Coach, Educator, Mentor, and 2016 USRowing Medal Recipient
By Ed Moran • September 26, 2016
From the time Kris Korzeniowski began teaching athletes and coaches how to properly move racing shells and train for maximum results over the course of a long rowing season, he has left an indelible mark on the sport in the United States.
Through the 1980s to the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, countless athletes have been either mentored directly or learned from the articles, videotapes, and coaching manuals that Korzeniowski either produced or authored and had their careers shaped by him.
“I was a college athlete when Kris was working as the technical director at USRowing,” said USRowing Chief Executive Officer, Glenn Merry. “My rowing, and more importantly, my rowing coach’s approach to rowing, changed because of Kris.
“The unification of technique under his leadership dates back to those days in the 1980s,” he said. “He created a consolidated technical approach to teaching the stroke. He refined it into what would become the formal coaching education certification program.
“And this became the basis for how generations of rowers have been taught and applied rowing technique in this country. He is the father of our modern education system, one of the best technical coaches in the world, and a mentor to many of the top coaches in this country,” said Merry.
For his tireless efforts and commitment to, and love of, American rowing, Korzeniowski has been named the 2016 recipient of the USRowing Medal. It is the association’s highest honor and is awarded to an individual who has demonstrated a lifetime of commitment and selfless contribution to the sport of rowing.
Korzeniowski will be honored at the 2016 Golden Oars Awards Dinner on Nov. 17, at the New York Athletic Club in New York City.
“The USRowing Medal is a unique recognition. And in Kris’ case, he is absolutely unique because he shifted the sport for the United States,” Merry said.
“I’m honored, very honored,” Korzeniowski said from the boatyard in Rio de Janeiro. “I never thought about receiving this award before. Yes, I know about my contributions to American rowing.
“I know about my feelings for American rowing. I know how much I love American rowing and how much I would like to improve American rowing, but I was surprised by this honor. I’ve worked as a college coach, a national team director, as a coach now, as an assistant coach. I know American rowing, and I love it. To be named with such other past recipients as Harry Parker is a great honor for me.”
The fact that Korzeniowski was in Rio coaching this summer is testament to why he is so deserving of this kind of award. He was supposed to have been on a family vacation in Italy. It was a trip he had planned and was very much looking forward to. But there were two athletes who needed his help.
After overseeing Nareg Guregian and Anders Weiss to a win at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials in the men’s pair in July, he was asked by the athletes and the U.S. national team staff to go with them to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio and continue to coach them.
“He told us on the first day he coached us that if we were to win trials, he wouldn’t be able to come to Rio because of his planned trip to Italy,” Guregian said. “He said he intentionally picked those vacation days too, because otherwise, he’d find a reason to go to Rio. I told him I couldn’t care less. Let’s just win trials first, then figure the rest out.”
Korzeniowski might have given the impression that he would have to think seriously about staying on through the Olympics, but he must not have thought long, because when the heats started in the pairs event, it was Korzeniowski who prepared and launched the crew.
His decision was no surprise to former U.S. national team men’s head coach Mike Teti.
“What most people don’t know about Kris is the size of his heart and his dedication to American rowing. Kris will coach anybody who asks,” Teti said. “I’ve seen him on the Schuylkill River with high school, masters and adaptive athletes. He would coach anyone who asked him.”
Korzeniowski began his rowing career and was a competitive rower for 10 years in his native Poland. Following his time as a competitor, Korzeniowski began coaching. He started with juniors and moved up through the various levels to senior and then to his first Olympic team in 1972.
He coached the Canadian women for four years, guiding them to their first medals in the pair and eight at the 1977 World Rowing Championships. He then moved to the U.S. and the women’s program at Princeton University. He also coached the U.S. women’s national team eight to bronze in 1979 and followed that with a win at the Lucerne World Rowing Cup in 1980. He then moved to Italy and worked with coaching legend Thor Nilsen from 1981 to 1983.
The next year, 1984, Korzeniowski returned to the United States. And that was when Teti first met him.
“I was with Kris in a camp in Florida in 1984,” Teti said. “I probably learned more about rowing in those first 10 days than in my first 10 years in rowing. “I didn’t know if this guy was a nice guy or not, but he was effective.”
Korzeniowski is known to be blunt and to the point when he coaches. “In the United States, sometimes they over-praise,” Korzeniowski said during one newspaper interview. “If it is bad, it’s bad. If it’s correct, use praise. You lose credibility if you don’t. You have to give sober, realistic feedback. If they do it well, praise them immediately. I give honest assessments and positive reinforcement.”
Teti said no matter what style Korzeniowski used, he was the best at spotting where a crew could make improvements. It’s a skill he still has, Teti said.
“He’s the only coach who could look at a crew rowing, immediately find their limiting factor, and then come up with some exercise to fix it. From that standpoint, he is unmatched.”
While he was a USRowing head coach and technical director, U.S. crews made their mark on world rowing, winning multiple world championships and Olympic medals between 1984 and 1988.
Following that stint with the U.S. team, Korzeniowski moved to China and coached the Chinese women in 1993, where he guided them to two gold medals in the quadruple sculls and four.
After that, he spent the next seven years with the Dutch team. His crews won seven medals, including Olympic bronze in 1996 and silver in 2000 with the women’s crews. In 1999, his Dutch men’s eight set a new world best time, twice.
He returned to the U.S. in 2001 and continued coaching through 2010. During his time coaching, Korzeniowski’s ability to teach was always evident. He instituted the USA certification program in 1989 and is the author of USRowing’s Level I Coaching Manual.
He has published numerous articles on coaching and also produced several coaching videos including “Sculling Fundamentals,” “How to Improve Rowing Technique,” “Rowing Technique with Kris Korzeniowski,” and “The Art of Moving the Boat.”
Following the 2010 World Rowing Championships, Korzeniowski became the USRowing Director of Coaching Education and began to build on the coaching education work he started in 1989.
“Being coached by Kris was a special experience,” Guregian said. “He is so knowledgeable about the sport that it humbles you. He quickly made me realize I know nothing about rowing. His vast knowledge of technique, training and the history of the sport is unrivaled.
“I can speak for Anders when I say how lucky we feel to have him coach us. Maybe it was the circumstances in which the three of us got together, but it was the most productive training block I’ve ever had. None of us had anything to lose, and we really thrived because of it.
“Having him at the Olympics was great. He made it easy for us to focus on the rowing, ameliorating the inevitable distractions and hiccups we would experience in the day-to-day regatta prep. Story time at breakfast post-practice was also a treat. I hope for him, and for the team, that we are not the last crew he coaches.”