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The Rainmaker

BY JEN WHITING
PHOTOS BY ANTHONY TULLIANI

Oarlocks have more control than a piece of plastic probably should. They cradle your blade, encouraging you to complete each stroke before taking the next one. They provide a platform for your oars, keeping them properly in place as you propel your boat forward. They act as the fulcrum from which all movement happens—that single point of contact that allows you to become bigger than you are, more powerful and more complete. And yet each stroke must be finished before you can take another, each arc of the blade must be allowed to yield its fullest potential before you release it from the water to begin again. 

This rule of completing one stroke before starting another is often true in life, too. Many times, one door doesn’t open until you’ve completely closed another, leaving you suspended on the drive, so to speak, as you wait for your blade’s momentum to create that feeling of “send” as it releases from the water. For Fred Schoch—“Pronounced like shock, as in electric shock,” he says with a smile—the long-running executive director of the Head of the Charles Regatta, this rule of completing one thing before starting another has been absolutely true, and it led him to where he is now.

On a Sunday afternoon in September—the Sunday in September when the Head of the Charles Regatta entries are due—I asked Schoch how he got to where he is now, leading the ultimate destination event for thousands of rowers around the world. He smiles and says, “How long do you have?” It’s early in the interview, but already he’s chuckling, a round, full laugh that fills the room and is entirely humble. “You have to know where I’m from to understand why I’m here.” I nod, encouraging him, “I’ve got time.”

“I’m from a long line of rowers,” he begins. “My father was at the University of Washington in the 1930s. He rowed in the “Boys in the Boat” boat for his first two years. He went to the 1936 Olympics as the spare man. He was born and raised in Washington, like so many of those guys.” Schoch keeps going, the story spilling out. “I was recruited to row at Washington, but I’m getting ahead of myself. First, my father, after finishing college at Washington, coached at Princeton. I was born in the Princeton hospital and grew up, essentially, at the university’s boathouse. I coxed for my father’s crews when I was 10, 11 years old.” As Schoch talks, I wonder what today’s college crews would think of an 11-year-old coxswain. “Then I learned to scull. I went to the Kent School—that’s a great rowing school. Steve Gladstone went there a few years ahead of me.” He pauses for a moment. “That’s how I came to be in rowing.”

“I’m from a long line of rowers. My father was at the University of Washington in the 1930s. He rowed in the “Boys in the Boat” boat for his first two years. He went to the 1936 Olympics as the spare man.”

­–Fred Schoch

At the University of Washington, Schoch majored in English literature. “Never has a day passed that I regret majoring in English literature. It taught me how to write.” Schoch completed a master’s degree in English in Colorado and then taught high school English for four years at the Kent School and the Belmont Hill School. “While I was teaching, I got the bug to get in the coach’s launch” he says. “I first coached at the Kent School, under Hart Perry, who had been my coach when I was a student there. Then I migrated to Boston and taught and coached at Belmont Hill.”

At this point in the story, I assume Schoch gets involved with the Head of the Charles Regatta and then rises through the ranks to become its executive director over time. I was wrong. Schoch’s oarlock hadn’t yet completed its swing; he would have to finish one stroke completely and trust that he’d find the water again, before coming into the job he calls “my perfect job.”

“I wanted to try coaching, to see what else was out there.” Schoch chuckles again, remembering, “When you have an English literature degree, you have to figure out how to make it. Up until then, when I asked myself how I was going to share my love of Victorian literature with the world, I taught—I loved the classroom. That’s also what made me a good coach. I was passionate. I communicated that passion.” 

Schoch transitioned into the world of coaching, doing one-year stints at Connecticut College and Princeton University. “When Korzo [Kris Korzeniowski] left Princeton to coach internationally in 1981, I got the chance to go home, as it were. I coached the Princeton women for a year. We won the Ivy champs that year. Korzo was supposed to come back after one year, so I took a job on campus in admissions at Princeton. I learned how to read applications and was on the road for 10 weeks in the fall, visiting high schools.” Schoch explains that he felt out of place in the admissions office. “I felt like a turnstile. I wasn’t teaching. In the spring, I’d sneak down to the boathouse every afternoon and coach the 3V boat for Larry Gluckman, the men’s heavy[weight] coach at the time. I thought, ‘This is nuts. I have to get back to coaching.’” 

