Eric Gardow has traveled a path that is nearly impossible to replicate.
But he’s striving to help students and athletes at McDonell get a strong start of whatever route they choose to take in life.
The school’s new athletic director has settled into his role after moving back to the Chippewa Valley from Qatar, a middle eastern Asian country east of Saudi Arabia where he spent the last several years teaching and administrating at the Qatar-Finland International School. In addition he is a co-founder of the BE Basketball academy in Qatar, his latest endeavor in a career full of success with the sport.
Born and raised in Eau Claire, he’s seen more than his fair share of highs and lows and wants to use that experience to enrich the lives of the students at McDonell.
“I feel really lucky and blessed to be here,” Gardow said. “The position became open. I applied for it and I’m thankful for my health and my education that have taken me places to prepare me for this job.”
Living in Eau Claire
Gardow is from the area, growing up in Eau Claire and graduating high school from Eau Claire North. During his time as a Husky, Gardow was a part of Eau Claire North’s first state qualifying boys basketball team in 1985 under Wisconsin Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame coach Pat Hammond before graduating in 1986.
But after moving on from high school, Gardow was dealt a tough blow as he was diagnosed with testicular cancer, a battle he fought and won twice before continuing his education at UW-Eau Claire.
While at UW-Eau Claire, Gardow was a part of the Blugolds men’s basketball team that advanced all the way to the Division III national championship game under coach Terry Gibbons before falling to Calvin College (Mich.) 79-74. Gardow graduated from UW-Eau Claire with a degree in special education and cognitive disabilities.
“I had great parents, great coaches growing up. Great teachers. Had some personal issues that I struggled through, but I made it through,” Gardow said. “That’s how we grow up.”
He completed his masters degree in education at UW-Stout while coaching as an assistant on longtime and recently retired Blue Devils coach Eddie Andrist. But his tenure coaching with Andrist also opened up a new horizon to continue coaching basketball beyond college. Andrist had connections to international professional coaches including Qatar, where after brief stints coaching at Mondovi and at the community college level, Gardow made the jump into the international game.
“I think I’ve coached in more countries than I’ve visited states,” Gardow said.
Gardow had success coaching in Qatar as well as in Japan but stepped away from coaching after his family welcomed twins in 2011.
Wanting to remain involved in the game, Gardow and Ben Smith opened the BE Basketball academy to serve as a dedicated sports program designed to train and educate people of all ages and abilities using fundamental and dynamic training techniques for basketball.
Gardow also worked at the Qatar-Finland International School as an activities director. But while home this summer after having hip surgery, Gardow saw the position become available after longtime athletic director Archie Sherbinow stepped down. Gardow and Sherbinow knew each other through the coaching ranks and Gardow applied for the job.
The next step
Gardow was formally announced as McDonell’s new athletic director on Aug. 22.
“We are excited to have Mr. Gardow join our leadership team,” McDonell Area Catholic Schools president Jeff Heinzen said in the press release announcing the hiring. “His varied experiences as both a teacher and administrator reflect our vision and mission.”
Gardow already agreed to return to the Qatar-Finland International School for what he said would be his final year there, but was allowed time by both schools to transition out of his role in Qatar to his new role back home.
“They saw my situation that I needed time go back to (Qatar) to ethically and professionally tell them I was going to be leaving and taking this job and it was a great job,” Gardow said. “Great people, great kids, love the school and loved the people I worked for over there in Finland and the amazing opportunity they gave me.”
Gardow worked remotely for the first few months via video conferencing and email, relying on many McDonell mainstays like principal Brian Schulner, Steve Roesler, Eric Wedemeyer and Don Cooper to help him with the day-to-day operations before he was able to return to the United States.
Gardow has reached out for advice since taking over his position, including across Terrill St. where he said Chi-Hi activities director Mike Thompson has been a big help.
McDonell was always a district that had Gardow’s eye and now he’s happy to be a part of it.
“It’s a cool place. I love this place. It’s always been a gem,” Gardow said of McDonell. “Great athletes come out of here. Great programs, boys and girls they do it all here in this little school. It’s pretty impressive.”
Gardow praised the work of his predecessor Sherbinow and said he’s simply looking to build off the things Sherbinow established while putting his touch on a few things and letting his work speak for itself.
Like Sherbinow, Gardow is a big believer in three-sport athletes and said he would like to see those involved in athletics at McDonell to play a variety of sports.
“That’s how smaller schools make it and that’s how they become better kids, better people in life,” Gardow said.
McDonell’s international presence was also another factor that drew Gardow to the school, noting the system has more than 15 foreign exchange students. The Qatar-Finland International School had students from 77 different countries while the BE Basketball academy had players from 40.
Gardow is motivated to help in part because of the battles he won earlier in life. During his cancer fight, Gardow said doctors told him he didn’t have great odds of surviving. This past summer, Gardow celebrated his 25th year of surviving cancer.
“I’m here for a reason, to help others and take advantage of each and every day,” Gardow said.
Now that he’s back in Wisconsin, his ‘each and every day’ will come at McDonell.
“We have a great staff here,” Gardow said. “We have great things going on here and I think the opportunity to grow enrollment and bring in some more international students to teach them more about the world is one of the reasons I’m really interested in this. If a little guy like me from Eau Claire, Wisconsin can go and travel the world and impact other people’s lives then we can do that here as well because we have great people here in the Chippewa Valley.”