Charting a New Course

By Bryan Kitch

Photo by Luke Reynolds.

For California Rowing Club coach Bernhard Stomporowski, things are looking up. When USRowing recently announced its new selection procedures, it was exactly the change he was looking for. And with the likes of 2012 Olympic bronze medalist Kara Kohler training at the club, there’s more than a little talent in the boat bays at the T. Gary Rogers Rowing Center these days.

“I was pleased when [USRowing] announced that [trials for all boats except pairs] would be at the same time,” Stomporowski says. “It also forces people to decide which boat class they want to race—in the past, you could go for the single, then the double, and then go for the quad. One person could block out three boat classes. Now people who want to develop have a better chance.”

It’s a start, but as far as strengthening the nation’s club programs as development centers, this is just the first step, says Stomporowski. “I don’t know what the new direction of the high-performance committee will be, but I hope they strengthen a little bit the club programs’ [role] in doing that.”

Far from waiting and reacting to whatever may come, however, Stomporowski has begun to take action in hopes of moving pre-elite sculling forward in the U.S. “I’m trying to get something together to avoid the same problems as we had the last four years, so I created something called the ‘Oakland Charta.’ It’s basically a written commitment, a gentlemen’s agreement, for all the clubs to provide their strongest rowers for the purpose of building the strongest [men’s] quad.”

In short, the idea is to build a way to pool athletes, coaches, and resources among clubs, making sure that the strongest rowers are in contention for the same boat, guided by a democratically-elected head coach drawn from one of the signee clubs. To quote from the document, “This Charta is created to find common ground of the signing head coaches of the participating rowing clubs to support USRowing in the attempt to qualify the men’s quad for the Olympic Games 2020.”

If it seems like it’s out of the blue, it’s not. For Stomporowski, the Charta is a direct response to the issues that he and his club faced in the last quadrennial, when CRC matched up against Craftsbury at trials—two talented groups facing off on home soil, ultimately putting each other at a disadvantage when the time would come to race internationally, regardless of which crew earned the honor of representing the U.S. (Craftsbury prevailed but failed to qualify for Rio.)

Also, the way the Charta is written provides the opportunity for any one of the signee clubs to potentially host camps and provide coaches, and offers some of the benefits of centralized training while respecting the athletes’ lives and living situations.

“Making a Charta, where everyone agrees, allows the rowers to train through the winter at their facilities and just come together for weekends [or training camps], not centralizing already in September. So we don’t have to take them away from their normal work and private life all the time,” he explains. “Of course, as the Olympics come closer, rowers will need to move to a [centralized training center].”

Stomporowski acknowledges it’s potentially a long shot to get clubs to cooperate this way.

“What can I do? If people don’t want to work together and the rowers don’t buy into that, then I can say, ‘OK, well, we will try to do this with the clubs who sign, and maybe we’ll even win—but even so, it will still not be strong if most people want to do it alone,’” he says.

It might sound strange, but some level of radical thinking is necessary to fix a system that hasn’t produced strong results at the international level in the men’s quad in recent years, and given the other changes taking place, now seems like a good time to experiment.

“We failed as clubs to work together [in the last quadrennial]. With this Charta I’m trying to bring some of the benefits of a camp, but with a little more freedom than what a funded boat has.”

This, combined with visits to college and university programs recruiting for an under-23 men’s quad program this year, has kept Stomporowski very busy this season.

“Of course, I’m competing with the under-23 sweep camp a little bit, but I think there are so many rowers out there who are [eligible] that for sculling, there should be no problem. I know that the best rowers will probably first go to the sweep camp, but there will be some who want to scull, and our hope is to get them into the program and produce a good result.”

Again, Stomporowski is thinking about development—not just of the athletes, but also the club system here in the U.S., which often gets overlooked when it comes to preparing athletes for the highest level.

“This is an issue for me. USRowing will put ‘Hans Struzyna, Washington.’ And I understand that, but the college, what do they get out of that really? They already have funding.”

Looking at press releases and media surrounding rowing in the United States, Stomporowski’s observation rings true. While many people know that Moe Sbihi of the British men’s eight rows out of Molesey Boat Club, seemingly very few people are aware of club affiliations among U.S. national team rowers.

While love for our alma mater may be uniquely powerful here in the United States, for rowing clubs that devote time and resources to developing athletes for the elite level, it may be time to give further credit where credit is due.