Schoch and his wife then went to the Naval Academy for two years. “I had two really great years as the Plebe coach—winning back-to-back silvers at the IRAs. Then the head coach position for Georgetown opened up and I got it. I coached there for two years and also coached for the national team in the summers.” Schoch clearly is at home in a coach’s launch. “During the summers, I got to hang out with Curtis Jordan, Larry Gluckman, Korzo. It was really a rewarding experience.”

In 1987, Schoch coached the U.S. junior men to gold in Koln, Germany, the first world title in the eight for the U.S. junior men’s team. In 1988, Schoch coached the Olympic development team in Lake Placid, N.Y., and in 1989, Korzeniowski asked Schoch to coach the women’s eight at the world championships. “I gave Yaz [Farooq] her first job coxing the U.S. eight,” he recalls, “and now she’s coaching at my alma mater.” At the end of Schoch’s second year as head coach at Georgetown, he was planning to coach for the national team during the summer again, but his athletic director objected to Schoch’s summer schedule. “If I coached the national team that summer, I would be late getting back for the fall swim test for the crew team before the semester started. The AD didn’t like that too much.” 

And it’s here that the oarlock comes through its swing and releases the blade from the water. Schoch quit Georgetown. “If he didn’t value what I was doing, I knew I had to make a change. I quit and went to Bled for the summer to coach the national team.” Schoch takes a breath. “My wife wasn’t very happy with me.” Schoch and his wife had two young children by this time and he had just walked away from a salaried coaching position. The weight of the blade on the recovery can feel heavy sometimes, especially if you’re not sure where it will catch the water next.

“When I got back from the world championships, I started looking for a job,” Schoch says. “One day, I got a call from Bill Miller in Boston. He told me that a New York nonprofit, Scenic Hudson, wanted to create a regatta on the Hudson River in Peekskill Bay to promote the environment. They hired me to put it together. That’s where I started to get experience running an event.” Schoch is still a few years away from being hired as the executive director of the Head of the Charles, but already his speech is changing a bit; there’s a sense of completeness as he talks about running a rowing event. I know, from the intensity that has just been amped up, that he sees it as more than an event that spans a few days in people’s lives. Regattas are ideas, goals to train for, the ultimate competitive stage on which to prove oneself. 

“You know who was on the steering committee of that first regatta?” Schoch asks. “George Pataki. He was an assemblyman then. We used to sit on the back porch of his farm in Peekskill making plans for the regatta, the Challenge of the Hudson.” Schoch goes on, “That’s where I cut my teeth—selling sponsorships, learning how to deliver value to corporations, learning how to support an event.” The Challenge of the Hudson lasted for two years before poor water and current conditions brought it to an end. Then, in the summer of 1991, the Head of the Charles Regatta, which has its offices in the Cambridge Boat Club (CBC), just next to the Eliot Bridge, was looking for a new executive director. The English literature major who was a passionate coach and who had begun to understand event support and sponsorship, applied for it. “The rest has been 29 years of fun,” Schoch says. Sometimes quitting one job is the only way to find the job that will become 29 years of fun.

The Head of the Charles Regatta began in 1965 as the brainchild of three members of CBC and the new head coach at Northeastern University, Briton Ernie Arlett. The race was modeled after the Head of the River race in England. Schoch explains that the phrase “Head of the Charles” originally meant the winner of the race became the head of the Charles River, not the style of racing (long distances in a time-trial start). The inaugural regatta had 82 boats and 228 competitors.

“Over the years I’ve been here [since 1991], we’ve doubled the boats and tripled the number of athletes. We’ve created new boat categories. We’ve added a second day.” I ask him if it was the growth of the event that perpetuated the addition of Sunday to the schedule. “Yes, some, but mostly it was because in 1996 we had the 100-year storm. That was the worst day of my professional life.” 

