The Charles River flowed by on a bright afternoon. The two rowers looked out upon it, squinting through their sunglasses, watching a scull glide toward the setting sun on the wings of its oars.
“Just being on the water is a fabulous thing,” said Jim Dietz, the Hall of Fame rower who starred for Northeastern a half-century ago. “I’m lucky that a majority of the jobs that I’ve had have been on the water.”
“That’s what rowing is,” said Mark Wilson, who competed at Northeastern in 1990-91 after transferring on Dietz’s recommendation. “It’s a lifelong sport.”
The two Huskies returned to Boston last month to run one of their All-American Rowing Camps. Their idea of providing high-level coaching to experienced rowers has grown into a full-time business of 25 to 35 camps around the world annually. This year marks their 20th anniversary in business together.
Their partnership was drawn from Wilson’s senior thesis in entrepreneurship at Northeastern.
“It was on the business of rowing,” Wilson said. “It was about making more out of rowing than just coaching it at the collegiate or high-school level—which is what we’re doing now. We treat them the way we would want to be treated, with good service and personal attention. And we make it fun.”
Dietz and Wilson will be holding upcoming camps in Portugal, Florida, Croatia, and Slovenia. Business is thriving now, but in the early going they wondered if it would work.
“The first winter camp is the one my wife always tells the story about,” Wilson said. “We had eight people signed up in Tampa. We were worried that we weren’t going to fill it.”
The sport has grown exponentially—driven by the popularity of women’s rowing, Dietz noted—and they’ve done their part, entrepreneurially, to drive those gains. The ages of their campers range from the mid-30s to the late-70s. In their aim for a ratio of one coach for every four or five rowers, Dietz and Wilson will hire in one or two additional coaches to help run each camp.
Close to 85 percent of their clients keep returning, said Wilson, and many of them are coaches who have been drawn to the camps by the aura of Dietz, who rowed in three Olympics and coached American teams in another three (as well as at many World Rowing Championships). Dietz and Wilson use videos from an overhead drone as well as from a range-of-motion coaching app to break down each rower’s stroke. But the real strength of the camp derives from their hard-earned ability to recognize weaknesses and convert them, simply and constructively, into strengths.
“The thing that Jim does so well is that he keeps it all relative to each athlete,” Wilson said. “He’s so experienced that he can give the right amount of information to the master athlete or the newer athlete. A lot of coaches will talk over their athletes, and Jim never does that.”
Dietz coached for more than three decades at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, the U.S. Coast Guard Academy (where he coached Wilson for two years), and the University of Massachusetts. Wilson has coached collegiately at Massachusetts, Indiana University and Stetson University.
“All of the campers—whether they’re getting Mark in the morning or me in the afternoon—are getting a reinforcement of the same message,” Dietz said. “I just love it when they come off the water knowing that they’ve improved, knowing that they’ve figured something out.”
Both Dietz and Wilson will be returning to Boston Oct. 19 to compete in the 55th Head Of The Charles regatta. Dietz will be making his 54th appearance, and now that his most recent birthday has moved him into the age 70-to-75 bracket, he is aiming for his 23rd win at the Head Of The Charles as a “young” entry in his singles category. Dietz will also race in a four-man boat with Wilson and two other protegés.
“We’ve shared a lot over the years,” Wilson said of Dietz. “We go fishing together. We’ve driven across the country a couple of times. I’ve got a mentor coach who is just a fantastic guy, and I can call him up anytime I want. Our friendship is pretty special.”
There is a timelessness to their vocation, an organic and restorative quality to the work they do. And their campers have not been the only beneficiaries.