Miami Beach rowers dominate on familiar course

By Kristen Spillane

Special to The Miami Herald

For some, the sport of rowing represents the culmination of mental and physical discipline and the embodiment of will power.

Whether it’s a recreational novice or a fierce competitor, a regatta is the chance to showcase training and to test a rower’s determination and dedication to the sport.

For others, it’s the opportunity to fulfill lifelong goals and demonstrate the commitment to an active lifestyle.

Just ask Conchy Bretos.

Bretos, 68, a resident of Miami Beach, competed in Sunday’s annual Head of the Indian Creek Regatta, a 2.7-mile race along the Indian Creek through the heart of Miami Beach.

She and her partner, John Kohn, 71, represented the Miami Beach Rowing Club in the Mixed Masters 2x race.

The regatta covers the entire range of competitors (high school, masters, colleges and open classes) from recreation singles to championship eights.

Medals were awarded to the first three places in all races, and trophies were given to the highest point college, club and high school.

Participants in this year’s event represented Miami area clubs and schools, and some rowers traveled from Sarasota and Hollywood to compete.

Bretos and Kohn finished fourth in the Mixed Master 2x with a time of 24:55.06.

The Miami Beach rowing club claimed many first-places finishes, including the Men’s Masters 1x, Men’s Veteran 1x, Women’s Jr 2x, Men’s Jr. 4x, Men’s Jr. Lightweight 4+ and the Women’s Jr. Lightweight 8+.

Bretos got her start in rowing  10 years ago, at the age of 58.

Raised in Cuba, Bretos belonged to the Cien Fuegos Yacht Club, where women were not allowed to row.

“I always wanted to do it. One day I decided, ‘I have to do it now, otherwise I never will,’ ” Bretos said.

Bretos came to the United States with her brothers at the age of 14 as part of Operation Pedro Pan and lived in an orphanage in Lincoln, Neb., for four years until her parents could join them in the United States

“That’s why we are so tough,” Bretos said, “Nothing can be worse than that.”

It’s as if rowing has always been a part of her life. Bretos is awake by 4:30 a.m. and on the water by 5 to row her almost daily 2 1/2-mile course.

“We have rowed here under a hurricane; it doesn’t stop us. The wind does get in the way, it picks up your oar, and we have flipped, four or five times. And the problem is not flipping, the problem is getting back up,” Bretos said.

Bretos rows for her health and to set an example for her children and four grandchildren. Her youngest grandson, 16-month-old Chito, was in attendance Sunday with his mother, Veeronique Koch, to cheer for his grandmother.

She also rows for the mental clarity and calmness that the sport brings to her hectic life as a business owner.

Over the course of 3 1/2 years, Bretos and  Kohn have developed a synchronicity  in their stroke and a calming relationship that developed in the shell.

“Where we are now, with our give-and-take, are totally synchronized. We enjoy it. We pray, we discuss world affairs, we solve all the problems on that boat,” Bretos said with a laugh.