3-On-3, Giving Back to the Sport You Love



In 3-on-3, our experts answer three questions and offer unique insights, which have helped them and others along the way. This month, we talked to Annette Forster (1985 world championship silver medalist and founder of Regatta Print), John Strotbeck (1984 and 1988 Olympian and founder of Boathouse Sports) and Mara Ford (1988 Olympian and associate director at the National Rowing Foundation) about what they learned as rowers and Olympians and how it helped them give back to our sport.

How did your experience in rowing inspire you in regards to your current activities?

John Strotbeck: “I arrived in Philadelphia for a job two years out of college and, by accident, started rowing again out of Vesper Boat Club. I actually had no rowing gear and I used running shorts and t-shirts for many weeks, until some of the more experienced rowers suggested I get some real rowing clothes. I asked the simple question, ‘where can I get rowing gear?’ The answer was—the office upstairs. But what I meant was, was there a store I could buy one pair of trou?

A few years pass, I’m working full-time and training for the Olympics, and still contemplating why no one sells rowing clothes in Philly. Soon after I won the Olympic trials in the men’s pair, with Dave DeRuff, we headed to the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984. Literally as we walk into the opening ceremonies, 10 steps into the tunnel leading us under the Coliseum, I decided to quit my corporate job and train for the 1988 Seoul Olympics. True to myself, February 1985, I quit my job and soon realized I actually had no money. So I started making rowing trou and other rowing clothes, selling them to individuals. And that’s how Boathouse Sports was born. By the time the 1988 Olympics came around, we had 17 employees. Today, Boathouse employs 250 people full-time, and we make gear for the best teams in the world including the United States Olympic Rowing Team heading to Rio.”

Annette Forster: “I was serving as a volunteer regatta director for a head race and struggled to find a good source for bow numbers. My husband Mike, who has been in graphics and printing for decades, watched me struggle for a month or so before he finally relented and made them for me. They were better and cheaper than what folks found elsewhere and even customized, so Mike and I started to get requests.

He had also helped a number of regattas with venue and course signage, and pretty soon we realized that there was a small niche market within the rowing community for a one-stop shop for rowing and regatta-related print products. The last thing a busy regatta director or coach needs is to waste time trying to find out where to buy these specialty items and to explain to a regular print shop exactly what a bow number or blade wrap actually is and how it is used. And unless you’re careful, you can end up with something that isn’t waterproof, falls out of the clip or off the blade, fades with exposure to the sun or otherwise doesn’t work in the extreme environment of rowing and regattas. So because we row, we care, and we make products that work for our sport through Regatta Print.

Mara Ford: “Rowing has shown me how valuable team commitment is when you set your goals to achieve something like racing for the United States, and how great it is to achieve that goal together as a boat. When my rowing career was over, I realized I wanted to ‘give back’ to the sport, as I was still figuring out what I really wanted to do for the rest of my professional life. For me, coaching at various community rowing programs and colleges was a great way to start giving back to the sport. If I look at what I’m doing now, it’s important to me to know that I am helping the next generation of athletes win medals for our country. For the rest of their lives, they will take their own rowing experiences with them and do great things, impacting the world away from their boats.

I also wanted to get into the business side of sports, in part because I was able to watch first-hand what my sister was experiencing as she worked hard to become a professional golfer. It was a great way to learn about the business side of sport. After competing in the 1988 Olympics, I went to graduate school in Atlanta in the early 90s. I knew an MBA would help me reach my professional goals. Being in Atlanta was a huge opportunity for me. I sent my resume to the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games and was eventually contacted by the committee and offered an internship. It was unpaid, but sometimes you have to take a risk and prove to someone that you can do the job.

Part of that job actually became finding a new location for the rowing competition. I was on the first visit to Lake Lanier in Gainesville and remember getting back to the office as the managers came in and said, ‘will this place work?’ I knew enough about rowing and coaching, and so I said yes, wrote a report and they took it to Switzerland. I remained with the organization for my second year of business school and became the competition manager for rowing for the 1996 Olympics. That whole experience was amazing.

When I started in 2009 with the NRF, the record amount of annual donors was around 500, but last year we had 2,500 and raised $2.2 million. As long as athletes have to write checks to represent the U.S., we still have work to do, though. I wasn’t a very celebrated Olympian; I came in sixth. That was devastating at the time, as you always aspire to win a medal, but later on, I realized how amazing it was to be there and get that far. It was very motivating.”

Where do you see potential for current rowers to give back to the sport in the future and what advice would you give them?

Mara: “The transition from being an Olympian to really anything else is incredibly difficult. If you ask any athlete what they need to do to achieve their goals, they can tell you exactly. Take care of their body; eat good food; put the time in rowing; improve their mental strength. It’s all very clear. If you ask what they’ll do next, they probably don’t know yet, or they don’t know what the next steps will be. You can’t think about that when you are training.

