The fire inside: Pieter Lehrer’s determination

All his life, Cal men’s soccer coach Pieter Lehrer has been setting up and knocking down goals like dominoes. His journey to Berkeley was no different.

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Michael Tao/Staff

The road to the Olympics started with a question.

It was May of 1994, and brothers Pieter and Jacob Lehrer lived across the street from one another in Santa Rosa, Calif.

They did everything together as children and adulthood didn’t bring a change. The brothers ran a maintenance company together.

One day, Pieter came over to speak to Jacob. “I really want to be a part of the Olympics,” Pieter told Jacob. Pieter then asked Jacob if he wanted to join in. Though initially caught off-guard, Jacob eventually said yes.

Pieter Lehrer was simply looking for a challenge. Unlike his timid brother Jacob, Pieter required action in all aspects of his life.

In his late 20s, the former Ironman and collegiate soccer star was itching to push his body to a new limit.

After winning the NCAA title with the UCLA men’s soccer team, Pieter went to Europe to start a professional career. He went around the continent knocking on soccer managers’ doors, asking for a spot in the roster.

It was the only time his goal didn’t pan out.

From there, he went back to America to compete in marathons and triathlons. But such competitions no longer satisfied his athletic appetite — he needed a new obstacle to overcome.

“I’m an all-or-nothing person,” Pieter says. “I wanted to compete at the highest level in the world.”

Team sports like soccer were out of the question for his Olympics sport — Pieter was adamant in persevering with Jacob and their sister, Heidi, by his side.

An Olympic journey with his siblings held more meaning to Pieter than one undertaken alone.

Pieter looked for a sport that gave the Lehrers the best odds to qualify for the 1996 Olympics. More importantly, he wanted a sport that gave him the hardest test.

Pieter chose sprint canoeing, a sport about which he knew nothing beforehand. With a high admittance rate to the Olympics, sprint canoeing gave Pieter and his siblings the best odds in qualifying for the international compeition.

But sprint canoeing was a double-edged sword. Very few canoers possessed the stamina to endure the training and mental strain required to be an Olympian.

Most Olympic canoers around Pieter’s age had started paddling at a young age. Their skills were products of decades of hard work and gritted determination.

Pieter was determined to reach their level in just two years.

When Pieter Lehrer approached Olympic medalist Andy Toro with a coaching request, Toro initially tried to dissuade Pieter.

“He said we had a one in five million chance of making it,” Pieter says. “I said, ‘I’ll take my chances.’”

Pieter taught himself how to paddle and balance in a matter of weeks. By the fall of ‘94, Pieter and his siblings earned the approval of Toro after their performance in a canoeing meet and convinced the once-Olympian to become their full-time coach.

Every day, the Lehrers paddled at the nearby lake in the morning and worked out in the gym in the afternoon.

At nighttime, the three took turns running the company to keep their Olympic dreams financially afloat.

Pieter was not the kind of person that could work 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at his family business. He had never exhibited such staid stability.

“His intensity is not one that leaves everything destroyed in a fiery path,” Jacob says. “His is more of a, ‘How do I get around the obstacle?’ intensity.”

He always needed a single, all-consuming goal to focus on and knock down. He and his no-nonsense attitude would chase the goal to its end, and then he would move on to a tougher goal.

“I just need an end result (in my life),” Pieter says. “And I always get to that end result. That’s what I am good at.”

In March of 1995, the Lehrers had a disastrous performance at the Pan-American Games in Argentina. Their canoe sank before crossing the finish line — with every paddle, they spilled water inside the canoe until it was half-filled with water. It was an amateur mistake that dented Pieter’s Olympic hopes.

The Pan-American Games was a harsh reality check for Pieter; not all of his goals could be triumphed by sheer willpower.

With the World Championships as his last ticket to Atlanta, Pieter swallowed the embarrassment and persevered.

For the next few months, the Lehrers refined their techniques with Toro. Lunge forward at every paddle, push the water outward for maximum force, finish as strong as you started.

Those orders rang inside Pieter’s head until they became pure muscle memory.

At the World Championships in the summer of ‘95, the Lehrers recorded their personal best time. A month later, they were invited to join the U.S. national team and compete in the Atlanta Olympics.

The story of three novices who transformed into Olympic qualifiers within two years reverberated around the canoeing community.

“It was unheard of,” Jacob says. “The canoeing community was shocked.”

But joining the U.S. national team meant the Lehrers might be split up for different races. Instead, the three chose to race for Antigua and Barbuda, their nation of birth.

On July 19, 1996, as Muhammad Ali lit the Olympic flame in Atlanta, Pieter saw the light at the end of the tunnel. After two long years, he had reached the Olympics.

Pieter Lehrer never had a fair shot in Atlanta.

Four days before their first race, Jacob and Heidi were badly injured when their shuttle bus crashed into a roadblock. Both tried to race with neck braces on, but the pain was too much. After one race, the Lehrers dropped out.

Sixteen years have passed, but the disappointment is still too fresh for both brothers. Neither of them has paddled a canoe ever since.

Pieter is no longer the man that tested his body and mind on a whim. The sands of time have weathered his fiery, spontaneous personality. Now, as an assistant coach for Cal’s men’s soccer, Lehrer is a temperate man.

In his 15-year coaching career, Lehrer has had success in both collegiate soccer and the MLS. In 2002, he won the MLS Cup as an assistant coach for the L.A. Galaxy.

For Lehrer, the main attraction of coaching soccer is the goal-oriented structure of a team. A team will conceive of a single goal — win a championship — and relentlessly chase it. Lehrer has been building and destroying self-made benchmarks all his life.

As a one-time National Assistant Coach of the Year, Lehrer has received head coaching offers from other schools. But Lehrer has stayed put at Cal for eight years because he wants to finish the goal he set when he arrived in Berkeley: to win a national title.

“I don’t want a Pac-12 title,” Lehrer says. “I don’t want a final four appearance. That’s not my goal — that’s a disappointing result to me.”

It’s a goal as lofty as his Olympics dream 16 years ago. He hasn’t reached it yet, and he might never do so.

But for Lehrer, it has never been about the glory that followed the accomplishment. The allure was always the internal battle of chasing the near impossible. He couldn’t resist embodying the Olympic spirit — faster, higher, stronger — in every phase of his pursuit.

In the grind of the chase, Pieter Lehrer found a sanctuary where he feels whole.


Seung Y. Lee covers men’s soccer. Contact him at [email protected]