Hollis native Karwoski rowing for gold
Olympic fans have been anticipating the start of the Summer Games for four long years.
Hollis native Alex Karwoski has been waiting a lifetime.
The 25-year-old Karwoski will represent the United States on the men’s eight rowing team at the Rio de Janeiro Games, which begin Friday. Karwoski, along with the rest of the men’s eight team, begin competition with heat races Aug. 8 and will attempt to take home an Olympic medal in the final on Aug. 13.
Karwoski was among 26 athletes competing for 12 spots on a boat for either the men’s eight or men’s four events from September to April. He landed with the men’s eight and felt the nerves while awaiting the start of the Final Olympic Qualification Regatta on May 24 in Lucerne, Switzerland.
"You’re sitting at the starting line and realizing that your past 3½, four years was coming down to 2,000 meters," said Karwoski, who was born in Nashua.
The United States defeated Poland, Italy, Australia and Spain in the qualifier to turn Karwoski’s dream into a reality.
"The exciting truth is that this has been my goal now for so many years and I’ve never really wanted to say it out loud for fear of jinxing it," Karwoski said. "Now, it’s finally coming true and I can say I’m going to the Olympic Games."
Road to Rio
Coming off a disappointing 20th-place finish at the 2014 World Rowing Championships, Karwoski realized he was at a crossroads – with a little help from his sister.
"My sister really drove it home," Karwoski explained. "She said, ‘OK, Alex, so you’re not going to make the Olympics, right? So how much longer are you really going to do this?’
"She wasn’t saying it to be mean, but what she did was really kind of drive home to me that if I was going to actually have a legitimate shot at anything as far as being successful, I really needed to give more of myself and devote more. I don’t think she realized it at the time, but her little quip there, two years ago, really set in motion a lot of the things that have started to take shape now."
The men’s eight squad practiced daily, once on Sundays and six times every other day with the occasional three-session day depending on their location. Daily training consisted of about five hours on the water or on the indoor rowing machine and an hour or two of physical training.
The national staff includes two coaches – one for the eight and one for the four – along with a high performance director and full-time physical therapist. However, the 14 members of the team who fought for a position with Karwoski, only to miss the cut, were as important as anyone to the team’s development.
"To not include them in this whole adventure would be pretty foolish of me," Karwoski said, adding the alternate traveling with the team is thrust into a bittersweet situation. "It’s a pretty weird position to be in, knowing you’re going to the Olympics, but you’re only there in case of emergency. You came up short of your goal, but now you have potentially this bigger job that you need to be ready to go just in case."
The United States has the fourth-best shot of taking home gold, according to oddsmaker Bovada. Germany, the Netherlands and Great Britain are favored to medal.
Putting in countless hours of practice wasn’t the key to unlocking Karwoski’s dream. It was making sure he received a maximum return from those hours.
"I call it smart work," Karwoski explained. "It’s a little different than just hard work. With most things that people try to excel at – athletics, academics, anything – you have to put in a lot of hard work. I think when you get to the higher and higher levels, it’s really the amount of smart work that you put in.
"It’s not just sitting down on the indoor rowing machine and banging it back and forth," he elaborated. "It’s critiquing yourself and putting in the useful, effective time to hone in on the fine-tune skills of rowing."
The activity might seem tedious, but it has paid big dividends for the Hollis native and Groton School (Mass.) graduate.
"I sort of joke with people, but it’s probably one of the most boring sports in the world because we’re trying to do the same exact thing over and over and over again for right around six minutes. There’s no fast breaks, there’s no slam dunks and obviously there’s no touchdowns," Karwoski said. "It’s Point A to Point B as fast as possible and there’s eight of us plus the coxswain, so you can call it nine people trying to do the same thing, trying to be of one mind. The only way to really accomplish that is to put in the necessary hours together – thinking similarly and developing the same muscle memory."
Aside from Karwoski, the men’s eight team consists of Sam Ojserkis, Austin Hack, Robb Munn, Mike DiSanto, Steve Kasprzyk, Glenn Ochal, Hans Struzyna and Sam Dommer.
The team is closer to family than friends. Karwoski lives with four of them in Princeton.
"We definitely see a lot of each other," he explained. "On days when practices go well, it’s a great thing. On days when practices don’t go as well, sometimes we just need to have our space."
With ages ranging from 24 to 34, Karwoski says it’s a "fun group" but it is relatively inexperienced with the Olympics. Kasprzyk, the oldest of the bunch, helped the U.S. to fourth at the 2012 Games and the 30-year-old Ochal took home bronze in the men’s four in 2012.
Karwoski has tried to absorb as much information as possible from the returning duo.
"Considering we’re trying to do the same thing over and over again, the fact that they’ve taken millions and millions of more strokes than I have, rowing with them in the same boat and training with them, they bring a whole other level of experience to it," Karwoski explained. "Through osmosis, just sort of being around them over past four years now, I’ve sucked some of their skill into how I row and how I try to train because they’ve done it before."
Rio has recently made headlines for major concerns. The list includes the Zika virus, water quality, crime, plumbing and electrical issues at what the Australian Olympic Committee called an "uninhabitable" Olympic Village.
The ongoing problems haven’t fazed Karwoski.
"I feel like before every Olympics, there’s some sort of danger, or pollution, or something," he explained. "Barring some sort of horrific attack or catastrophe down there, there’s no way I wouldn’t go."
He certainly isn’t alone. Megan Kalmoe, a female U.S. rower, addressed the subject with a blog titled, "Stop trying to ruin the Olympics for us" which included the line, "I will row through (expletive) for you, America."
Several high-profile athletes have bowed out of the Olympics due to the concerns, but this is a rower’s time to shine.
"We don’t have multi-million dollar contracts or big championships. This is it for us," Karwoski said. "This is our Super Bowl. … For better or for worse, we only get to showcase what we do once every four years, so there would have to be some serious stuff for me to even consider not going."
Karwoski took advice from his older brother, Nick, and began rowing in high school as cross-training to stay in shape for running. He continued in college during his freshman year at Trinity in Hartford, Conn., but really started taking it to the next level after transferring to Cornell University to attain his civil and environmental engineering degree.
"Once I got to college, I kind of fell in love with it," Karwoski said. "It’s pure. The time put in equals what you can get out of it."
Walking on to a team with skilled veterans competing at the Division I level, Karwoski raised his dedication, and coordinated schedules with three fellow sophomores to train whenever there was extra time.
Cornell gave him a close-knit group in the boat, but he says his family – father Bear, mother Donna, brother Nick, and sisters Lauren and Gina – has been the most important aspect to his development.
"They have always supported the things that I’ve done, even when they’ve been as crazy as, ‘Yeah, I’m not going to have a job. I’m just going to work out for the next X-number of years,’ " Karwoski said with a laugh. "I’ve been more fortunate than I deserve with this family."
During his senior year at Cornell, Karwoski was invited to the U23 national team, a step below the senior national team.
"It really kind of hit me that there is something above what I thought was the highest I could get in rowing," Karwoski said. "It all kind of fell into place. I’m lucky. I was certainly in the right spot at the right time and here I am."