Chris Ryan’s sport was rifle. He took up rowing at Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a freshman in 1965 to gain strength to hold the 12-pound gun up for the lengthy matches and to gain weight for stability. After lettering in both crew and rifle his sophomore year, he sold the rifle to MIT and stayed with rowing.
MIT was never a rowing powerhouse, but Ryan got to row against the best crews of the time, including a spot in the first Head of the Charles Regatta. In 1968, his rowing high point was acceptance into the National Team selection camp for the Olympics in Mexico City that year. He survived until near the end of that process.
Moving to Pittsburgh in 1972, Ryan focused on career for a few years. When he moved from the east hills to the Fox Chapel area in 1982, he drove by the river every day, thinking that it would be a good place for rowing. He literally walked the river bank until he found the Duquesne Canoe Club in Verona, which had four rowing shells hanging from the ceiling. With DCC member Per Sorensen, he trained in singles and doubles and went to races in the region. By 1983, he had bought his own single and continued to row out of DCC until he moved downtown to the TRRA’s space in the sheep-hide warehouse on the North Shore.
“I don’t remember how I came to find Mike Lambert and the others who were trying to figure out how to get rowing established,” Ryan said. “It might have been John Lubimir who brought us together. He knew Templeton Smith, another of the rowers at DCC. Temp had tried to start a club in the 1940’s in Pittsburgh, but it never took. At any rate, I remember Lambert arriving on the riverbank with an old wooden four strapped to the top of his VW minivan and a few of us jumped in and rowed it.”
Ryan was involved in the early days of forming TRRA in 1984, when it was offered as a program at the Downtown YMCA, and was present at the meeting where it was decided that it was time to raise money to build a boathouse.
“My recollection of the famous meeting at Froggy’s was that we were crammed into a very small table in a hallway upstairs and we talked about creating an organization that would raise some money for rowing. My contention was that we needed to build a nice building, not a shed and that we needed to build it for the youth of Pittsburgh, none of whom rowed at the time. With those two principles, I thought that we would have a good case for fund-raising.
“My contribution to the fundraising was getting CMU to come in. We had Pitt and Duquesne, but CMU was being very stubborn about joining in our plan and kicking in their share of the money for the first boathouse. I spotted Dick Cyert, who was then the president of CMU, in the boarding area at LaGuardia Airport, waiting to get on a flight to Pittsburgh. I got on right behind him and then bullied a guy who had the seat next to him to move. In the hour flight to Pittsburgh, I filled his ears with reasons why they needed to be rowing. What seemed to make the sale was when I told him that MIT had rowing.”
It was Ryan – trained as a civil engineer at MIT – who drew up the rough outline of the boathouse that was eventually built. To determine the dimensions of the bays, he visited boathouses in Boston and New York and measured their bays.
“Ours are two feet wider, on the theory that they never seem to be wide enough,” he said.
A firm called Design Alliance was contracted to draw up the Boathouse architectural plans and Ryan supervised the contractor through the building process.
As of 2009, Ryan still rowed actively with TRRA’s masters men. He travels extensively for his job as head of his own construction firm – the second he has founded in the area to work on specialized soil and groundwater projects worldwide – and has rowed with clubs around the United States and around the world.
He has a well-deserved reputation for intensity, both on and off the water.
“Chris always does things all out,” said Tom Buell, a frequent rowing partner who won a silver medal with Ryan in the Pair at the 1999 Masters National Championships in Atlanta. “He was a huge help to me when I first joined TRRA, and he really encouraged me along the way. I think he brings out the best in people. I know he did in me.”
– Spring 2009
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