Gill Perry Millsom at an NRF reception tent. Photo courtesy of Mara Ford
If you ask Gill Perry Millsom how she came to spend most of her life immersed in the rowing community, she will tell you that she married into it.
And that is mostly true.
Millsom was a riding coach at the Kent School, where her son, Colin Sykes, was enrolled and rowing on the crew team under the legendary Hart Perry, who was at the time the school's head rowing coach and athletic director.
She kept her distance from Perry - her son made it clear his coach didn't like talking to parents - but when she and Hart met at a dinner one evening, she learned that was not always the case. It was not long before they were dating, and then married, and Gill was accompanying Hart on spring training trips to Tampa, Florida, and driving his launch in practice.
For those that know her story, they are aware of how from the time she and Hart Perry were a couple, her involvement in rowing just continued to expand, until she was a permanent and key cog in the wheel that helped keep the National Rowing Foundation moving.
When Hart Perry left coaching and became the Executive Director of the NRF, Millsom worked behind the scenes, helping athletes get the funding they needed for training, writing letters and emails that Hart need to have done, and eventually became "team mom" for the US junior national team.
Gill Millsom in the finsh tower in Sarasota in 2017. Photo courtesy of Mara Ford
"There was no job Gill wouldn't do," said Mara Ford, who recently retired from her role as Executive Director at the NRF, and worked side-by-side with Millsom in her later years with the organization, especially after Hart Perry passed away in early 2011.
"She is the kind of person who will do anything, is kind to everybody, and will roll up her sleeves with you and do anything that was needed. If we had to put hay and plywood down because the floor at the Head of the Charles was leaking, she was right in there doing it.
"She had a no job was too big or too small' attitude," Ford said.
"I married into rowing," Millsom says to anyone who asked how she got that involved. "It became my life."
But the part of the story behind Millsom and her history in rowing, is that it goes a bit further back than the evening she met her son's coach.
Three years before she even moved to the US as a young women, she was smitten by the sport when she was invited to go with her parents to the Henley Royal Regatta to "meet an American family whose son was rowing in a Kent crew," being coached by then head coach Tote Walker.
As she recounted in a 2012 commencement address at Kent School: "I knew very little about rowing, but what I did know was that the rowers were very handsome, and American rowers, at that time, were quite a novelty for young English ladies. And Henley Royal Regatta was an established OK place to be at.”
That family happened to be named Gladstone, whose young son Steve, was rowing in the crew.
Three years later when she was 24, Millsom moved to the US to work as an au pair, taking care of Gladstone's two younger brothers, while Steve was rowing at Syracuse University.
Call it happenstance, or coincidence, but when there are that many casual ties to the world of rowing, it seems more like destiny. Gillian Perry Millsom was meant to be a lifelong - and much loved - member of the world wide rowing community.
This summer, after 28-years, Millsom finally "hung up my oar" and retired from her job as National Rowing Federation Executive Secretary and Assistant Treasurer.
While she will continue to be involved handling the American entries for the Henley Royal Regatta, Millsom now spends her days with her husband of four years, Bill Millsom, living in Connecticut, riding her horse Rowdy, playing golf, taking her two dogs out for walks, and bringing one to a local retirement home to visit the residents there.
It sounds like a full life for anyone in retirement, but it was only just a few weeks ago that Millsom finally stopped going to her computer and reading emails sent to her by rowing people. After all, she spent so many mornings beginning her day tending to the needs of the rowing world, that it took a while to break the habit.
"It's just feels weird not to," she said.
Gill Millsom. Photo courtesy of Mara Ford
To understand how a young women from England became so immersed in the US rowing community, it's worth telling the story of how it all happened, beginning with when the late Hart Perry wooed her, and then drew her into his launch.
By the time Millsom met her son's coach, she was already coaching riding at the Kent School. She was familiar with Perry, but kept her distance out of respect for her son's wishes that his mother did not cross the no parental communication line he told her Perry held.
But after they met and were married, Millsom began accompanying her coach husband to the school's Florida training trips. He drove the truck that pulled the trailer loaded with shells, and she rode with him.
During practice she drove the launch, while Perry coached the students. "I would go with him on the Kent spring trip to Tampa and I would drive his launch, which was absolutely fascinating to me because I had no idea how fast an eight actually went. If you are driving a launch, you've got to give full throttle to keep up, and I was not quite used to that."
Perry's involvement in rowing went far beyond his coaching at the Kent school, he was a president of the National Association of Amateur Oarsmen, the predecessor organization to USRowing, a Steward of the Henley Royal Regatta, a FISA and US referee, and a tireless champion of rowing and everyone who participated in it.
And that was the world that Millsom married into.
To that list of rowing involvement, Perry added NRF Executive Director, when the organization went through administrative changes in 1991, and so began Millsom's work with the NRF, which also coincided with those spring trips to Tampa. After the drive with the trailer, checking into the hotel and sprinting to the first practice to drive the launch, Gill went to work on NRF activities.
"In between practices, I had an old electric Imperial typewriter in my room in the hotel, and I would type letters for the National Rowing Foundation."
