Local rowing community mourns the loss of Matt Hopkins; Founded Niskayuna rowing, helped start others

Matt Hopkins, right, kneels next to his daughter, Emma, after placing second at the 2016 Stotesbury Cup Regatta in Philadelphia in the women's singles championship final, May 21, 2016. PHOTO CREDIT: ED HEWITT/ROW2K
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Matt Hopkins, right, kneels next to his daughter, Emma, after placing second at the 2016 Stotesbury Cup Regatta in Philadelphia in the women's singles championship final, May 21, 2016. PHOTO CREDIT: ED HEWITT/ROW2K

CAPITAL REGION The death of longtime local rowing coach Matt Hopkins last week not only affected his immediate family but many in the region’s rowing programs that he helped establish during his 30-plus years in the sport.

Hopkins, 57, died Sept. 4 at his home in Stillwater, succumbing to complications from a brain tumor diagnosed in June 2021. He leaves behind a legacy that will live on in the region’s rowing community.

“Everybody knows all the big names in the mainstream sports, yet who has the most scholarships in the area?” asked former Saratoga Rowing Association regatta director Chris Chase. “Who has kids going to the most Ivy League schools? I’m not saying they were all of his [rowers], but none of it happens without Matt Hopkins.”

Hopkins leaves behind his wife of 30 years, Tamra, and nine children.

Hopkins was introduced to rowing as a freshman at Union College, and after graduating and traveling overseas he returned to the Capital Region. He founded Niskayuna Rowing in 1988, leading the program for 20 years.

“Matt was the first rowing coach whose sole purpose was to start a junior team, a high school team,” Chase said. “He helped start Shenendehowa, Burnt Hills and then Saratoga. We were all expressly created for kids.”

Hopkins didn’t just provide insight, guidance and hand over a playbook to start a program. He was all in. 

Now the Saratoga Rowing Association is a perennial powerhouse in local high school rowing, consistently winning titles at the state and national level.

It didn’t start out that way for Chase, who founded the program in 1996 when he served as a high school teacher at Saratoga Springs High School. In 2017, Chase became the director of youth, masters and safety at USRowing, the national governing body for the sport. 

“The summer of ’96, Jim Tucci at Skidmore [College] held a learn-to-row program,” Chase said. “The girls that did that were from Saratoga and those guys wanted a team. Matt was the one who helped me get my first boats.”

With a new competitive racing shell for eight rowers priced at $35,000 or more, a startup program often is the beneficiary of older boats offered by other programs at minimal cost.

“Matt found me boats in Philly and drove me there in a snowstorm to pick up boats, then drove over to Bucknell [University] to pick up boats there,” Chase recalled. “Other sports, you just don’t borrow baseball bats and lacrosse sticks and start a program.”

Hopkins’ generosity didn’t end there.

“He didn’t loan me an engine and a boat,” Chase said. “He gave me a boat [safety launch] with a 25-horsepower engine.”

After leaving the Niskayuna Rowing program in 2008, Hopkins’ founded the Mohawk Homeschool Rowing program, designed to provide that community an opportunity to compete at the high school level, racing in Section II against other high school programs. In 2009, he founded Augustine Classical Academy as its headmaster and rowing coach. 

Stacey Apfelbaum, who took over Niskayuna Rowing in 2014, met Hopkins years earlier when she was the Emma Willard rowing coach.

“One of my memories of him was that a team was starting a program or had a catastrophic setback, and he would email and say ‘Everybody send them a tool,’ ” Apfelbaum recalled. “He said, ‘Everybody can spare a wrench, a pair of [boat] straps.’ Everybody pitched in to help your-neighbor kind of thing, and it was that attitude that just really struck me.”

Hopkins, along with Larry Laszlo [Liverpool High School rowing], Tom Boyer [West Side Rowing, Buffalo] and Jan Rogowicz [Cascadilla Rowing, Ithaca] wrote the original New York State Scholastic Rowing Association constitution for rowers at the high school level. 

Hopkins also had the vision for rowers to compete for a state championship — similar to other high school sports.

“There was a Hudson River area championship, but Matt wanted it to go from Buffalo to Long Island,” Chase said. “He made it happen and was a key to us [Saratoga Rowing] hosting states in Fish Creek in 1999.”

It was a leap of faith for the youthful Saratoga Rowing Association.

“We didn’t have the guts to host the state championships without Matt,” Chase said. “Matt’s assurances that his resources would be available — his equipment, his engines, his drive, his energy.”

Again he delivered.

“If a team said they didn’t want to travel to Fish Creek, Matt would offer to drive his [trailer] to them and bring their boats up,” Chase said. “Back then there were 17 high school teams in the state. Now there are 91.”

Hopkins was not alone in his vision or willingness to grow the sport and was recognized just a month before his death with one of the state’s Scholastic Rowing Association Four Horseman Awards. The award is dedicated to those four coaches across the state who helped grow scholastic rowing.

Laszlo coached Liverpool High School rowing for 20 years and is recognized as one of the Four Horseman, growing the sport for high school athletes in New York. Rogowicz and Boyer were also recognized by the association.

“Matt knew that the sport was growing and one of the biggest hurdles was to get coaches who knew what they were talking about,” Laszlo said. “Matt found two classrooms near Burnt Hills, and I would come up to teach the USRowing Level I and II coaching clinics. Those were the early days of the USRowing coaching education stuff.”

The two worked well together, and Laszlo respected Hopkins’ desire to grow the sport in the Capital Region.

“Johnny Appleseed comes to mind, the one who planted the seeds,” Laszlo said. “But [Hopkins] found ways to nurture the seeds and arrange for people to get mentored or educated in a way that would make them better coaches on the waters, so that kids would have better experiences. 

“I had tremendous respect for him,” Laszlo said. “We lost a good one in Matthew.”

Hopkins was a longtime resident of Alplaus and most recently lived in Stillwater.

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