Tucked away in a Chickahominy Riverfront Park boathouse lies one of Williamsburg’s hidden gems: the Williamsburg Boat Club.
The club originated in the 1980s, but it was very on and off until head coach Tom Rooks came along.
In 2014, Rooks had an idea to create a competitive middle school rowing team for the club.
“It’s hard to stay worthy of coaching these kids. It’s a life challenge. We are constantly researching better ways to coach,” Rooks said. “These kids are a generation that show a great amount of vulnerability daily, and I’m lucky to be able to witness them.”
Rooks began his own rowing venture in high school. At first he did it because he was tired of getting hurt in competitive sports, but it soon turned into something more.
“I was basically sick of getting hurt in basketball, and all the cool girls I knew were rowing. I thought it was worth trying,” he said. “My fathers and grandfathers were rowers, but I wasn’t really raised around them much; I just knew they had rowed.”
“Sometime around my third practice, my grandfather passed when I was a sophomore, and I felt like something was pushing me,” Rooks continued.
After that, the 47-year-old rower embarked on his 22-year career with the U.S. Coast Guard. He continued coaching rowing until Sept. 11, 2001. After that, he didn’t have much time, until he was able to start the middle school team in 2014.
Along with being the club’s head coach, Rooks is also a health and well-being associate for US Rowing.
“It combines my coaching career with my Coast Guard career. It’s me trying to get back to the sport I love and help our rowers be safer,” he said.
The Williamsburg Boat Club also has two other competitive programs: high school and master teams.
“What’s great about our rowers is that the high school kids will help us coach the middle school kids. They help the middle schoolers get their boats in the water and hang out with them,” said WBC president and coach Bruce Lifka. “Our highest-level kids engage with our most impressionable rowers. It’s great to see the teamwork.”
Rooks joined in to explain a tradition with the girl rowers.
“The girls on the team always make matching hair bows for the new women. Before the first regatta, they get these handmade fancy ribbon things. It’s just something they do,” Rooks said. “It’s become a tradition. Our kids legitimately care about each other in meaningful ways, and I don’t take that lightly.”
WBC is entering this season with about 50 middle schoolers, 70 high schoolers and 55 adults — the highest it’s been since the pandemic. COVID — which hit at the start of the club’s spring season, right when it would start making money — was a challenging time for everybody, from the rowers to the coaches, which include William & Mary grad students, Lifka said.
“In the face of COVID, the kids figured out their ‘why.’ If they didn’t know it before, they soon came to terms with it,” Rooks said.
Rooks, now retired from the Coast Guard, said one of his favorite things about the program is how close he gets with his rowers. It’s not a seasonal relationship. To him, it’s one that lasts a lifetime.
“They’ll always be my kids. I tell them that their lives are like a tapestry — it’s going to unfold,” Rooks said. “They’re going to have their triumphs and failures. No matter what, because I was their coach, I’m going to have my little stitch in the corner of it.”
A favorite story is about one of his old rowers, Nate Baker.
“We had this kid that rowed for us who is just an amazing young man. After his freshman year at Texas A&M, they hired him as a head coach,” he said. “The college sophomore got hired with 75 athletes on that team.”
One thing many rowers love about WBC is how their boathouse becomes a safe haven. During COVID, rowers would show up for practice and have a picnic out on the dock.
“It’s truly not about me; it’s about what we do,” Rooks said. “One of the athletes I talked to in a time of crisis said, ‘Coach, I don’t want you to know this. But whenever I drive home to visit my family, I go to the boathouse first.’”
The boat club always welcomes new rowers. No experience is necessary, but what everyone learns, Rooks said, is invaluable.
“If we do it right, we are not eight rowers — we are one boat. The quicker you get to that level of letting go, the better you’ll get,” Rooks said. “You taste that feeling once, and you’ll chase it for a lifetime.”
The Williamsburg Boat Club’s first home regatta of the season, Head of the Chick, is on Oct. 16. For more information or to donate, visit www.williamsburgboatclub.org. For those interested in a sponsorship, email anyone on the club’s “Contact Us” tab.
Abbey Crank, firstname.lastname@example.org