The Captain of His Own Ship

Each morning, Peter Wilhelm sets out in a powerboat from Narragansett Boat Club to accompany his rowers on Rhode Island’s Seekonk River. Gone are the days when his single was a sufficient vessel to follow his pupils. Now, Wilhelm, a volunteer coach, runs an ambitious schedule, sometimes managing three practices in one day.

The success he has experienced with his junior athletes started out in the most average of ways. Want to learn how to scull? Just show up. What started out as a small band of junior rowers following Wilhelm down the Seekonk River quickly became something much greater.

For his contributions to the sport, Peter Wilhelm is this year’s recipient of the John J. Carlin Service Award, presented to an individual who has made significant commitments in the support of rowing. Wilhelm’s selfless pursuit of teaching the art of sculling continues to create some of the top athletes in the country.

The 2016 campaign was a successful one for Wilhelm. At the USRowing Youth National Championships, eight Narragansett crews raced in the A finals, taking home two gold and one bronze medal. At the 2016 World Rowing Championships, five athletes called the NBC boathouse home including Eliza Kallfelz who became one of the few athletes to have competed at both a junior and under 23 world rowing championship in the same year. Anders Weiss, the youngest rower on the 2016 Olympic team, made his start at NBC before he went on to race in the pair on the Lagoa de Freitas in Rio de Janeiro.

Despite his success, Wilhelm’s objective does not revolve around producing high-performance athletes. 

“For me, it’s nice to see the kids reach the goals that they have set,” said Wilhelm. “It will be nice to follow them along and see what they do in the future, whether they pursue it to a higher level or not.”

This serene, yet powerful, philosophy holds true throughout his coaching, from new rowers to elite alike, where he takes pride in leading a diverse group. 

“New rowers come to me in different ways. As far as my coaching goes, I leave it up to them. I don’t tell them what to do a lot; I liked my independence when I was a junior at the club, and I keep that in mind. 

“The kids want to move fast, so I let the drive come from them. I think it is easier to take responsibility for your actions and goals if you have the choice to do so.”

Aside from his impressive coaching record, Wilhelm’s impact on the Narragansett Boat Club is felt by all. His care for the equipment and desire to consistently maintain high standards have helped bring Narragansett to rowing prominence. From repairing dated, broken boats to building a training barge on his own (a barge that has lasted 20 years and is still used today), the reach of Wilhelm’s commitment to the club and the sport of rowing knows no bounds.

Like his philosophy in the boat, Peter’s mentality comes from his passion to be his own person, to run his own course, to be the captain of his own ship.

“I am retired and a volunteer, and that is perfect for me. The success has been good, but it is usually just the small things that make this worthwhile. On a simpler note, my favorite thing might be just having some good banter with the kids I coach.”

The John J. Carlin Service Award is among several awards that will be presented Saturday, December 3, at the USRowing Annual Awards Reception at the Springfield Convention Center in Springfield, Mass. For more information about the reception, visit www.usrowing.org.

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