Health & Medicine

June 13, 2013

Father, daughters end up with something in common: rowing

Retired federal magistrate judge Peter Nowinski was on a seemingly impetuous mission to prove he was still scull-worthy. But he wasn't just doing it for himself. He thought doing so would motivate two of his six children, daughters Clara and Agatha Nowinski.

Rowing a single-man scull, 69-year-old Peter Nowinski looked unsteady at the oars.

Surely, the muscle memory of past rowing was there, but so was the residue of 10 surgeries, including four on his back and two hip replacements. These meant his body was also his worst enemy – and the result was a slow go on Lake Natoma.

Meanwhile, on the shore at Sacramento State's Aquatic Center, Nowinski's 19-year-old daughter, Clara Nowinski, coached him.

It was a classic father-daughter moment, filled with that curious mix of attention and frustration, on both sides.

Luckily, Clara Nowinski was able to steer her father away from an impending collision with an approaching scull.

The only collision to be had was the past encountering the present – with rowing the common denominator.

A retired federal magistrate judge, Nowinski was on a seemingly impetuous mission to prove he was still scull-worthy.

But he wasn't just doing it for himself. He thought doing so would motivate two of his six children, daughters Clara and Agatha Nowinski.

Not that either of his two youngest daughters need motivating – both are standout rowers at the University of California, Berkeley.

Clara just finished her freshman year and is on Cal's novice eight team, which placed second at this year's Simpson's Cup competition. Last year, she took a bronze medal at the junior national championships.

Meanwhile, Agatha, a junior at UC Berkeley, is an All-Pac-12 Conference rower who rowed stroke on the Cal varsity eight team this year. That team recently won the Pac-12 Championship and on June 2 went on to win the varsity eight NCAA championship.

But this is no case of like father, like daughter.

Rowing was never the absolute coin of the realm in the Nowinski household. Neither was it a part of the daily conversation, said Clara.

For her, the biggest rowing motivator was sister Agatha, who began rowing her junior year in high school. When Clara entered her sophomore year, she followed suit.

"I like rowing because it's a lot different than other sports. Being out on the water every day is better than being cooped up in a gym," Clara said. "Also, when you win, it's the greatest feeling of achievement – more than I've felt in any other sport."

It was only after the two had started rowing – and succeeding – that their father let on about his rowing past.

"I was pretty surprised to hear about it," said Clara.

"I feel that, during his time, rowing was not really heard or talked about that much, it was on the DL," said Clara. "Not a lot of people did it – so, for him to have done it, that was really surprising."

Indeed, Peter Nowinski rowed during his freshman year at Cal, in 1961-62. But he was no rowing darling like his daughters. Nor was he the model student.

"To tell you the truth I never went to any classes," he said.

The reason was that Nowinski found himself at sea as a 17-year-old freshman at Cal. His school year was deeply affected by the death of both his parents.

"I was miserable, unhappy," he said.

He left Cal after a year and a half and went to work at a gas station near a Navy base in San Diego. After a stint in Hawaii, Nowinski finished his undergraduate studies at San Jose State. In the mid-1960s Nowinski ran into a member of the Cal crew team who regaled him with stories about law school.

"I thought to myself, 'Now, that really sounds like something,' " he said.

Nowinski decided to apply to Hastings College of the Law. He entered in 1966 and graduated three years later. That proved the foundation to the calling he is most known for – a career as a U.S. magistrate judge in the Eastern District of California, a position he held from 1991 until 2006.

After finding retirement less than thrilling, Nowinski decided to get back into rowing nine months ago.

"I did it to prove to myself and the girls that I could do it, and that I was for real," he said. "I wanted to let them know they're not the only ones doing this, because sometimes they can get full of themselves."

Nowinski went out on the water twice – a valiant pursuit given the back pain that necessitated the pins in his back.

"The second time I went out by myself in a single scull, and I did fine. It was really sloppy rowing, and I had no power," he said.

Now, the only limiting factor for Nowinski is pain management. His back continues to bother him, despite surgeries to implant the pins. Nowadays, Nowinski gets by thanks to morphine that quells the back pain that he knew would be a certainty in his life.

What was less clear was whether his re-entry to rowing would motivate his daughters.

"I did it, and it got no notice at all from the kids and that was a little disappointing," Nowinski said.

Additionally, he had hoped it would someday lead to a double scull row with one of his daughters.

"I never got an offer, but I did get some snickers," said Nowinski, jokingly. "The truth is they're so far ahead why would they want to be in the same boat with me?"

But it seems his accomplishments have not gone completely unnoticed.

Agatha was traveling while competing with Cal at the NCAA meet and as a result has not had the chance to see her father struggle at the oars from any shore.

"I think it's awesome that he still wants to row," she said. "I'm glad that my and Clara's involvement has resparked his interest just so long as he's careful."

On the shore at the Aquatic Center, Clara Nowinski squinted as she tracked her father's transit back to the dock. While directing his oar movement she alternated between calling him "Dad," "Pete" and "Peter."

Once he was safely on shore, her face was a portrait of relief.

"Yeah, what he's done," she said, "that's really impressive, especially with his back surgeries and what not."

Call The Bee's Edward Ortiz, (916) 321-1071. Follow him on Twitter @edwardortiz..

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