With the ink still drying on his diploma, Tom Rooks was offered a coaching position at his alma mater, Boon High School in Orlando, Fl. That first season included a lot of on-the-job learning (and mistakes), but Rooks stuck with coaching until Sept. 11, 2001, when his mission with the United States Coast Guard took priority. Today, Rooks is back on the water coaching for Williamsburg Boat Club and working to promote fun, an oft overlooked aspect of our sport. He’s been a key player in establishing WBC’s Beak of the Chick regatta, which this year will host the Beak, Beer & BBQ festival.
Rowing is a big part of the Rooks family – Tom’s wife Michelle rows, as does their daughter Sophia, who, at 18, is headed off to row for Washington College. They also have a 14-year-old son, Jack, and two black labs (as required by rowing coaching laws).
When/where did you get involved with rowing?
I started in rowing at Boone High School in Orlando, Fl. in 1991, then rowed for one year at the University of Central Florida before joining the United States Coast Guard (USCG).
What is your most memorable race as a rower?
My favorite race was at SRAAs in 1992. It was our team’s first time at a National regatta. We had no idea what to expect and just went out and rowed hard enough to struggle to retain consciousness when we finally stopped. I rowed in college a bit and have rowed for years as a master, but what made that race perfect was my absolute trust that everyone had given all they could. And maybe I’m crazy, but we probably took at least 30 perfect strokes in a row which I don’t think I’ve ever managed since.
“Maybe I’m crazy, but we probably took at least 30 perfect strokes in a row.”
What’s the best piece of advice you ever received?
It wasn’t so much advice but more of an example. My high school coach, Rick Gotham, didn’t care about how long you rowed, your athletic pedigree, parent involvement, or anything else except how hard you were willing to push yourself and whether you doing so made a boat faster when it came to making lineups.
When did you start coaching?
My high school was apparently in a very desperate way and hired me as a novice coach the day I graduated high school. I had no clue what I was doing but made up for it with an unhealthy level of passion. Everything went wrong – I sank a launch engine, cracked the wood gunnels of a newly donated shell – but at the end of the day, the rowers rowed hard, and learned to love the sport and care about each other.
I coached for teams in northern Virginia and Cape Cod, Mass. when I was stationed in those places, then stopped coaching after Sept. 11, 2001 as my USCG work became incredibly intense in terms of the hours and mission.
When we moved to Williamsburg, Va. in 2013, it was my first time having time off at night, so my wife Michelle (who I met rowing in college) suggested we start rowing again. We showed up for practice and in a few weeks I was asked to start coaching WBC’s new youth program. In the last five years, 13 youth rowers and 20 masters rowers have become 80 high school rowers, 30 middle school rowers and 40 masters rowers.
I realized that I loved my coaching job and situation so much in Williamsburg that it was time to retire from the Coast Guard. I retired last year and am now a full time coach.
Tell us about your best coaching day:
My best coaching day was also one of my worst. The boys in Williamsburg that had been founders of the program were nearly all seniors and we had finished the spring season and were going out for one of our last practices. The temperature was perfect and the water was so flat it looked like syrup. We wanted to do one last 2k piece for the season. I wanted to make it challenging and memorable so we decided to do the full race piece (including the start, settle, 10s, and sprint) rowing fully squared. We did this from time to time when conditions were right to force the rowers to focus intently on their form as much as power. They finished a perfect piece, with a boat so set it seemed to have invisible training wheels. They were all slumped over or laying back gasping for oxygen. They had rowed their perfect race, albeit alone on our home river.
I looked at them with amazement, so proud of the team they’d created, the ways in which they’d made my life better and more meaningful than I could of imagined, and I felt I’d witnessed the pinnacle of what a crew could achieve when they believe in each other and the work.
Then I had a horrible realization and began to cry a bit. I told them, “Men, I couldn’t be more proud then I am to have been your coach. I also need to apologize to you. I know most of you are graduating and only a couple of you are going on to row in college. Because of that, I want you to know, and this makes me equal parts proud and regretful, but this was most likely the best row you will have in your rowing lives because you will likely never again be in a boat lineup like this in a college club program or masters rowing. I hope I’m wrong, but I want you to remember this moment for what it is, and I want you to know I love you and will always be proud of you. I cannot wait to see the road ahead for you, let’s take it back to the boathouse by 8s, easy pressure, eyes closed.”
Who/what inspires you?
The challenge of being worthy of the role I get to play in the lives of young rowers never stops pushing me to improve at how I do things. I know how powerful an example of character a coach can be to a young person because of the role my high school coached played in my life. The role must be respected and if I’m not inspired to work as hard as the rowers, I don’t deserve to coach them.
WBC’s Beak of the Chick regatta is an unusual distance and this year will host the Beak, Beer & BBQ festival. Tell us more about the event and your hope for it in the future.
We started this race to generate more opportunities in our area for adult rowers. I have been a competitive mountain biker and triathlete over the years and I’ve always thought rowing lacked the sort of fun atmosphere and camaraderie between participants at regattas that those sports often have. The other consideration was that based on the calendar, our regatta was between sprint and head race season. For those reasons, we decided to have a weird distance, a big turn, and wanted to generate off the water events that would bring rowers together. Beer and BBQ seemed like easy ingredients to help teams socialize. I hope as the regatta grows we can continue to prioritize the fun along with having well-run, fast racing.
When not coaching, what’s your favorite thing to do?
I play a lot of disc golf whenever I have free time. On good days, I’m a pretty solid disc golfer; on the bad days, I’m having fun throwing frisbees in the woods with my friends. It gives me something to focus on that has nothing to do with body prep, 2k testing, fundraising…
Tell us something about you that we don’t already know.
I like writing, and am working on the second book in a series about a viking child. I also love playing guitar and banjo loud and sloppy, usually while singing ‘80s pop covers. You haven’t lived until you’ve howled out Madonna’s “Borderline” while picking a banjo.