Meet Winter Park Crew’s New Men’s Team Coach

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A slight touch of déjá vu tugs at Hugh Tompkins as he watches his team gather for a pre-practice meeting. A Winter Park High alum and former member of the rowing team, his return is equal parts homecoming and evolution as the same philosophies that earned his success as an engineer also changed his approach to sports.

Coach Hugh Tompkins

Tompkins attended the University of Florida and the University of Washington, competing on each university crew team. He elevated his understanding of athletics as research and development director for Baden Sports from 2011-2017 before starting his own industrial design business. “I learned how to analyze an athlete’s motion while taking into account the structures of the body and the physics of the work being done,” he said. “It’s an important relationship to study; not just how athletes move to execute an action, but how they could be doing it differently to take better advantage of their abilities.”

His professional success did not replace of his love for rowing as he pursued coaching opportunities with Seattle’s Lake Union Crew rowing club. His engineering savvy even inspired changes to the work ethic he taught while coaching various skill levels and the club’s national women’s team. “I want to understand the ‘why’ for everything I teach my rowers,” he said. “You have to be open to change and accept that you may be wrong about something you are certain was right.”

Tompkins is proud of the achievements of the Winter Park women’s crew team, but believes the men’s team can reach the same heights.
Tompkins shares some of his experiences on the University of Washington crew team with members of the Winter Park men’s team.

His work ethic, experience, and connection to the area made Tompkins the heir apparent when Winter Park Crew’s former men’s team coach left to pursue other opportunities in the fall of 2023. He discussed his professional transition and the return to his hometown with the32789.

What brought you back to Winter Park?

I left to attend the University of Washington in Seattle. I never thought of it as an intentional move away from Florida, but I sort-of fell in love with mountains and the rowing scene. I met my wife there and we made a good life, but I had family in Winter Park. In 2019, my wife and I started looking for a new adventure. We were self-employed and able to be completely mobile, so we decided to return to the east coast. We were living on a catamaran on the inner banks of North Carolina until recently, when I needed to return to Winter Park to help with family care. Between reconnecting with old friends and making new friends in the rowing community, we decided to stay. We’re currently living in my grandmother’s old house, which is across the street from where I grew up.

What are some of your favorite memories from the Winter Park crew team and growing up in the city?

The rowing team was such an all-encompassing part of my life, it’s difficult to separate it out to specific memories. My friendships, relationships, and the things I looked forward to each day all centered around rowing and there so many great moments. Being a part of the team taught me how to pursue long-term goals, regardless of short-term results. One pivotal memory occurred during my first year on the team – that was a very competitive season. I was on our 1V boat for the season’s first three races, then I was moved down to the 2V for the fourth race of the year. The move itself was a lesson, but the great memory comes from one race in the 2V boat. It was in Miami on Biscayne Bay and the first time I’d rowed anywhere but a Central Florida lake. We were down from the start of the race, but we didn’t concede. As we were coming into the final 500 meters, we were all spent but somehow dug into something we didn’t know we had and kept pulling. We took the lead on the very last stroke of the race and won. It really taught me that I could tap into inner strength and to surrender trust to my teammates. And that together we could accomplish more than we could as individuals.

Who or what was your greatest source of inspiration in your younger years?

I was always inspired by problem solving through design. I loved hearing about “unsolvable” problems, and I always thought I could come up with a better way to do something or fix a design. I wanted to be an inventor when I grew up and was always coming up with different ideas and products. When I was 13, I fell in love with sneaker technology – Nike had just launched Air and was entering the sneaker wars with Reebok and Adidas. I started cutting up old sneakers to make my own designs. I was a geeky kid wearing homemade sneakers to middle school but was eager to explain the design to anyone who would listen. Today, I feel lucky that I’ve been able to bring my own designs to market and own multiple patents. But I’m still most inspired by problems that require creative solutions. It’s honestly what gets me most excited. I currently find myself working on several rowing products whenever I have time for my mind to wander.

What do you hope to accomplish at Winter Park Crew?

When I was with the team in high school, we always felt like we could win states and do well at nationals. I would like to bring that standard to the men’s team and make us a national contender every year. What the women’s team has been able to accomplish under Coach Mike Vertullo is really inspiring, and I’d like to put the men’s team back on the map of elite rowing powerhouses. I also hope to bring a data-based, analytic approach to rowing technique and seat selection, and I want the athletes to become students of the sport.

Who is your favorite athlete and why?

I’ve always been most in love with athletes who changed their game by doing something differently or better than anyone else. My favorite was John McEnroe. He was such an unassuming athlete, but he wanted to win more than anyone else. He had limited physical tools but figured out innovative and unorthodox ways to use what he had. He couldn’t serve especially hard but was a master at disguising his serve, so the other player had no idea which serve was coming until it was too late. Also, former Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch. I loved his famous “Beast-quake” run against the Saints; where guys would try to tackle him in the open field, and he’d just push them down and keep going. I never saw anyone run with that kind of aggression. And Monica Seles with her two-handed forehand and backhand. No pro played like that, but she wasn’t afraid to innovate and was #1 in the world.

Other than crew, what is your favorite sport? And is there anything about it that can crossover to crew training or coaching?

The Orlando Magic hit my radar when I was in 7th grade, which is a real sweet spot for a kid to obsess over a team. Moving to a house with a hoop in the driveway solidified basketball as my favorite sport to watch and play – poorly. I never played organized basketball but see a lot of similarities to rowing in the training approach. The mentality of winning a race – not on race day but in practice – exists in both sports. My Winter Park coach, Dan Bertossa, would quote Pat Riley and point out that everyone wanted to win on race day, but champions want it months before the race when they’re in the doldrums of training.

Do you have a favorite motivational anecdote or speech for the team?

No, I’m not really a cheerleader in that way. In my mind, motivation comes from the dedication to improve performance and to see results as a team. And it comes from the trust we build each day in the boat. Crew is a fantastic team sport that teaches life lessons and forges strong character in the crucible of grueling hard work.

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