Olympic rower, multi-year national champion and World Masters champion, CRASH-B winner, rowing coach, National Rowing Foundation executive director, and perhaps especially multi-time Head Of The Charles champion Charlie Hamlin passed away on Sunday; he was 74 years old.
Charlie dedicated his life to our sport, and to try to outline it in prose is too daunting a task, so here is a bullet list about which I can say that Charlie brought his full self to every one of these.
Among Charlie's accomplishments:
- EARC Varsity 8 champion
- Three-time US team member; 1968 Olympics, 1969 and 1970 Worlds
- Member of the 1968 Olympic Team in the men's four
- 1970 Harvard grad
- Countless masters championships and medals in the US and worldwide
- Multi-uber-time Head Of The Charles winner in sweep and sculling boats
- Notably, Charlie was stroke of a heap of Team Attager HOCR Champions
- Coach at the Groton School
- President of Friends of Harvard Rowing
- Board member at Cambridge Boat Club, Upper Thames, and Norwalk Rowing clubs
- Executive Director of the National Rowing Foundation from 2014-2018
- 2019 USRowing Man of the Year (video here)
- Charlie was very accomplished professionally as well
In all these roles, Charlie did more in and for the sport of rowing than most know, working tirelessly to support numerous organizations and efforts while still putting in a good pull on the oar every time he got in the boat.
Jamie Koven, co-chair of the National Rowing Foundation, said "We are incredibly saddened to hear of Charlie's passing. Charlie's energy and devotion to the sport of rowing was unparalleled at all levels. He knew how to get the most out of rowing himself, but Charlie desperately wanted the current generation of national team athletes to get that opportunity too, so he spread the word. While leading the NRF Charlie summed up his passion at all fundraising occasions with his favorite expression 'it's all about the athletes.'"
But despite all his achievements and good acts in our sport, what Charlie will be remembered for, at least for me, was being one of those people you meet now and again who are simply great to be around.
I came to know Charlie pretty well as a friend, and the thing that always struck me was that, where there are many in our rowing ranks who are driven, intense, accomplished, and not always awesome to be around, Charlie was driven to achieve and win in a way that seemed always to pivot most powerfully on doing your best, being with friends, and having fun. For me, this was what made Charlie different, remarkable, and so incredibly fortunate to have as a friend. I already miss him tremendously.
Ellen and Charlie hiking in British Columbia a couple years ago (photo thanks to Ellen Kennelly)
In recent years Charlie 'retired' to the shores of Lake Whatcom in Washington with his beloved wife and rowing partner Ellen Kennelly, on whom he bragged endlessly, to be closer to his children; upon arriving he immediately joined the rowing club, took long bike rides, skied, and lots more, and whenever we spoke exclaimed his great fortune to have retired to such a beautiful spot.
In our conversations about rowing, the last of which we had just a couple weeks ago, I was struck with how broadly Charlie was devoted to the art and science of the sport, constantly tinkering with oar lengths, blade sizes, stroke ratings and stroke length, and more in search of ways to maintain his fitness and boat speed as the years passed. He was pretty good at it.
As many know, Charlie suffered a heart attack in June 2018 which his heart stopped beating, but before Labor Day had raced at Masters Nationals and Masters Worlds, and of course two months later at the Head Of The Charles, with his one concession being to sit in the bow seat rather than his usual spot in the stroke seat.
The Four Horsemen in the bow four: Charlie, Roger Borggaard, Chuck Pieper, Fred Schoch in the 2021 Team Attager eight
Here is our feature with Charlie at the 2018 Head Of The Charles: Not Even Almost Dying Stops Charlie Hamlin From Rowing
Also, a video Interview: Nothing will stop Charlie Hamlin from rowing the Head of the Charles—not even a heart attack
Some of Charlie's closest rowing friends agreed to offer remembrances of Charlie; thank you to Steve Brooks, Fred Schoch, and Roger Borggaard for their help remembering and saying goodbye to Charlie.
