Hot Seat: AC Chacon

AC Chacon, Head Coach of Long Beach State men's rowing. (Photo: Jasmine McGill)
AC Chacon, Head Coach of Long Beach State men's rowing. (Photo: Jasmine McGill)

Weight Training 101 is what 110-pound AC Chacon signed up for one fall as a student at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. It was there that a chance meeting with a lightweight rower got him started on a path towards a diverse and successful coxing and coaching career, including earning a Masters degree in Kinesiology.

Current rowing club affiliation(s) + number of seasons there:

Head Coach, Long Beach State men’s rowing, 2 years

Coaching Staff, Long Beach Rowing Association, 1 year

Head Coach, Nassau Rowing Club Learn-To-Row and World’s bound juniors athletes, 4 years

Previous: North Park University, Lincoln Park, Chicago Rowing Union, Notre Dame, Chicago, Northwestern

The basics: Age, married, kids, jobs, pets?

I am young enough to be mostly harmless, old enough to know better than reveal my true age. Married to my job. No Kids. Step parent to other people’s dogs everywhere.

When/where did you get involved with rowing?

At Grand Valley State University, I had to take a PE credit so I enrolled in Weight Training 101. I was 110lbs and very scrawny. The teacher partnered me with a guy who was a lightweight on the men’s rowing team. I had just transferred from a two-year college and didn’t know anyone. My roommates were pigs. I was looking for anything to keep me occupied and away from the slovenly mess of a living situation.

Having run Cross Country in high school and disappointed in how that went I was looking for something athletic to do outdoors. I trained with the rowing team indoors all winter and was instantly thrust into the coxswain seat upon our return to the water in March. Of the four novice men on the team I was the smallest, so if the size 9 shoe fits, wear it, I suppose! At first I was somewhat insulted, but over time I grew to accept that I was a Hobbit and nothing was going to change that. If I learned anything from Lord of the Rings it is that even someone very small can make a big difference. I stuck with it.

What is your most memorable race as a coxswain?

The first race where I did a good job and was told so. It was Spring of my Senior year and I had been coxing for just over a year, but I had not had much coaching specifically on what to say and the importance of how to say it. I had not found my “voice” yet. I did not know what rhythm speak was. I could count to 10 and give rudimentary distances, but beyond that I had no idea what to really say. I just coxed the race and expected to be yelled at for whatever I did wrong afterward. I knew I was a “horrible” varsity coxswain that nobody wanted.

I wanted to get better but at that time we didn’t have Youtube to watch and listen to coxswain recordings. Then one of my coaches introduced me to visualization and race planning – both components of sports psychology. The visual exercise and concise race plan finally opened up something in my brain. We won the race, beating our top competition, Marietta College. The gals in my W4+ said that was the best coxing I had ever done up to that point. It was also my first gold medal.  

When did you start coaching?

I started coaching not long after I started coxing. Even though I was slow to gain coxing knowledge and experience, I was constantly absorbing everything my coaches said about rowing. I would see and hear them explain things to rowers and it just got logged and filed somewhere in my brain. Witnessing what worked and what didn’t also taught me a thing or two.

In the Fall, our school did a 6-week intramural novice rowing program which needed warm bodies to cox and coach. It paid $50 and I needed the cash for Top Ramen with tuna so I volunteered and got the job. I accessed my brain database of rowing words and phrases and as I was doing it I could see the connection between what I was saying and how it was making a difference in the newbies’ rowing.

We did the same drills as the regular rowing team and slowly, over six sessions, they progressed. I looked forward to that day each week because it was my turn to be in charge and nobody in the boat knew better so I could get away with making mistakes. At the end of the 6-week program the intramural crews competed and mine won pretty easily. I guess I had taught them well. After I graduated in the Spring, I wanted to stay connected to rowing so I became an apprentice coach at University of Notre Dame under Kurt Butler. Four years later I took over as head coach of a program in Chicago.

What’s the best piece of rowing/coxing/training/coaching advice you ever received?

ROWING: Champions are made in the off-season. There are a lot of physiological reasons why. In simplest explanation, the teams that win the most races are the ones that bring the erg scores. Technique and mental game is important too, and ergs may not float, but they don’t lie either.

COXING: Steering is the number one thing you are there for. Anything outside of that is icing on the cake. You could in theory win a race by steering a good course and remaining silent, but you can’t win a race if you crash into another boat or the shore and sink.

TRAINING: Your mind and soul is just as important a thing to train as your body. Unstable mind and rotten soul equals poor performances at rowing. Train your whole “self.”

COACHING: I’ve realized over time that a good teacher needs patience, otherwise you foul up the learning process. Everyone learns differently and at different speeds. It was not until I got my Masters in Kinesiology that I learned about the different forms of teaching physical activity and the why.

Tell us about your best coaching day:

The performance of my Long Beach Women’s Masters Club 8+ at San Diego Crew Classic 2017. We had just come off our win at the Head of the Charles and started training for Crew Classic. We knew we were fast and had the potential to do well. Our closest competition was Chinook Performance Racing, Marin Rowing Association, and Sammamish Rowing Association.

Coaching masters is a challenge because everyone usually comes from a different style of rowing. Getting things to match up is the priority. Then the fine tuning comes along. I was charged with getting a crew composed of former Olympians, National team members from three countries, and life-long club rowers to be as efficient as possible. In addition to an erg training plan we trained every Saturday looking for any tenth- or hundredth of a second we could squeeze out of our stroke.

At Crew Classic we won our heat and then went sub-7:00 to win the final. Being under 7:00 was a huge thing for our boat and cause for celebration. Getting to stand on the medal podium with those women was a huge honor. Most of them had been there before, but it was my first time, and hopefully won’t be the last.

Who/what inspires you?

I moved a lot growing up so most of my friends were dogs or TV characters. Captain Janeway (Star Trek) is the one I am most like. I know it sounds silly to idolize Star Trek captains, but they are leaders faced with moral and ethical dilemmas all the time. They must lead their crew selflessly and always remember the greater good. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. That is what sweep rowing is all about.

I am also inspired by dogs because they are loyal until the end, loving, and know intuitively who the bad people are and stay away from them.

When not coaching, what’s your favorite thing to do?

I am restoring a 1970 Oldsmobile 442 convertible and reviving a 1976 GMC Motorhome. My brain is very mechanical so once I set my mind to doing something like that it’s easy. The 442 is for looking cool while cruising the Pacific Coast Highway; and the Motorhome is because coaching does not pay much and I might find myself living in a van down by the river someday.

Tell us something about you that we don’t already know.

When I was an 18-year-old high school student in Connecticut, I considered a career as an Opera singer. That lasted about six months, then I graduated high school and moved to a remote corner of Michigan.