Whether or not any future Olympians were among the attendees at the Duluth Rowing Center’s community celebration Friday night, Dave Krmpotich’s message carried the same weight.
Krmpotich, the Duluthian who earned a silver medal in rowing at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, returned to his hometown from Philadelphia to speak at the $1.5 million boathouse that carries the name of his late brother, Joseph, and to race at Saturday's annual Duluth International Regatta.
His main point to the many youth members of the club — a record 144 this year — was that rowing is for anyone of any age or gender.
“Rowing is a sport that you can do all your life, that’s the benefit of it,” Krmpotich said. “Hopefully, that’s what I tried to put across to the kids. The goal is to introduce the sport to as many people as possible.
“Plus you meet a lot of people who have a great work ethic and want to give back.”
The 64-year-old Krmpotich knows what he’s talking about. Renowned as an All-American basketball player at Duluth Cathedral and later a standout at Minnesota Duluth in the 1970s, Krmpotich made his mark in a rowing shell through hard work and determination.
Since 1985, he’s been passing along his knowledge of the sport as well as life’s lessons as coach of the Monsignor Bonner Catholic High School crew team in suburban Philadelphia.
Despite two hip replacements and one for a bad knee, Krmpotich runs and rows with the teenagers, sweating right alongside them.
“He’s one of the toughest men I’ve ever met in my life,” said Jimmy Lynn, who helps coach the crew team and accompanied Krmpotich on the trip west. “You talk about perseverance and dedication, he’s so focused and his coaching is underscored by that. He tries to instill the character to make yourself better than you think you can make yourself. That’s an inspiration to me.”
Krmpotich, who has owned his own moving company in Philadelphia the past 30 years, still races competitively in masters events. He won a straight pairs race for his age group at a Fourth of July event in Philadelphia and will be out in a shell at Saturday's regatta.
Growing up in a family with three brothers and two sisters who also rowed helped fuel Krmpotich’s competitive juices.
It also was the perfect cross-training exercise for basketball, and his 6-foot-5, 200-pound physique was a bonus for both sports.
“When you row, you can get in shape for other sports,” Krmpotich said. “You’re running, working your cardiovascular and you are getting stronger. All those things can be used in any sport.”
Krmpotich majored in criminology at UMD, even serving as a campus police officer for a year, before finishing his studies at the University of Wisconsin and rowing on the Badgers’ acclaimed crew team for one season.
Rough path to the Olympics
Krmpotich’s path to Seoul was littered with obstacles.
The United States boycotted the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, when Krmpotich was an alternate, then he proceeded to deal with several health issues and the politics of the sport for the next eight years.
Krmpotich suffered from an undiagnosed case of chronic mononucleosis for an entire year before the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles, costing him a chance to qualify at the Olympic Trials, then the next year a discount dentist in Belgium pulled out an impacted wisdom tooth that later became infected and caused Krmpotich to lose 25 pounds during the week of the World Championships.
Krmpotich overcame those physical issues — he was a member of the winning eight-man with coxswain at the 1986 Goodwill Games in Moscow — but overcoming the political nature of the selection process was perhaps more problematic.
A battle ensued between those who attended the Team USA camps and those who rowed for the Penn AC club, coached by the legendary Ted Nash. Krmpotich was one of the latter and was essentially blackballed by his country’s Olympic coaches.
Told by the U.S. staff that he was not among the top 100 rowers in the country after a subpar 1987 worlds, Krmpotich banded together with Raoul Rodriguez, Richard Kennelly and Tom Bohrer at the last moment to beat the top-ranked U.S. straight four team and qualify for the 1988 Olympics.
“It was just the right combination (of rowers),” Krmpotich said.
Once on the choppy waters of the Han River in South Korea, Krmpotich’s group of castoffs put its oars into high gear and reached the final. Racing from a disadvantageous outside lane, the U.S. caught everyone in the final except the East Germans to earn the silver medal.
“We were one second behind the East Germans and we beat the West Germans by a second and a half,” Krmpotich said.
Perhaps even more gratifying, Krmpotich says, was being selected by his Olympic peers to carry the torch through the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea just prior to the Opening Ceremony.
“That was a great honor to have the troops running alongside me in the DMZ,” he said.
Duluth has storied rowing history
Long before Krmpotich climbed into a racing shell, Duluth was the nation’s rowing epicenter. The city held the 1916 national championships and produced some of the nation’s greatest rowers of the first quarter of the 20th century such as Walter Hoover and the “Invincible Four.” When Hoover won the prestigious 1922 Diamond Sculls on the River Thames in London, he was greeted by an estimated 65,000 people at a downtown Duluth festival in his honor.
But monetary backing for the mighty Duluth Boat Club dried up just before the Depression and remained nonexistent until the club was revived by Henning Peterson in 1955.
Yet it took another six decades for the dilapidated boathouse to be upgraded.
Dave’s late brother, Joseph Krmpotich, bequeathed $488,000 from his estate to help fund the $1.5 million project that took the last six years to complete. The rest of the funds were privately donated as was the vast majority of the labor.
“It’s a pretty complex process involving the DNR, the Army Corps of Engineers, the city and a number of government agencies,” said Jenny Peterson, a national champion masters rower who helped formulate the project. “It’s been a long haul so that’s what we’re celebrating. We couldn’t be more ecstatic.”
Joseph Krmpotich attended UMD and rowed for the Duluth Rowing Club. Dave says his brother often theorized about renovating the boathouse.
“He would say, ‘Someday we’ll do something,’ but no one really believed him,” Dave Krmpotich said. “So (after his death) we thought, let’s make that happen."
The end result, with its rows of rowing shells and scenic view of the harbor, is stunning.
“This is as nice as any boathouse in the country," Krmpotich said.
Michael Cochrane has been involved with the Duluth Rowing Club for 50-plus years and wrote the 2011 book “Invincible: History of the Duluth Boat Club.” The new facility is light years better than the old one, he says.
“It’s night and day,” Cochrane said. “When I first started rowing (in 1967), all we had were three eight(-person shells). We didn’t have any singles, any doubles or any fours.
“Maybe someday in the future we’ll be pumping out more Olympians like Dave, but whether we do or not, we’re giving (144) kids this year the exposure to this amazing sport.”