The Most Be-Medaled, the Most Loyal of HOCR Rowers

Many-Time Champion Jim Dietz Has Rowed in 49 of 50 HOCRs

By Andrew MacDougall Published on October 21, 2014

A 50-year love affair between Jim Dietz and the Head of the Charles Regatta began with the most inconvenient of circumstances.

In 1965, as a 15-year-old sculler for the New York Athletic Club, Dietz and a handful of teammates packed into a ’56 Chevy on Columbus Day weekend and shipped up to Boston. A head race had been born on the banks of the Charles River, and the NYAC wished to make its presence felt.

But as they neared the end of the Massachusetts Turnpike, on the cusp of Boston’s city limits, the Chevy deemed it had gone far enough. The car broke down, stranding the out-of-towners.

The team got a hold of the late Jack Sulger, president of the National Association of Amateur Oarsmen and the longtime NYAC coach.

“This was before cell phones,” Dietz said, “so we had to get off the road, call up our coach and say, ‘Coach, the car broke down. [Sulger’s] response was, ‘Take the plates off of it and hitchhike into Boston.’”

The team thumbed it the last few miles and stayed with Sulger’s son, Francis, who was a student at Harvard Law.

For Dietz, it was the beginning of a half-century of memories, friends, and personal achievements. Over the years, he’s competed in every Head Of The Charles minus one – in 1984, when he was sidelined following back surgery.

Now 50 years removed from the inaugural Head Of The Charles Regatta, there is still no event that means more to Dietz.

“My favorite regattas are the Charles’s,” Dietz said. “I really enjoy them. I tell people this is an American rowing tailgate, and its because you can walk all over this place and you know everybody.”

Like any true native of the Bronx, Dietz grew up with an affinity for basketball. Alas, when he squared up against players like a young Lew Alcindor—now Kareem Abdul Jabbar—in CYO basketball games, he thought better of his professional pursuits.

Rowing was the next logical option.

“It was just something I was good at right from the beginning,” Dietz said. “It was something where if you worked hard, you got fast. With the atmosphere around the NYAC, [there was] this feeding-frenzy of guys trying to work hard against each other to go faster.”

While a high school student at St. Helena’s High School for Boys (Now Monsignor Scanlan High), Dietz trained against U.S. Olympian and world champion Don Spero, Dietz himself training for the Junior World Championships. The pursuit of Spero brought out the best in Dietz, who won all United States and Canadian Scholastic Championships in single and double sculls from 1964 through 1967. He capped his 1967 season with the first Junior World Championship in single sculls at Ratzeburg, Germany.

Already boasting a Ruthian resume, when it came time to choose a college, the more natural fit wasn’t exactly the most expected.

“I picked Northeastern University because Ernie Arlett, the coach there, was a sculling coach,” Dietz said. “That fit my profile better than the Penns or the Yales or whatever because I knew down the line, the long-term picture was I’m going to the Olympics.”

And for a time, there was rarely an Olympic team absent Dietz. He was a member of U.S. Olympic entries in 1972, 1976 and 1980, and manned a spot with the U.S. National Team from 1967 until 1983.

He set a world best time of 7:02.43 at the Internationale Rotsee Regatta in Lucerne, Switzerland, the site of his favorite racecourse. Along the way, Dietz became one of the most decorated participants in the history of the Head of the Charles, winning the champions singles seven times, the champ doubles seven times, and the champ eights twice while rowing at Northeastern .

In total, Dietz accumulated 45 United States and 37 Canadian national championship titles.

For the past 30 years, while still maintaining a formidable presence in masters and veterans races, Dietz had directed most of his energies towards teaching the next generation of scullers and rowers.

In 1985, he left his job on Wall Street to become coach at the United States Coast Guard Academy, staying nine years. For the past 21 years, Dietz has coached the University of Massachusetts women’s rowing team, making the Minutewomen one of the elite programs in the country.

“When they first hired me as a coach we didn’t even have boats for the women,” Dietz said. “I was borrowing boats from friends of mine just to be able to keep these gals on the water.

“It’s come a long way, to the point where it’s probably going to keep me in coaching a little bit longer because they built me this brand new boathouse, so my life is really easy right now.”

His latest passion is helping coach coaches, teaching a younger generation the ins and outs of coaching the world’s elite rowing talents.

Dietz’s fourth-place finish in the men’s Veterans II category in this year’s 50 Regatta is maybe a little off what he so regularly did in his prime. But it has gotten him one year closer to his next Head Of The Charles goal.

“What I really want to achieve,” Dietz said, flashing his trademark grin, “is I want to be racing here in the 75th Head Of The Charles.”

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