Those familiar with the URI rowing program probably remember the five URI students coached by Gillette in the late ‘80s and ‘90s who made the Olympic rowing team: John Riley, Jason Gailes, Julia Chilicki-Beasley, Stephen Peterson, and Tom Auth.
Brian Sweenor, who finished third in the World Championships in 1992 and almost won his Olympic trial that year, was the most dominant rower individually, according to Gillette.
“At the 1993 World Championships in the Czech Republic, six former URI students and I took a team photo,” Gillette said. “That year we had the largest contingent from any single college or university, which was amazing, considering we were only a club sport. My hope is to get the URI men’s rowing team on that level again.”
Gillette, who was a fixture on the international rowing circuit during the ‘80s and ‘90s, actually stumbled upon rowing in 1975, after he arrived at URI from New Jersey to study marine biology.
“On the first day of classes, I was lifting weights in the Hopkins Hall study lounge. This girl, who lived upstairs, came up to me and said, ‘You’re coming with me to crew practice this afternoon.’ I hadn’t met a single person besides my roommates, so I thought, ‘Why not?’ After that I was hooked.”
There were many ups and downs in Gillette’s college crew career. During his freshman year, the lightweight men’s 8 won a bronze medal at the small college national championships. After that, Gillette, still a freshman, moved up to varsity.
But the program was dealt a harsh blow when the boathouse on Narrow River burned to the ground the summer between Gillette’s sophomore and junior years. The team eventually rebuilt the boathouse and collected new equipment, but was still struggling for wins by Gillette’s senior year.
The lightweight team and boat were consistently finishing poorly, and when he became the coach the following year, he discovered why. The lightweight boat that had been donated to the program after the fire was almost 50 pounds heavier than it should have been.
In Gillette’s first two years as a coach, the team received two new shells and started to win medals at the New England championships and at the Dad Vail Regatta, the largest college regatta in the country. URI won the first medal for women’s crew in 1981, repeated that win in ’82 and ’83, and won golds in ’82 and ’84 in Freshmen and Varsity 8’s.
In 1983, Gillette was named Head Coach of the US Women’s Lightweight team, the start of a series of assignments for the US Team. He coached heavyweight and lightweight men and women in both sweep and sculling boat classes up until the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
Gillette left to coach at Connecticut College after the 1984 season, but returned to coach at URI two more times in the 1990s.
“Each time I came back it was because the team was in need,” he said. “I think the coach had left on short notice, and I was around, so I jumped in to help on a short-term basis.”
His reasoning this time around was a little different. Gillette’s 11-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter have taken an interest in rowing, so he wants them to be able to see the sport up close.
“Maleah and Tyler both currently attend South Kingstown public schools,” Gillette said. “Maleah is an avid ice hockey player. Rowing is a perfect complement to hockey as far as the seasons go, and so we are just getting her started.”
Gillette plans on strengthening the URI rowing program so it produces candidates for the national team, as it did in earlier years.
“We have to have competitive success,” he said. “Winning generates momentum in so many ways; it enhances recruiting, alumni contributions, and respect at the University. It also elevates the expectations of the guys in the program. Once you develop a culture of success, you can ride that wave a long way. A lot of the alumni from my era have lost interest in and contact with the program. We have to get them back and get them excited about what we are doing here.”
He hopes more URI athletes can share the experiences he had through rowing. During his 15 years coaching the sport, Gillette trained Olympic athletes at camps in the United States and overseas. Some athletes would relocate to the camps for two weeks; others for four years or more.
“It was a grind – living away from home, earning minimal pay, always with the pressure of the next competition looming,” Gillette said. “Then, at the end of the summer, you’d take two weeks off and start again. It was not a lifestyle conducive to putting down roots.
“What I appreciate the most now, but took for granted then, was the attitude of the people around me,” he said. “I was in an environment where everyone I came in contact with wanted to be the best in the world, and they were willing to do anything to achieve that goal.”
Gillette wants to stay involved in the URI rowing program for as long as possible, but is not sure if that will always involve coaching. He squeezes in coaching while being a husband, father, and owner of a construction and remodeling company.
“I really enjoy coaching,” he said. “I love being on the water and am drawn to the fraternal nature of the team. The interaction with the athletes is a lot of fun, and is very energizing. The time commitment between family, work, and coaching is challenging though. Eventually, I see myself behind the scenes. But for now, those couple of hours on the water are the best of my day.”
Victoria Antonelli, a senior journalism major interning at the URI Marketing and Communications Department, wrote this press release.
Coach Robert Gillette gives a pep talk to the URI men’s club rowing team.