Guilford High School crew is one of the fastest-growing programs along the shoreline, and one of the biggest reasons behind the Indians’ progression is Coach Nancy Vespoli. Nancy is a well-versed veteran on the crew circuit who knows all about the dedication it takes to succeed in the sport, as well as the multitude of life lessons one can learn from it.
Nancy, a Guilford resident, grew up in Mystic and Stonington before rowing for Dartmouth College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She was a member of the United States Olympic squad in 1980, although that was the year the U.S. boycotted the Summer Games in Moscow.
After working with the girls’ crew at Choate Rosemary Hall, Nancy has spent the past seven years as the boys’ varsity coach at Guilford. In the recent spring season, Nancy saw her boys’ novice eight boat earn a silver medal at the Connecticut Public Schools Rowing Association State Championship.
“I saw the Guilford team on a lake one year when I was at Choate. I saw a lot of boats, but not a lot of coaches. I talked to [then-coach Will Thompson] about helping the team,” says Nancy. “I started with the team after my daughter graduated Choate, and it’s grown into a large program. We have about 70 [to] 90 kids now in the program.”
Like with any sport, crew requires plenty of persistence and a 100-percent effort in order to thrive. One of the things Nancy likes the most about crew is how its participants can pick up fundamental life skills, while they figure out how to approach a particular race on a given day.
“Sportsmanship is important with me, and I also treat the kids with respect. I’m teaching them about the sport and how to row as well as they can if they decide to dedicate themselves to rowing, or if they decide to row in college,” Nancy says. “We work hard on the water, and it’s a true team sport. They need to be there every day, because if one of them is missing, you have to change your whole lineup. It also teaches a lot about self-sufficiency, because they learn how to construct and fix the boats. Positions like the coxswain—the people who steer and guide the boats—are great chances to learn leadership skills. The sport helps the kids grow in different ways.”
As a coach in a sport that teaches a lot of responsibility, Nancy takes great pleasure in seeing her athletes grow as both competitors and people while they push toward the shore.
“I love getting to see the kids develop and how much they grow physically and mentally through the years. They act like leaders and guide the younger kids. It’s neat to see them learn a new skill,” she says. “We teach them everything they need to know about the sport, so someone can join if they have no prior experience. I also teach them that if they have dedication and put it all out there, they can start a new lifelong sport.”
Another person who’s benefited from Nancy’s vast expertise is Matt Wilson, the head coach of the Indians’ crew program.
“Nancy’s knowledge has been a great asset not only to the team, but to all the coaches. She gave me a great foundation and understanding of rowing to build upon as I grew into the current head coach,” Wilson says. “She has competed at the highest level and understands not only the technique of rowing, but the strategy of competitive racing. The boys’ program has grown under her leadership.”
Sarah Wiley, who is the parent of one of Guilford’s rowers, says that Nancy forms great relationships with her athletes, while displaying tremendous passion for the sport.
“Nancy has an understated presence. She is always at practice and races, cheering and encouraging. She gives a tremendous amount of herself to the team without calling attention to herself,” says Wiley. “I do know that she seems to develop positive relationships with each member of the team she coaches, and she has a clear love of the sport.”
Fellow team parent Jean Bachman adds that Nancy is always looking to help Guilford’s rowers grow by breaking down the intricacies of the sport, even during the offseason.
“Nancy is treasure for Guilford. She has tremendous commitment to Guilford rowing and to developing the rowers and coxswains. It isn’t very common to have an Olympic athlete coach a high school team. Nancy isn’t common, and we are blessed to have her as the coach of the boys’ crew team,” Bachman says. “Nancy’s commitment to the crew program is demonstrated on and off the water. Nancy teaches the rowers [and] coxswain the art and science of the sport. She dissects each race using boat metrics, charts, and graphs. She shares these with the team to plan for the next practice and race, as well as teaching the team in the process about how the boat can improve performance. Nancy’s dedication is also evident outside of the normal sports seasons. She opened her barn one year and set up ergs for indoor winter training when the new high school was being built. She trained the boys’ team after the season ended when the boys wanted to get some more rows in.”
While each yearly edition of the Indians has had its own specific impact on Nancy, she’s enjoyed seeing how all of them grew to love the sport of crew. Ultimately, Nancy feels proud that her athletes have accomplished a lot, while also having a lot of fun out on the water.
“Each year is special to me and each team has its own personality. Many of them have developed enthusiasm for rowing and want to know how to get better at it,” says Nancy. “I try to correct a lot of things in them sophomore year, so they don’t develop bad habits, but by senior year, most of them don’t need correcting. This group this year worked really hard and wanted to do really well. I want them to succeed, but also have fun, and end up good rowers in the end.”