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CAMDEN, Maine — The body of 71-year-old James Wescott, beloved coach and father of Olympic snowboarder Seth Wescott, was found Tuesday night in Megunticook Lake, where he drowned Tuesday morning while rowing with a friend, according to John MacDonald, spokesperson for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
Wescott apparently suffered a medical emergency before falling into the water about 8 a.m., McDonald said earlier.
McDonald said Wescott’s body was found about 8:30 p.m. in about 60 feet of water.
Wescott, of Belfast, and Jeff Foltz of Camden had been rowing on the southern part of the lake in individual sculls — long, narrow boats propelled by oars — when Foltz heard Wescott yell his name, according to Camden Fire Chief Chris Farley. Foltz said that he turned to see his friend clutch his chest and then fall into the water.
“It’s the most helpless feeling I’ve ever experienced,” Foltz told the BDN on Tuesday afternoon. “One minute we were having fun and working out. Sixty seconds later, he was gone. You just can’t explain it. You just have to have faith.”
Foltz said that whatever happened to Wescott wasn’t a rowing mistake.
“He was really a magnificent athlete. He was doing things on a cardiovascular level that most 35-year-olds would be proud to do,” the Camden man said. “It wasn’t a rowing accident — something else happened. I couldn’t get to him in time.”
The fire chief said there were a couple of private boats on the lake at the time and the boaters searched for Wescott, as did first responders in a vessel from the Lincolnville Fire Department. Camden had rescue swimmers search for about a half hour before they were taken out of the water for their safety because of hypothermia concerns, Farley said.
The Maine Warden Service led the recovery effort, MacDonald said. Warden service divers who were in Caribou on Monday to recover the body of a young man who drowned in the Aroostook River needed to travel to Camden to join the search for Wescott, according to Sgt. Bruce Loring.
Warden service chaplain Kate Braestrup said Tuesday afternoon that a cottage owner on the lake opened up his home for Wescott’s family members to use while they waited for updates about the search.
Wescott helped start the Waldo County YMCA family triathlon and was very well thought of in Belfast, shocked residents said upon learning of his death.
“He was the nicest guy,” Ned Lightner, manager of Belfast Community Television, said Tuesday afternoon.
Jim Wescott helped Lightner connect with Seth to do an interview at the Camden Snow Bowl, he said. Seth Wescott won two gold medals in snowboardcross in Turin, Italy, and then in Vancouver, British Columbia.
“He was a great supporter,” Lightner said of the elder Wescott’s influence on his son. “Parents have a lot to do with making it possible, so your kid can achieve greatness.”
Officials at Colby College, where Jim Wescott worked as the track-and-field coach from 1978 to 2003, were “deeply saddened” by the news.
During his 25 years at the Waterville college, “Jim challenged and inspired many hundreds of student athletes,” wrote Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of Faculty Lori Kletzer in a statement released Tuesday evening. “A tremendously successful coach, Jim helped 11 athletes reach All-America status, some multiple times. While Jim recruited and trained great athletes, he insisted that they place academics at the center of their Colby lives, and many of the students he coached excelled in the classroom.
According to the statement, an alumnus created the James B. Wescott Scholarship Fund in his honor in 1999. The year he retired from Colby, Wescott was named New England Division III Coach of the Year.
In the last decade, the adjunct professor of physical education and athletics emeritus remained active with the college, serving on committees and attending lectures and arts events, Kletzer said.
“Jim was a lovely man with a warm, generous spirit. He will be greatly missed,” she said.
Wescott used his coaching expertise to help train with Foltz and another friend, Don Seales of Searsmont, according to Foltz. The three men competed last October in the Head of the Charles Regatta in Boston, where Wescott did well in his age group for sculling, which Foltz likened to “riding a pencil” with a sharp learning curve.
“Last summer we rowed every morning [on the Megunticook] from ice out until [it was time to participate in] the Head of the Charles,” he said. “You get to be good friends when you do something like that — when you have a common goal.”
Foltz described Wescott as a true motivator.
“Every day when we got off the water, he would pick out the good things about the workout,” he said. “If I had to use one word to describe him, it would be upbeat. He just had a great attitude.”
According to MacDonald, Maine game warden divers and side-scan sonar were used in the search effort. Nearly a dozen wardens, personnel from Camden Fire and Police Departments and members of the Megunticook Lake Patrol assisted with today’s recovery effort.