There’s a good chance Michael Tatham could have bristled a little about what was taking place Sunday at the University of San Diego rowing program’s hospitality area at the San Diego Crew Classic in Mission Bay.
It wasn’t because he wouldn’t be touched by what the USD program, family and friends had done to honor him — dedicating a new rowing shell in the late 2001 USD alumnus and Navy SEAL’s name. Rather, his personality quite possibly would not have allowed him to accept an individual recognition.
Tatham was a strong-minded competitor, but he was first and foremost about the team’s success, about making others around him better. The new rowing shell, though, will certainly be a source of inspiration for Torero rowers who compete in it. Many of the 200 present — parents Steve and Diane Tatham, family, friends and USD rowing alumni — at Sunday’s ceremony made it clear that Tatham had a profound influence on them.
“He was like an older brother to me,” said Boyd McGowan, a former rowing teammate. “We didn’t always get along, but we always had each others’ back. He always had your best interests in mind. He was my biggest critic and first to welcome me back when I got back up. Mike was always there encouraging me, challenging us to get better, to be tougher, be stronger and to go after it because we could. Because of Mike, I’m a better man for knowing him, a better husband, and a better father. Just better.”
Tatham’s life ended in fall 2011 when he died in a motorcycle accident while on leave from his duties as a Navy SEAL. Tatham (pictured, at right) was a USD rower from 1996-99 and served as a men’s novice rowing coach for USD in 2001 and 2002. He enlisted in the Navy in 2003. He went on to receive two Bronze Stars for his service.
Caleb Davis and Josh Euhus, both of whom served with Tatham, echoed McGowan’s assessment.
“I was the new guy (2007) and it can be hard to join a fraternity where everyone expects excellence,” Davis said. “But Mike demanded good things. If he didn’t see those good things from you, if you weren’t trying hard enough, he let you know it. He took me under his wing and he wanted me to succeed. I didn’t know why he wanted that so badly for me, but I’m starting to realize it now. He’s truly a hero.”
Said Euhus: “Mike always called us brother in conversations with him. There was a close-knit feeling whenever we were around him. He’s one of the toughest people I worked with, the toughest I ever knew. I’ve always tried to live up to that standard he set. He’s a hero. It’s a word that gets thrown around a lot, but Mike’s a hero.”
Davis (pictured, top left, with USD Coach Brooks Dagman) said the rowing shell dedicated to Tatham is a fitting tribute. “I love seeing something that won’t change and gives him some recognition. He was out there, for years, being selfless for me, for you, and keeping us all safe. I’m glad to see this happen. It’s going to last a long time. That’s exactly what I want to see.”
Brooks Dagman, longtime USD men’s rowing coach, anchored Sunday’s ceremony. Dagman spoke of Tatham’s cantankerous mood when he wasn’t competing, but that when the race started, you knew what to expect.
“When it was go time, he would become extremely calm. In the races, he was always one of those go-to guys where you knew, on the race course, this guy’s not going to fold. He’s spot on, on task and knows what he needs to do.”
Dagman offered a reflection in 2011 after attending Tatham’s memorial service at Rosecrans National Cemetery. “I marveled at how many lives were profoundly impacted by Mike. He was a brave and conscientious leader within the SEALs. While listening to the many heartfelt speeches about Mike, I thought back to his time spent rowing and coaching at USD. Mike had a way of expecting, and getting, the best out of his teammates and the athletes under his supervision. He expected only the best out of himself as well. He was one of those rare souls that would pay any price to seek out what is best and true in his life, and the lives of those around him.”
Dagman, although he was head coach, credited Tatham for enhancing his own development as a coach.
“As a young coach at the time, Mike’s fiery temperament and his fearless pursuit of perfection as an athlete was a challenge for me. As an older coach now, I understand what Mike was trying to accomplish. Mike helped me grow as both a coach and as a person.”
Steve Tatham, Michael’s father, expressed sorrow and appreciation for Sunday’s recognition. “For 33 and a half years, I called him son. There’s a hole in our heart that will never be filled, but what you’ve done here today is very humbling. I can’t thank you enough for this.”
The ceremony, which also featured a christening and a prayer from Navy Chaplain Lt. Benjamin Box (above, left), made it clear that Tatham’s presence will always have a place at USD and with the athletics program.
“This is a very special moment in the history of our program,” Dagman said. “Mike brought so much honor to USD and he obviously carried that on as a Navy SEAL. He won’t be forgotten. He’s a part of my memory. He’s in my heart for the rest of my life.”
— Ryan T. Blystone