Steve Brooks was Charlie's college roommate, Olympic boatmate, and lifelong friend - all because Steve forgot his running shoes:
"I first met Charlie freshman fall, 1966, at Newell Boathouse. Charlie was a walk-on, a big strong discus thrower and wrestler from Chaumont, NY by way of St. Albans School in Washington, DC, likely recruited from the freshmen registration line by our coach. We were separated into two groups - Charlie's group was to row for a stretch in the tanks and my group was to run the circuit between Eliot and Anderson bridges. But I had no running shoes. Charlie immediately offered me his and off I went. I came to realize over the years that that was the signature, emblematic Charlie-gesture: immediately and cheerfully offering up something of his to help another.
"We were roommates and boatmates for our last three years in college. Both of us rowed in the Mexico City Games in the fall of 1968. Over the next 50+ years we had countless adventures rowing, hiking, biking, skiing and sailing as our families grew. Charlie was always the source of so much enjoyment through the years of our friendship, over the last decade and half with Ellen his wife, soul-mate and double partner. And over the years with Julie, Alex, Ben, and Elise.
"He has friends in rowing and business stretching across the continents. He was surely one of the most highly decorated masters rowers ever. He was a lover of poems, songs and the written word. I owe to him my love of the poetry of Robert W. Service. Charlie was a singularly wonderful man, full of fun, joy, friendship and love. I will miss him terribly."
Charlie in the 8-seat of the 2010 Team Attager 8
Fred Schoch rowed with Charlie in countless fours, quads, and eights over nearly a couple decades as members of The Four Horsemen:
"During my tenure as director of the HOCR, I've met literally thousands of oarsmen and women, and I can honestly say none showed more passion for rowing than Charlie. His zeal for the sport was unmatched, and he was a joy to have as a friend and boatmate. But he wasn't just a fierce competitor, he was an engaging, multifaceted man with a huge spirit for life and all of its challenges. He was most generous with his time and always humble in victory.
"Nearly 20 years ago now, Roger Borggaard, Chuck Pieper, Charlie, and I found ourselves training daily out of Cambridge Boat Club, and we soon picked up the nickname The Four Horsemen. We were inseparable and became lifelong friends in the process. Soon, the Four Horsemen became the nucleus of Team Attager, which for many years dominated the 50+, 60+ and then 70+ Master's Eight at the Head. Charlie was always the leader of this group and stroked us to the winner's circle more than a dozen times.
"One favorite memory I have about Charlie is when we were competing at the Heineken Regatta in Amsterdam about six years ago. The format is three races in two days, with the middle distance and sprints on Saturday, and the 5k distance on Sunday, and the times from all three events combined to determine the finish order.
Generally, after the combined results of Saturday are tabulated, the order of finish is pretty well sorted out. In this episode, we had badly managed the very important sprint piece and were a daunting 12.5 seconds behind going into the final day.
"As we were about to boat up to race, Charlie called a team meeting in the boat bay and gave us a speech I'll never forget. He threw down the gauntlet and said he was going to be damned if we didn't row our very best and try to win the 5k. Needless to say, we had an inspired piece and ended up winning overall by a full second. It was all Charlie... pure drive and confidence that he passed on to us that enabled us to win."
Roger Borggaard worked and rowed with Charlie nearly every day for over 20 years:
"We had competed against each other in the trials in 1968, and I ran into him years later at the Montreal Masters. Then as time passed, we had a startup company (Cambridge Water Technology) and Charlie came in as the president, so I worked with him for 10 years; I rowed with him in the morning and worked with him all day almost every day.
"We rowed with Fred and Chuck (Pieper) and anyone we could get together for 20 years, attended the Roeivierkamp every year in March, which became our first race every year to get ready for the FISA World Masters every year and were roommates, so all told we were pretty darn close. He is loved by so many people; he was just fun to row with, fun to be with, and he was tough as nails. He would have a great time, and when it was time to get behind the oar and make it go, he was supreme."
