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Boat Race 2024: Kenny Coplan eyeing up spot in Cambridge Blue boat after making transition from basketball court to rowing boat

If New Jersey-raised Kenny Coplan finds himself on the start-line in the Cambridge Blue boat for next month’s Gemini Boat Race, he may well allow his mind the brief opportunity to drift back to when he was 14 years old.

And there is also a high chance that he will afford himself a wry smile.

After all, while it would be extreme to say that he was dragged to his first ever rowing experience kicking and screaming, Coplan was nevertheless a reluctant attendee at Montclair High School’s learn to row programme.

Basketball was his passion, and the New York Knicks fan harboured ambitions of playing at college.

But Coplan’s father, who turned down the chance to row in his youth, saw the potential in his son and signed him up for an event that was hosted by British coach Jerry Michaels. The rest, as they say, is history.

“My father was quite tall and skinny as a teenager. He went to Columbia University and they approached him to row and he turned it down. He wanted to focus on his studies and later in life he regretted that,” said Coplan, who is studying for a MPhil in the history of art – with a focus on Chinese art – at Hughes Hall.

Kenny Coplan is eager to secure himself a spot in the Cambridge boat for the Gemini Boat Race Picture: Keith Heppell
Kenny Coplan is eager to secure himself a spot in the Cambridge boat for the Gemini Boat Race Picture: Keith Heppell

“In my hometown, my local high school happened to have a rowing team and so when my father learned that, he signed me up for a weekend learn to row programme - against my will!

“At the time I was very much focused on basketball. I’d got into high school planning on playing basketball and I assumed I wouldn’t have time for rowing or anything else. It made sense to me to work on basketball instead of trying something new.

“But during that rowing weekend, I hopped on an erg and produced a very good time on a 250m piece. The head coach, Jerry, recognised a lot of potential in me.

“When my father picked me up after the weekend, he jokingly asked Jerry if he could get me recruited to Columbia to row, to which Jerry responded: ‘We can do a lot better than that’.

“As a 14-year-old, hearing that I had a big future in the sport and tons of potential that could potentially get me recruited to row and study in the Ivy League, that really stuck with me.

“From that point on my goal was to attend an elite university and row. That very much became my motivating factor.

“I became hooked. I fell in love with rowing and the erging as well.”

Coplan’s rowing journey has since taken him to Harvard University and numerous age-group international events, during which he has collected bronze and silver medals as part of USA squads.

Yet the path has not always been straightforward, particularly in 2021.

Coplan was part of the American crew that finished runners-up at the Under-23 World Championships in the Czech Republic, losing out to their Great Britain counterparts by a mere 0.2 seconds.

Yet the now 24-year-old defied several medical opinions just to be there. A herniated disc in his back left Coplan, who was on a gap year in London and rowing for the Tideway Scullers, feeling incapacitated.

It meant that he would ultimately have only one month to get himself in shape, but despite all logic pointing to the contrary, Coplan made the cut.

He said of the experience: “In January 2021, I herniated L4/L5 disc. For three months I could barely do anything. Walking would cause sciatica, sitting would cause sciatica. I couldn’t do much at all.

“I got an injection in my back at the end of March and I was able to hop in a boat towards the end of April.

“The US 23 trials started 1 June, so I had just over a month of a run-up to those trials. I hadn’t really done any significant training, so a lot of coaches thought it would be too risky to go from three months of nothing to rowing 40k a day in the build up to the championships.

“In that May I had to be so careful and I had to lose some weight, but I worked hard and it all came together. I spent a lot of time working on hip strength, my core strength and to this day I’m still doing the exercises. Knock on wood but the back has held up since then.

“It was my last summer of eligibility. Covid had cancelled the previous one so this was my last shot. I was so happy to make the boat and get the silver medal. I’m incredibly proud of the effort and it was an incredible race to be a part of.”

His mentor, Michaels, was also filled with pride. Speaking to Montclair Local after seeing Coplan collect his silver medal alongside his team-mates, he said: “Kenny’s outstanding talent and ability to overcome difficult situations and withstand the immense pressure of training and racing at the highest level meant that he was able to cope and succeed at the highest collegiate level at Harvard and at the international level with the USA Under-23 team.”

And it is that ability to battle on in the face of adversity that has helped to put Coplan in contention for a seat in the Blue boat for 30 March.

Being part of the squad at the Goldie Boathouse has been a very different experience for Coplan, but one in which he feels at home.

“Given the amount of training the last four or five months and the training that is still to come, this is the most I’ve ever worked for any race or event in my rowing career,” he said.

“The Under-23s was a lot of training as well, but in a more condensed amount of time. This will have gone for six or seven months.

“Making the boat and having that opportunity to race would hands down be the greatest achievement I’ve produced in rowing.

“I’m proud to have been part of the process so far and excited to see where it takes me.”

“Coming from Harvard, it was refreshing. It’s a smaller squad so I’ve been able to get to know the guys well.

“At Harvard we had so many squads - even more with the lightweights - but I definitely like the smaller environment.

“The coaches, Bill and Rob, have done a phenomenal job in terms of their eye for the sport and making it clear what they want. Their coaching has been great for me.

“The presidents and the vice-presidents, they’ve done a great job at setting up a training environment where everyone is really pushing each other.

“It’s more team-goal oriented rather than about the individuals. It’s easy when it comes to things like selection for tensions to run high, but I’ve been impressed by the team culture.

“It’s very much about making the Blue boat and the whole squad better, not just one person.”

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