraderie.
“Our work together tends to provide balance to our lives,” he says.