In August, former Cornell heavyweight rower Alex Karwoski ’12 competed in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro representing the United States of America, where his boat placed fourth overall in the men’s coxed eight. Karwoski’s story begins in Ithaca.
Karwoski found himself at Cornell’s College of Engineering in his second year of college, after spending his freshman year at Trinity College.
“I was super lucky,” Karwoski said. “I still think they made a mistake in the admissions office … I think they put my name down by accident.”
Karwoski competed as a heavyweight rower at Cornell and in the Olympics. However, his rowing career began in the lightweight boat.
“Initially I started as a lightweight rower,” Karwoski said. “After about a month, I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to lose the 15 pounds necessary to be a lightweight [and] I asked if I could join the heavyweight team.”
He started on the J.V. squad and worked his way up to the varsity team, where he found his place.
“I settled in with a great group of guys,” he said. “The team was awesome.”
He also praised his coach, Todd Kennett, who still leads the Red’s heavyweight squad today.
A lot of Karwowski’s challenges and accomplishments did not come in the form of rowing, but rather up on the hill. He credits graduating as one of his greatest accomplishments at Cornell given the school’s intense academic rigor.
“I would be up early with practice and then spend more or less all day in Hollister or Duffield studying,” he said. “It never came super easy to me.”
The rower’s greatest accomplishment on the water happened at the very beginning of his Cornell career. Coming from a Division III school with significantly less talented rowers than Cornell, joining the Red was quite a daunting task at first.
“I found myself out-gunned in terms of strength and size and speed,” he said. “But I kept my head down … and we finished sixth at the national championship.”
“It wasn’t so much about how we finished that season but more of being a part of that boat.”
His rowing career took another leap in his senior year at Cornell.
“I got invited to the U23 [USA National Team] after my junior year [and] got cut,” Karwoski said. “Then, I was invited again my senior year and made it.”
After working nine months at a boarding school, the recently graduated Karwoski got the call.
“I was invited to join the training center in Princeton with the national team,” Karwoski said. “The luck continued for another few years, and I found myself in Rio which is pretty incredible.”
While the Ivy League has its own merits, competing on the Olympic stage is a completely different world.
“The Olympics are nuts,” Karwoski said. “In college, they would poll the crews, and they would go ‘Harvard ready, Cornell ready…’ and [then] you get to the World Championships for rowing and [they would go] ‘Germany ready, Great Britain ready.’”
“That hits you, as, ‘Woah, I am representing a small contingency of the United States, but I get to wear the red, white and blue and represent,’” he continued. “Then going to the Olympics is about that times 25.”
For Karwoski, the opportunity to be around the best of the best in so many different sports in Rio was quite special.
“Everywhere you go, there all these different athletes, all these different countries,” he said. “The village is 19,000 people all representing their country. It was such a cool immersion of sports, athletics and competition.”
Seeing all the events in Rio, Karwoski was able to truly understand what he and all the other athletes there had done.
“You see all these people, and while they weren’t doing what you were doing for the past four years, everybody was working just as hard,” he said. “You start to appreciate that level of commitment; it was surreal.”
“It still has not really set in that I was just at the Olympics.”
Karwoski and his boat-mates even found themselves interacting with some of the world’s greatest.
“We were walking to dinner one night and Michael Phelps was walking out,” he said. “And we just sort of walked past him and said, ‘hey,’ and he said, ‘sup guys.’”
“And he is an incredible athlete, let alone one of the greatest Olympians of all time and he is just a normal guy, wearing the same gear we are grabbing the same food.”
While being at the Olympics is an experience and accomplishment on its own, there was one great task at hand: winning.
Placing fourth, Karwoski and Team USA did not have an incredible first heat. However, a resurgence came in the Repechage when his boat came in first place, putting Team USA in the finals. But Karwoski boat did not get the result they had hoped for, coming in fourth place overall in the men’s coxed eight.
“We did not finish where we were aiming for,” Karwoski said. “You come to the Olympics to win. And then if not, you get a medal. Fourth place obviously was not where we wanted to be.”
Karwoski is accepting of the result, albeit disappointed, and understands what happened.
“We did not have our best race when we needed to execute,” he said. “You knock as many practice exams out of the park as you want, but when it comes to take the final exam, if you stumble and don’t do as well as you want, well then you are probably not going to pass the course.”
And to say the least, Team USA did not knock it out of the park after what was a great Repechage prior to that final race.
Karwoski’s boat competed against Poland, the Netherlands, Great Britain, Germany and New Zealand. Great Britain, Germany and the Netherlands got gold, silver and bronze, respectively.
“We didn’t get into a great rhythm,” Karwoski said. “We weren’t sending the boat cleanly away together and that cost us some significant energy usage in the first couple of minutes of the race.”
“Great Britain, Germany and the Netherlands had too great of a lead, too much traction in the water, and we were not able to muster anything heroic,” he continued. “And that’s just how it sort of finished.”
Nevertheless, Karwoski’s involvement with rowing will not end there, as the former member of the Red and Team USA will return to Ithaca this fall. Karwoski was recently hired by the men’s heavyweight rowing team as an assistant coach.
“I am excited to join the team and help in any capacity,” Karwoski said. “Recruiting, with current athletes, is my main focus, and seeing what I can bring to the team after being away for four years, but obviously having that undying love for what Cornell rowing and Cornell University did for me, has done for me and continues to do for me.”
Karwoski’s desire to give back has pulled him right back in. Despite his penchant for Cornell and Ithaca, he was not entirely sure about coaching. But after talking to the coach and players, Karwoski felt that at the very least he had to try because at his core, rowing is his true passion.