Her NRF work continued and grew and in 1995, the couple bought a home in North Stonington, Connecticut that had an office in the basement that was perfect for Millsom to work in.
"We moved here in July of 1995, right after Henley that year, and this house had a wonderful office in the basement. It looked like a prison cell, but it was an office. So, there we were, Hart was the executive director, and he would spend the days upstairs and make phone calls, while I was in the basement typing letters. For 15 years, I stayed down there and typed."
Millsom's work for the NRF involved much more than just typing letters. She also kept the records on gifts and donations made to the organization, and handled the books for the athlete accountants.
"At the NRF, Gill has been the heart and soul of the organization," said NRF co-chairman Jamie Koven. "She knows all the long term donors and she has been responsible for acknowledging their gifts and was always happy to talk to our loyal donors on the phone and at events," he said.
"Gill wasn't originally a rower but she learned to love the sport and the people in the sport through Hart. After Hart passed away, Gill immediately told me that she wanted to stay on with the NRF because it had become such an important part of her life. And we've been absolutely delighted to have her on board," Koven said.
While donors were a major part of who Millsom interacted with, she loved working with athletes.
"When athletes were in training, we collected the receipts they would send in for reimbursement from the NRF. I did that for years, and I got to meet so many of those athletes in that time period, and I really felt they were my friends" Millsom said. "I would get their Wegmans bills, and they would call me, and it was a lot of fun."
Life changed for Millsom in February of 2011 when Perry fell ill on a trip to London where he was to be honored by FISA. He left for London just after attending the Power 10 Dinner, while Gill remained home.
On the trip, Perry became sicker and never recovered. He flew back to the US and when he finally made it home, Millsom immediately called an ambulance and had him taken to a hospital, where he died.
"After Hart died, two things happened. Anne Martin came to visit. She was at that time co-chair (of the NRF) with Dick Cashin, and Anne came to visit me and said we really don't know what we're going to do without Hart, but we really would like for you to continue. So, I went on doing what I was doing."
The only difference was that Millsom went from volunteer to an NRF staff member, and began working closely with Mara Ford putting together special events.
"Hart was very, very fond of Mara, and really wanted to work with her, and so Mara came on board. Mara and I were really super keen, we really worked together well.
"Rowing had become my life, I really didn't know how to do anything else. Well I did, really, but I would get up in the morning, and go to my desk, and sit at my desk all day and work. When Hart died, the rowing family, besides my own family, the rowing world was a huge family and just embraced me with open arms."
Gill Millsom at a NRF reception. Photo courtesy of Mara Ford
Millsom's role changed somewhat just after Hart's death and she became am NRF ambassador of sorts, traveling with the Junior National Team and helping to begin a parent and athlete support effort for the NRF.
"Hart felt that the Under23 and junior levels were vital to the development of US athletes," said Ford. Ford said the NRF began forming parent support groups at the senior level, and when it was time to expand it to the junior level, she turned to Millsom.
"They are really the group that needs it the most, because they are the most high maintenance parents; the kids are young, and they are traveling overseas," Ford said.
"When we decided to form the juniors group Hart had already died, and Gill said she would like to do that. She said there is nothing more I would like than go and be the team mom," Ford said.
"She traveled with the team, she had a credential, stayed in the team hotel. She set up driver groups and reached out to all the parents. She helped with ticket distribution, and if there was a kid who was sick and needed medicine, she would go into the boat area, bring the medicine, find the kid, and report back to the parent.
"She was one-hundred percent available to the parents 24/7. Everybody knew her," Ford said. "She was there with a smile on her face, and the kids loved her, and the parents loved her. It was perfect."
It was also perfect for Millsom.
"I loved the traveling, I loved the athletes, and I became very fond of the parent group. It was really was my life."
Last fall while participating in a Head of the Charles reception, Ford told Millsom that she was leaving the NRF, and that was when Millsom decided to begin planning to retire.
"I had always said when Mara leaves I was going to leave, because she and I were a complete team and became great friends," she said. Millsom said she agreed to stay in her role through the summer.
She kept her promise, and while at Henley, where she was once again in attendance and handling the American entries, a surprise farewell sendoff was hosted at Leander Club on July 4th.
It is usually a reception organized for American teams, families and coaches, and run in part by Millsom, but this year she was less involved than usual. "I didn't think I was doing a good job, but turns out that Jamie (Koven, a Henley Steward, and NRF co-chair with Marcia Hooper) had taken over the whole thing and it was a farewell party for me.
"It was absolutely so overwhelming who showed up - the American coaches, and athletes, the parents, it was really wonderful. It was just amazing, I couldn't believe it. I was very overwhelmed."
In the days after she retired, Millsom has found herself wandering toward her computer in the morning, and thinking about doing rowing work. She said she has begun to ease away from that and now spends her time riding Rowdy, playing golf, "and being a wife to my husband."
"I still get emails," she said. "But, it's pretty much calmed down now. Still, it all feels really weird."
Gill Millsom at Henley. Photo courtesy of Mara Ford