A rower at Drexel becomes an Olympian in London

Posted: July 27, 2012

Unlike so many other Olympians, rowers often come to their sport late in their competitive lives.

Steve Kasprzyk, 30, a rower from Cinnaminson and Drexel, is one of them. He will be rowing in the men's eight in London, and says four of eight in his boat were walk-on rowers in college.

"High school rowers tend to burn out pretty early," he said.

That's what happened to him in swimming. Kasprzyk swam for the Pomona Swim Club in the summer, and at Holy Cross High School. He knew he didn't want to swim at Drexel.

"I figured I'd try a new sport," he said, and explained how he chose crew: "I was never really good at land sports, anything that involved running back and forth," he said. "At best, I was average. I figured swimming, you're in the water. Rowing, that's a little bit above the water, I'll give that a try.

"I tried it out of boredom," he added. "If that hadn't worked out, I probably would have tried something else."

His boat is a favorite to win gold, so one might say it's worked out well. But that would be too simple.

Kasprzyk took to rowing right away.

"I had a great time doing it," he said. "Even now most of my friends are people I met my freshman year rowing at Drexel."

"It helps being tall," he said. "I'm 6-foot-7. That gave me a little bit of an advantage. Height is an advantage. It allows you to take a longer stroke through the water. You put your blade in the water and can push the boat farther along before you're out of room."

When it comes to rowing in the men's eight, everyone's stroke has to be identical. "I don't have to extend as much to match everyone in the boat," Kasprzyk said. "Someone much shorter has to reach much farther."

Kasprzyk rowed for four years at Drexel, using all his NCAA eligibility. But Drexel is a five-year co-op program. So in his fifth year, to overcome a mental block of being too big and heavy to run, he trained for a marathon, and ran it in 3 hours, 40 minutes.

This affected him profoundly as an athlete.

"I learned something about myself, and training," he said. He chose to run a marathon because it seemed so impossible, and he got up every day and just pushed himself a little more.

"I kind of realized you can do anything if you break it down into small-enough little goals," he said. "I think that's how I got to this point with rowing. Graduating from college, I wasn't good at all. But I think sticking with it, and always pushing it a little bit, I was able to get up there."

So after the marathon, he rededicated himself to rowing. He was living in Philadelphia, working as an engineer, and joined the Penn AC rowing club.

"When I started there," he said, "I didn't know what to expect. I just wanted to keep going. I didn't really think about where it would take me. I was able to get a lot better there."

In 2011, he landed a spot on the 2011 Pan American team in Mexico, and the men's eight won gold.

In November, he qualified for the selection camp for the U.S. Olympic rowing team. About 30 men were competing for a spot in the eight-man boat, what Kasprzyk calls "the flagship American boat."

He had made this his goal. "I got there in November, and every day was hard training," he said. "From November all the way until the end of April, when they named the boat. We were racing each other."

This is intense. Two boats filled with eight men for each race. Then both men in, say, the seventh seat will switch boats, and the boats will race again. If one boat does better or worse, then the best explanation is the man in the seventh seat. These are called "seat races," and "if you make one boat go significantly faster, you've made a name for yourself that day," Kasprzyk said.

Four days a week those contending for the men's eight would hold seat races. It was an intense and competitive dynamic. You are living with, training with, and bonding with the very men you are competing against.

"Everybody's your friend and nobody wants to see anyone go home," Kasprzyk said, "but you really want that spot. On the water, we're competitive, off the water we're friends."

The men's eight is a 2,000-meter race, and the winner will finish in about 5 minutes and 30 seconds.

Kasprzyk said the race starts as a sprint for the first 30 strokes.

"You want to get the bow out front," he said. "Then you settle into something that is hard as you can go but you still can maintain it. Get your position where you're not going to die halfway through the race but you're still going to go. That's tricky. You have to stay calm. If you go crazy, you can burn yourself out. You use only the muscles you need and not the ones you don't. In the middle of the race, a swift pace but pretty level. And you sprint at the end again, the last 30 or 50 pulls."

He said that, on average, an eight-man boat will make 230 pulls over the 2,000-meter race.

Kasprzyk will be in the sixth seat, the sixth man to cross the finish line. The heavier rowers tend to be in the stern, and the lighter rowers in the bow.

The men's eight will have a preliminary heat on Saturday. If the Americans win their heat, they will go right to the finals on Wednesday. If the American eight doesn't win its heat, it rows again, with another chance to make the finals.

Kasprzyk took a leave from his engineering job in Philadelphia for the last year to train, but intends to return to it after the Olympics - perhaps with a gold medal to his name.


Contact Michael Vitez at 215-854-5639 or mvitez@phillynews.com or on Twitter @michaelvitez.

 

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