From nine to five, Ken Heitel is a master jeweler, selling glittering gold and gems at the jewelry shop he's owned for 30 years in downtown Venice. But early in the morning-5:45 a.m. to be precise-three times a week, every week, in every kind of weather-he transforms into a master rower, plying the still-dark waters of Sarasota Bay with the Sarasota Rowing Club. (In competitive rowing, a master is an athlete 27 years old or older.)
Heitel sweep rows, a technique that utilizes one oar instead of two, in either a four- or eight-person shell. A founding director of the 50-member club, which formed in 2000, Heitel was captivated by the competitive sport when he watched daughter Jen crew for the Sarasota Scullers in high school. "I watched my daughter row and said, 'I can do that,'" he recalls. Even though his daughter graduated from high school five years ago, Heitel is still active with the Sarasota Scullers youth program; he currently chairs its board.
Heitel travels with the Sarasota Rowing Club to meets around Florida and nationally. Last year they raced in the Head of the Charles competition in Boston and in the Head of the Chattahoochee in Atlanta (known affectionately as the Head of the Hooch). It's the same venue where the world's top amateur rowers gathered for the 1996 Summer Olympics. "Rowing is the ultimate team sport, especially in a four or eight, where everyone has to pull together," he says. "We win our fair share of medals."
Heitel says the discipline and camaraderie are powerful incentives to keep going morning after early morning. "It's not golf," he says. "There aren't a lot of people our age who are working at the anaerobic threshold. "Our wives like it, too, because it beats that mid-life crisis."