“Over the years I’ve been here [since 1991], we’ve doubled the boats and tripled the number of athletes. We’ve created new boat categories. We’ve added a second day.”

­–Fred Schoch

Indeed, in 1996, the entire regatta was cancelled due to a storm that rolled through Boston. “It was almost a hurricane. Magazine Beach, which was, at the time, the total staging area for the regatta, was a mud pit. We had to winch trucks out of there. We cancelled the races one at a time until 11 a.m. I knew then it wasn’t safe to put boats on the water.” I asked him what he did next. “I called Harry Parker,” Schoch says. “We got the coaches together and decided we needed to cancel everything. They were pumping two million gallons of water per minute out of the [Charles River] Basin. The Green Line subway flooded. The water was going through the arches like crazy. We knew it wasn’t safe. The next year, we added a second day to the schedule.”

I ask Schoch what it is about the Head of the Charles Regatta that makes it so important to so many rowers. “It’s the confluence of many things,” he says. “It’s the way the regatta has been run: prudently, carefully, creatively. My board of directors is awesome. My staff and all the volunteers are amazing. And it’s the idea: this river, seven bridges, two reverse turns.” 

Schoch explains that his job is bifurcated. “I’m the event director as well as the executive director responsible for the business side of the regatta. I’ve had quite a run developing the corporate presence, but we’re victims of our own success and people think it’s easy,” he says, “much like the [Boston] Marathon.” Here he pauses and reflects. “They have over $7 million in entry fees and another $8 million from sponsors. The Head of the Charles Regatta runs on a $3 million budget.” Every year, Schoch says he and Mason Cox, his assistant director, cold-call over 500 companies, just to convert a few to sponsors. “It took me three years to secure Brooks Brothers. Now they are a major sponsor and give us not only support but $200,000 worth of jackets for our volunteers.” Schoch laughs a bit, “Our volunteers used to get a T-shirt.” The Head of the Charles Regatta volunteer jackets are highly coveted, and only able to be earned through volunteer work before, during, and after the regatta. 

The regatta is run by a full-time staff of five, a 15-person board of directors, 12 race committee members, and more than 90 race ops volunteers who make up myriad race committees that in turn oversee hundreds of volunteers on-site during the event. Schoch is the executive director, Mason Cox is the assistant director, Priscilla Livingston is the director of operations, Annalise Routenberg is the operations assistant and volunteer coordinator, and Tom Martin is the chief financial officer. “Tom’s invaluable and has been here longer than I have,” Schoch says.

Schoch explains that selling sponsorships and attracting companies to support the regatta is what he and his team have worked on consistently. “We have a specific demographic. We are what we are,” he says, directly. “Our stripes are pronounced. We’re an affluent sport and we’ve done well with affluent brands.” Schoch and his team manage a regatta that is continually over-subscribed, with more entries than the schedule can accommodate. “We’re trying to squeeze in time next year for an under-17 youth eight event. We currently turn away 70 percent of our youth entries.” I ask Schoch what he does during the regatta itself. Without hesitation, he says, “I race.” A quick laugh follows, but it’s true. Schoch will be racing in a 70+ men’s eight this year. Without my team, I couldn’t do that.” 

I can hear the rest of his team moving around the office on this Sunday afternoon and know his time is limited. “What’s next?” I ask. A deep laugh fills the air between us.

“Twenty-nine years ago I fell into the job that is perfect for me—passion, sport, connection. I’m having fun. My board of directors, the staff, the race committees—everybody—we’re so committed and connected. We’ve just got such a great group of people. I don’t know what I’d do if I stopped.” Schoch hums a bit under his breath, almost unnoticeable. “There’s some travel my Katie and I want to do, some health issues to deal with, maybe New Zealand for the holidays, a return to coaching would be something…” He trails off here, but I can tell he’s not done with his thought.

“This article can’t be my swan song,” he says. “I’m not done yet.”  

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