The athletes need to value every experience right now, and they will see how important it will be in the future. Once the athletes stop rowing, they will be able to share their experiences with the next generation. They should talk about rowing, and write about rowing. As the NRF, we would love to communicate with every athlete who says farewell to the national team. We want to be able to harness their voices and say, ‘Share your experiences with the rowing community and beyond, help us build our community of support for the National Rowing Teams.’ We want to help athletes network for jobs and be ambassadors for our sport.”

Annette: “My favorite plea for giving back to the sport is as referees and as regatta organizers! Most rowers are like I was, oblivious to how regattas actually happen. I just thought the racecourse magically appeared, and the regatta magically happened, having no idea of the army of volunteers that it took to put on a regatta. There are enough jobs involved in putting on regattas that everyone can find something that they will enjoy.

I think because rowers interact mostly with their coach, if they choose to give back, it usually tends to be by coaching. But there are so many other vital areas to give back. (My husband) Mike and I both serve as referees, which is an area where the sport continues to have an acute shortage. Sometimes rowers just don’t think about it, but I think often they tend to assume that the referees are paid professionals and that it is a career. They don’t realize that in a sport like ours, it is a volunteer position that you can do occasionally on weekends. It’s a fun way to stay involved in the sport, give back and see great racing up close.”

John: “It’s really critical that we, who have learned, loved and gained from the sport of rowing give back. This philosophy, which we find in many team sports, has proven to lead to sustained growth, stability and enhancement of the sport for decades to follow. Educating, teaching, coaching new kids and adults to the sport is the easiest way to help. Many people want to row, but just have no idea where and how to get started. I started coaching high school boys as another way to give back and find my personal experiences in coaching to be fantastic. I believe the young men I coach also gain from my enthusiasm, experience and skill.

We should use creativity and technology to bring rowing to the masses and talk plenty about how the writers, the videographers, and the dreamers can make the sport more attractive to non-rowers.”

What is the most fulfilling aspect of being involved in rowing, beyond the competitive element?

Annette: “Whether you are rowing recreationally or competitively, coaching or being coached, putting on or participating in an event, providing or purchasing a rowing-related product or service, or doing anything at all with rowers—everyone is striving for excellence, if not perfection, and focused on working together as a team.”

Mara: “There are just so many! Recently, for me, it’s organizing the National Rowing Hall of Fame’s Class of 2016 Induction Ceremony. This year, the event is taking place in Sarasota, Fla., at the same time as the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Rowing Trials. We will be inducting six crews; 1976 Olympic bronze medal women’s eight, the 1976 Olympic silver medal men’s pair, the 1996 Olympic silver medal men’s quad, the 1996 Olympic bronze medal lightweight men’s four, the 1996 Olympic silver medal lightweight women’s double and the 2000 Olympic bronze medal lightweight women’s double, as well as two Patrons; Timothy M. Hosea, MD, and Joanne Wright Iverson.

The nature of rowing and the ultimate focus on the team unit takes away your opportunity to celebrate your success in the moment. You are so focused on the achievements of your boat/team as a whole. You can be switched out of the boat at any instant and the team doesn’t question the coach, but it’s crushing to that individual athlete who is taken out of the boat. It’s very different from sports in which you get to compete alone. You can never celebrate what’s happening when it’s happening, until you actually win that medal. Fast-forwarding to the present and having the opportunity to tell the six crews that they will be inducted into the Hall of Fame is very fulfilling. When you speak to these individuals, you are hearing the same stories about the fierce commitments, the same drive. It’s fun to talk to people who were a part of something great. The National Rowing Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony allows us to really celebrate the excellence of the people who came before us in the sport.”

John: “The people! The friends I’ve made in rowing are some of the best people I know. And newer acquaintances that I have taught to row at a later age have become good friends and partners, in some respect. Between 1988 and 2009, I rarely rowed and while I maintained my membership and support of Vesper Boat Club, I was pretty much absent. I regret that period of absence, realizing upon returning in 2009 with some regularity how good these people are and how much fun rowing and the whole Boathouse Row experience is.

I am actually prepping to race at the San Diego Crew Classic with the boys in our boat from back in 1976. It’s our 40th anniversary of the Marietta College freshman eight, and 40 years later, most of us, though all over the country, are still very much in touch.

About ilink2media

iLink2Media is an International online platform that specializes in spotlighting the art of giving back. We are dedicated to promoting, encouraging and supporting Global Citizenship from Philanthropists, Executives, Politicians, World Leaders and Celebrities that relentlessly uplift various communities and make a positive impact on the lives of others.

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