An Icon Passes

By Bryan Kitch

The rowing world has lost another of its beloved friends. Olympic champion coach Igor Grinko, who led the U.S. men’s quad to its first-ever medal in Atlanta, passed away March 17 after a long battle with cancer. Grinko, 68, left behind a legacy of incredible international success, but perhaps more importantly, he influenced a generation of rowers who remember him as both a demanding coach and a great friend.

When Grinko took over as national team sculling coach in 1991, he immediately made his presence felt, guiding the men’s quadruple sculls to an A-final finish at the worlds in Vienna in his first year on the job. The performance was the first finals appearance for the U.S. in that boat class since 1979. Then, in Barcelona his U.S. women’s quad placed fifth overall, picking up a bronze the next year at the world championships in the Czech Republic.

“In 1990, Kris Korzeniowski [recruited] Hartmut Buschbacher and Igor Grinko after the breakup of the Soviet Union,” explains Harvard head coach Charley Butt, who coached with Grinko at the 1992 Games. “For these people to pick up, leave everything they knew, and come somewhere entirely new—it’s hard to appreciate when you’re in your 20s. But then he did the same thing when he went to China [prior to the Beijing Olympics]. He was the definition of a survivor, and someone who had a definite idea of how to succeed.”

“From the beginning, Igor knew what it took to win a gold medal.” –Kris Korzeniowski

From the moment he arrived, Grinko proved that he could be both incredibly capable as well as exasperating at times. “Nothing was impossible for him,” says Kris Korzeniowski, now the director of coaching education for USRowing. “Everything was possible—he had a solution for everything, but sometimes the solutions were unrealistic.” He continues, “I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry, which was so often the case with Igor.” Still, he knew what it took to climb to the top of the podium. “From the beginning, Igor knew what it took to win a gold medal,” Korzeniowski says.

The style that Grinko taught was heavily influenced by his Russian roots, and born of a long history of Soviet success in sculling. Students of the sport note that Grinko’s coaching style appeared to mirror the sculling style of three-time Soviet Olympic champion Vyacheslav Ivanov, with an emphasis on the legs and the front end of the stroke. Bringing this knowledge to the U.S., Grinko continued to make his own adaptations, and augmented his technical savvy with a grueling training regime.

Grinko was eternally optimistic about his crews’ chances. “Every year it was the same,” says former U.S. national team coach Mike. “Every year, we’d have to get up at the [USRowing] board meeting, and give our plans for the year. Igor would always say, ‘This year, I think we win gold medal.’”

“One of his great achievements was the silver medal in 1996,” adds Butt. “They were in fantastic shape. He developed them to the point that they were all in the low 5:50s to high 5:40s [on the erg]. People were transformed by his training, which was incredibly rigorous.” What made the Atlanta silver still more impressive was that it came at a time when there was a simultaneous focus on the U.S. men’s eight under coach Mike Spracklen. “To produce that result at the end of five or six years was incredible,” Butt says.

Grinko continued to guide the U.S. national sculling team until 2000, and later worked with Estonian sculler Jüri Jaanson just prior to Jaanson’s phenomenal performance in Athens, where he took silver behind the sprinting Olaf Tufte. “One of his best coaching jobs was with Jüri Jaanson in 2004,” Korzeniowski continues. “Jaanson was already an older athlete, trying to come back. Many coaches tried to help him, but I think Igor’s method, his way, made Jaanson so much stronger. Jaanson led the final in the men’s single all the way until the last 250 meters. It was an unbelievable comeback, and unbelievable coaching.” Later, Grinko joined the coaching staff of the Chinese rowing federation in the lead up to the Beijing Games. “He would have his athletes do things that were right on the edge, and it took a lot of nerve to do what he would do. He believed in his process, and he did get results,” says Butt.

“He was exceptional. He was unrealistic at times, but always optimistic—a great coach and a great friend,” reflects Korzeniowski. “This jovial guy, this smiling face—I would never have expected that he would be gone before me. I would say, My God, nothing will touch him. A glass of vodka, a piece of red meat, and he will live forever. But we don’t control our lives as much as we would like to.”

A testament to the lasting bonds he created with his crews is the fund that some of his former athletes set up to help pay for his cancer treatment.

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