Finally, Chuck Pieper wrote the following extraordinary goodbye from himself and the other two remaining Horsemen, Fred and Roger:
We think he knew for some time what was in store.
Just a couple of weeks ago, fresh off his western visits to his two sons, Alex and Ben, he and his wife, Ellen, organized a pilgrimage back to the Boston area. All about family and friends, Charlie was troubled by his increasing inability to bring back memories of us all; what better way than to engage real time! And we didn't disappoint; friends of every stripe joined for 'standing room only' meals, lots of rowing, and bunking with his oldest friend, Harvard and Olympic boatmate, Steve Brooks and his wife, Vee. And sharing too many apocryphal stories at post row breakfasts with us, 'The Four Horsemen'---his 7/365, 06:00 daily erg and rowing mates for more decades than we wish to count. He was smiling from ear-to-ear day in and out all week. No memory needed. This was real time. He was in his element.
But the long, warm hugs and tears when we parted every evening dropping him back at Steve's was our signal.
Born on the shore of Lake Ontario in Chaumont, N.Y. growing up with two brothers and two sisters of whom he always spoke proudly. Charlie would especially comment many times over the years on the quiet strength of his father, who was severely wounded in WW II. We suspect that stoic courage shaped him in fundamental ways. Charlie was at his core, an 'old school' kind of guy. Yes, he loved the lyrics and singing the 'Crooner' songs of the 50's; he couldn't resist an old wooden boat to repair, sail, or row. But most of all he had that quiet competence and other directedness, born of a different era.
A multisport athlete and inveterate competitor, he would claim World Sailing Championships in his IOD. His rowing career brought him his beloved Harvard experience with Harry Parker and onto the Mexico Olympics. In his later years, he'd win gold medals at the US and World Masters in every boat class from 1xs to 8s, often coming back from the World competitions with 8 of 8, or 9 of 9 wins. And in our Attager and Mixed 8 events at the HOCR, he added a dozen more Golds to his collection. No surprise to those who raced him; hard to beat a World Record holder on the erg. But In the 45 years we knew him, we don't know anyone who heard him once brag.
Competitive? Sure, but nothing, nothing was more 'Charlie' than helping an organization and making it better through his efforts. The list here is as long as his rowing accomplishments. An early 'Charlie Classic:' volunteering to become Commodore of Pleon, a Jr Yacht club, to turn it around when his boys started sailing--this just days after he joined the prestigious Eastern YC of Marblehead.
His instinct was to help, improve, engage others in the vision and lead the effort. Every club he joined gained from these contributions, and thoroughly enjoyed his buoyant and make it happen personality. Deep friendships and appreciation remain at Upper Thames, Saugatuck, Occoquan, Cambridge Boat Club and recently at his local club, Whatcom in Bellingham, WA. Add to these, his reputation for improving businesses as CEO of Cambridge Water Technologies; as Head Rowing Coach at Groton, and ED of our National Rowing Federation raising monies for the US National teams. It was never about him; it was the boat, the team, the club being better.
Charlie's favorite poem was by Dylan Thomas. He'd oft excitedly quote the famous closing lines:
"Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light."
Charlie certainly did just that. Life was a contact sport for him. We all are better off for that. He passed away peacefully earlier this week in the arms of his wife, Ellen.
With a nod to William Ernst Henley and the closing lines of his poem, 'Invictus'.
"It matters not how straight the gate,
How charged the punishments the scroll,
Charlie was the Master of his Fate,
The Captain of his Soul."
Chuck Pieper - Fred Schoch - Roger Borggaard
Charlie Hamlin was a great gift to our sport and to his friends, and row2k joins the larger rowing community in offering condolences and heartfelt to Charlie's friends and family; thanks very much for sharing Charlie with us, we will be pulling hard for you.
Charlie in the 8-seat of the 2012 Team Attager 8
Charlie at Masters Nationals (photo thanks to Ellen Kennelly)