Most of the time, calling someone two-faced isn’t a compliment. But Radcliffe heavyweight assistant coach Wendy Wilbur exemplifies what it means to be feared as a competitor and beloved as a teacher.
Wilbur joined the staff of the Black and White this season after spending four years as a full-time assistant at Boston College, and has made an immediate impression on everyone in the program.
“It’s great to have [Wilbur] on the staff,” says freshman Molly Griffin, who trained under Wilbur at a sculling camp over the summer. “She communicates really well and encourages you as an athlete and a human being.”
Wilbur’s ability to support rowers on and off the water stems from her own success as both an athlete and a coach.
As a member of the U.S. national team from 1997 to 2004, Wilbur earned a gold and a bronze medal as a member of the four and took silver with the eight in World Championship races. Wilbur can also claim a number of achievements in Cambridge, specifically two Head of the Charles titles in the championship double and championship eight—races that did not escape the attention of Radcliffe coach Liz O’Leary.
“[Wilbur] is an unbelievable competitor, a fierce competitor,” O’Leary says. “And that’s what I love about her.”
Yet while these accomplishments demonstrate that Wilbur understands what it takes to row at an elite level, the coach has found a different passion, working primarily with walk-ons. The former national team rower has shown that she can use her ability to connect with athletes to train rowers from the ground up.
“At the same time [that Wilbur is competitive], she’s probably one of the most friendly, kind, considerate people that you will ever meet,” O’Leary says. “[We chose her] for her experience as a coach, her experience as a collegiate and national team athlete, and for her ability to connect with and teach inexperienced rowers how to row...That’s why we’re so lucky to have her.”
For Wilbur’s part, after coordinating recruiting for the Eagles and assisting at the USRowing Under-23 development camp, the young coach jumped at the chance to work with one of the nation’s most prominent programs.
“I know that [Radcliffe] has a very talented staff, and I think they’ve always had really strong athletes,” Wilbur explains. “I saw it as an opportunity...to see if I could come in and provide some support.”
But while Wilbur’s skills as a teacher have come to be greatly appreciated, the rise in coaching prominence that has marked her career thus far was not always predictable. In fact, it was not until she finished college that Wilbur found her ideal profession.
“I worked for a corporate team-building company for a year, and one of the exercises they used for team building was rowing,” she explains. “I figured out from that job that I was most happy when I was coaching.”
And what Wilbur has come to enjoy teaching most is the basics. Given the opportunity to mold and encourage Radcliffe novices from day one, Wilbur has made a determined effort to instill strong mechanics in every member of the Black and White.
“I think the main thing is making sure that [the walk-ons] execute the basic part of the stroke well,” Wilbur says. “If you get a really strong sense of rowing from the basic parts, then you can continue to add more intricate pieces to the stroke. So I’ve been working with them on making sure that they learn the basics and learn them well.”
Although training the squad’s least experienced rowers may seem like an under-appreciated duty, rowers recognize the importance of solid instruction at every level.