Standing at 5 feet 11 inches, longtime Wilton resident Beth Kohl looms small in her household. After all, her husband Russ Kohl, Riverbrook/Wilton YMCA board member, and daughter and son, both Wilton High School grads, all top six feet. But outside, Kohl has a height advantage.
In rowing, height matters. If you’re short, you cox; tall, you pull an oar.
So when Kohl stepped onto the Smith College campus her first week of freshman year, she was quickly eyed and recruited by the rowing coaches. At the time, Kohl knew little about the sport that would come to shape her life.
Since 2019, Kohl has been president of Rowing Cares, a national non-profit organization founded in 1993 that organizes “Row for the Cure” regattas and virtual events to fundraise and provide grants to a wide range of cancer programs — rowing teams of survivors, research with the Susan G. Komen foundation, and working with hospitals and local health organizations providing services to breast cancer patients and their families, such as free mobile mammogram units, transportation for treatment, financial aid, or counseling. To date, Rowing Cares has raised over $3.6 million, expanded to 20 cities, and encompasses 3,000 rowers and volunteers annually.
But Row For The Cure is about a lot more than money.
A nearly two-decade cancer survivor herself, Kohl knows it’s crucial after a cancer diagnosis for a cancer patient to find a community they can relate to and be motivated by through recovery and rehabilitation.
“The rowers in our events have all gone through scary times but through our organization found support and friends forever,” she said.
It’s been a deeply fulfilling, if unforeseen, path for Kohl. After college, she launched a high-powered marketing career spanning four continents and a staff of 200 for powerhouse organizations such as the Omnicom Group, the world’s second-largest advertising agency.
When Kohl moved with her family from London to Wilton in 2002 — a town she knew well from several friends who lived here — her relationship with rowing evolved to “rowing mom,” juggling accompanying her children to regattas while commuting for her corporate job in Manhattan. Watching how much rowing gave to her family, Kohl increasingly grew certain the still niche sport could add so much to other families’ lives as well.
By 2010 Kohl had convinced U.S. Rowing, the sport’s national governing body overseeing all levels of rowing — men’s, women’s and Olympics — that it needed a formal marketing function run by a first-ever Chief Marketing Officer with big-time international marketing muscle along with a deep understanding of the sport.
The obvious choice? Kohl.
Evolving the role through two Olympics, Kohl launched grassroots programs, secured multinational sponsors and raised the organization’s profile through branding and national media. A highlight was attending the Rio Olympics at the same time that her daughter — a nationally ranked Harvard rower — was also in Rio working on the NBC Sports Olympic digital team.
In 2017, Kohl joined the Rowing Cares board to help grow its national platform, eventually becoming the organization’s executive director and board president.
“It’s about engagement in the community, knowing you’re not alone,” she said.
Kohl points to several other Wilton women also involved in her program, most notably Victoria Madden, whose three children all went through the Wilton schools and who was diagnosed in 2016 with an extremely aggressive breast cancer requiring over a year of eight hellish rounds of chemo, then surgery, followed by six months of oral chemo treatments. Two years later, with zero rowing experience, Madden found herself at the Saugatuck Rowing Club in Westport, stepping gingerly into a boat with other rowers who were all breast cancer survivors like herself.
“I found instant support, understanding, inspiration, and camaraderie,” Madden said.
Flash forward to today, Madden now competes nationally as a masters rower, trains six days a week, is in the best shape of her life, sits on the board of Row For The Cure, and is passionate to spread the organization’s message that, yes, there is life after cancer.
Rowing has literally changed Madden’s life. “Yes, I’m a breast cancer survivor. And I love to help out with the survivors’ boat. But my main ‘boat’ now is that of a nationally competing masters rower.”
Madden’s experience sums up Rowing Cares. As Kohl put it, “We’re all about positivity and moving forward. That’s at the heart of everything we do.”