Sports innovation often comes from those who play the game and the Ivy League has more than its fair share. Dick Dreissigacker, who graduated from Brown and rowed in the Olympics, changed his sport with carbon fiber oars.
Dick Dreissigacker is one in a long line of Ivy innovators. From Harvard's James Tyng's invention of the catcher's mask in 1877 to Princeton's David Morrow's introduction of the titanium lacrosse stick in the 1992 NCAA tournament, Ivy Leaguers have made many significant contributions in a number of sports.
With his brother, Peter, Dreissigacker invented the carbon fiber oar — which since its introduction in 1977 — has effectively replaced wooden oars in competitive rowing. "People had started using carbon on boats in 1973," he remembers, "but oars were still wooden. It was the backwater we were looking for — people didn't pay much attention to oars."
Recruited to play football, Dreissigacker decided to attend Brown because it "offered a four-year B.S. in engineering. At that time this was not common at an Ivy League school, and I knew I wanted to study engineering." He also "had it in the back of my mind to try rowing," he says, which he did after the football season. "I soon realized that I was made to row. It was just one of those things where you're made for it and you just want to do it."
Graduating with an engineering degree in 1969, Dreissigacker went to work for the steam turbine division of Westinghouse in Philadelphia, figuring he would never row competitively again. One day he ran into a friend he knew from rowing. "He rowed at Vespers (a renowned Philadelphia rowing club) and said 'come row with us.'" Dreissigacker did, and made the national team from 1970 to 1972. In 1972 his four without coxswain team competed in the Summer Olympics.
His boat "didn't make the semis," but this was the infamous Munich Olympics, where Palestinian terrorists took Israeli athletes and officials hostage and later killed them, along with a German police officer. Until that incident "it was a great Olympics," says Dreissigacker. "It was accessible. You could go around and see events. No Olympics since then has been quite so open and together."
After the Olympics, figuring this time for sure he was done with rowing, Dreissigacker was "ski-bumming in Colorado" when a friend invited him to coach the Stanford freshman crew. He did, joining his brother, Peter, who was pursuing a graduate degree in product design engineering.
Dreissigacker began working on an Industrial Engineering master's degree while coaching. "We took some courses together," he remembers, and after graduating stayed on as Stanford's varsity coach while he and Peter marketed Peter's thesis project, a backpack design, which was eventually produced by Northface.
He also started Peter rowing, and in training for the 1976 Olympics they "used a funky early prototype" of the carbon oar. They didn't make the team, but realized they now had something to sell. "We realized we knew the market, knew people, that we could make a few oars and people would buy them."
"We thought we'd work on other products but we spent all our time making oars," recalls Dreissigacker. Setting up on a former dairy farm in Vermont they were soon hiring people to make the oars, and starting looking around for another product. They hit on a flywheel-based rowing machine, originally built out of bicycle parts, and the product quickly became prevalent not only with college rowing programs, but with individual rowers and exercise enthusiasts.
"It gave us a huge head start," he says. "It was a long time before we had any competition." The rowing machines are "low cost, comparable, and repeatable," explains Dreissigacker. "The comparable and repeatable aspects of the machines have become especially important, as enthusiasts have taken to comparing "erg scores," as the machines' performance numbers are known, to the point of holding internet-based competitions. They're also the bane of potential college recruits, as erg scores have become like batting averages to coaches.
The brothers innovated by directly using their products. Dreissigacker, who received his undergraduate degree in 1969, is "on the water most every day for an hour" rowing during the summertime. When they were developing Concept2's innovative "Big Blade" shape "we had a hacksaw on the deck," he remembers. "It was trial and error. We'd take a theory and try it."
This active lifestyle is evident in his family as well. His wife is three-time rowing Olympian Judy Geer, who also works at Concept2. Daughter Hannah is a Nordic skier at Dartmouth. Her younger sister, Emily, will row for Dartmouth next year, even though "since both my wife and I rowed we didn't push rowing," says Dreissigacker.
"Although I probably did not appreciate it fully at the time, I learned a lot at Brown," says Dreissigacker. "But it took many years for me to realize this."
Regardless of when he realized it, Dreissigacker took what he learned from Brown — rowing and engineering — and created innovations that have changed a sport, and brought enjoyment, and better health, to many.
— Stephen Eschenbach