Worldwide, Special Olympics recognizes 35 “official” sports in which its athletes may train and compete, and offers countless “unofficial” sports. In 2013, Special Olympics New Jersey (SONJ) added rowing to its list of unofficial sports.

Greg Hughes is a former national champion in rowing and the current men’s heavyweight rowing coach at Princeton. Coach Greg was looking for ways for his student athletes to connect with the community as a way to further shape his rowers’ college experience, and in 2013, his search came to an end when Greg and his Princeton University rowers piloted a winter indoor rowing program with local SONJ athletes.

Through his years of competing and coaching, Greg had seen that erg rowing is an easily adaptable sport for people of all abilities, and with the help of his student athletes, showed SONJ athletes why rowing could be the perfect fit for them. Special Olympics athletes were invited to the Princeton Boathouse to learn the ins and outs of indoor erg rowing.

From the start, Greg was a visionary in the development of the SONJ winter rowing program. He wanted athletes to “feel like they could learn the sport and develop in it,” so the athletes’ training took place on ergs and in rowing tanks at the Princeton Boathouse. SONJ athletes were encouraged to do additional workouts and train on the ergs at the SONJ Sports Complex, and Princeton student athletes were recruited to take on leadership roles in the program. Princeton even added a Special Olympics heat in their annual winter rowing competition, the CRASH-Ps.

Erg training is a fantastic cross-training exercise to support athletes in any sport as well as in overall health and fitness. Through his program, Greg aims to give everyone involved the motivation to work hard, and deepen their understanding and appreciation for the sport. He challenges his Princeton students by having them coach the athletes individually each session to help them “think beyond themselves in athletics.” This has helped them to realize how differently people can learn a skill. By thinking about rowing on a deeper level, Princeton and Special Olympics athletes alike have become more confident, and more competitive.

Physical benefits aside, Greg’s program unites a community of athletes of different ability levels to grow and learn from one another. By taking on the challenging workouts, each athlete has developed a strong sense of self, and together, they have all bonded as a team. Both the student and SONJ athletes have the chance to develop new friendships, which was exactly the kind of inclusive environment Greg wanted to create in the Boathouse.

Over the course of three years, SONJ’s rowing program has developed into a three-location winter training program that reaches more than 75 athletes throughout the state.

Greg is thankful for the many memories and proud moments he has had throughout this experience, is proud how the program has grown, and looks forward to the future of rowing within the Special Olympics community. Looking forward, he wants to explore Unified rowing, on the water training, and to see more boathouses throughout the state adopt similar programs.

Greg continues to develop different approaches to keep rowers excited about the sport while also cultivating enthusiasm for new rowers. Regardless of which athlete Greg is coaching, he always enjoys seeing them in competition most. A true competitor, Greg shares, “that’s what it’s all about!”

Greg is a dedicated, passionate and think-outside-the-box coach. For his desire to unite his student athletes with the community, initiative, trailblazing spirit, and commitment to helping Special Olympics athletes excel in rowing, SONJ is proud to name Greg Hughes the 2016 Winter Sports Coach of the Season.

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