Written by Dave Zeitlin C’03, this feature originally appeared on PennAthletics.com on April 14, 2017
For Bruce Konopka W’78, rowing at Penn has always been, as he puts it, “a family thing.” His older brother and older sister both did it, carving a path he happily followed. So did his younger sister. And his son, James, is currently a junior on Penn’s lightweight rowing team.
So when Konopka found out, after being a part of the University as an athlete or coach for nearly 30 years and spending even more time cheering on family members along Boathouse Row, that he’s being inducted into the Penn Athletics Hall of Fame this year, it’s fair to say his emotions got the better of him.
“It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” he said. “Penn means the world to me.”
In many ways, the honor is a long time coming for Konopka, who will be the first lightweight rower to enter Penn’s Hall of Fame. In another way, you can say it’s a surprising pinnacle for someone who, even by lightweight standards, never particularly looked the part of a dominant athlete.
As an underclassmen, Konopka said he was the “lightest guy by a mile”—to the point where a lot of times during weigh-ins, people would assume he was the coxswain (the person in charge of the navigation and steering). But he quickly proved to anyone who might be dubious that he was a strong oarsman who, according to teammate Brian Keane C’76, had “the special sauce” that made the boat go.
“I drastically underestimated Bruce,” Keane admitted. “When I looked at him I thought, ‘man, this guy looks like Paul Simon, for crying out loud. He looks like he should be singing with Art Garfunkel.’ But you put him in a stroke suit and he made whoever was behind him give whatever they had over the course of a 2,000-meter race.”
Konopka proved that in a big way during his sophomore year (Keane’s senior year) when he helped lead the Quakers to the 1976 Eastern Sprints championship—Penn’s first victory in the illustrious competition since 1955 and one it hasn’t won since.
Calling the entire season a “magical” one where “everything just fell into place,” Konopka can still vividly recall the team going nuts when the Quakers upset Harvard and Dartmouth to win Sprints and book a spot at the famed Henley Royal Regatta in England that summer.
“Everybody was crazy out of their minds,” Konopka said. “We knew we were going to go to the English Henley, and that was one of the things that really drove me. I had never even been on an airplane before.”
The trip to England turned out to be a memorable one for Konopka, who remembered dealing with a big heat wave, celebrating the United States Bicentennial with other American tourists, and “representing the school well” on the River Thames by advancing to the semifinals.
As it turned out, that trip was only the beginning of his rowing journeys. During his senior season, Konopka said the Quakers were the first Eastern lightweight crew to go to California, winning the San Diego Crew Classic. Of course, Penn won everywhere they went, going undefeated in every dual race during his three varsity seasons with Konopka leading the way from his stroke position on the boat — and as captain and a first-team All-Ivy performer in 1977 and 1978.
“I always thought I was in control of my own destiny,” he said. “I kind of liked that. It’s probably like being a quarterback on the football team. I thought if we were going to lose, it’s going to be my own fault.”
Konopa successfully transferred those leadership qualities to coaching immediately after graduating in 1978, though it was not a transition he initially expected to make. Like his classmates, Konopka spent much of his senior year doing interviews before landing a job at the department store Strawbridge & Clothier. But just before he was set to start, his former coach and mentor Fred Leonard asked if he wanted to coach the freshman lightweight team.
So Konopka quit the Strawbridge job before he even started and accepted the job at Penn for $2,000 per year, a position he held for three years before moving up to be an assistant on the freshman heavyweights. After doing that, he briefly coached the varsity heavyweights on an interim basis, took over the women’s program for two years, and, after leaving to work in a different field (including a year in development for The Penn Fund), returned to Penn in 1991 to become the lightweight head coach for the next 12 years.
In other words, he did a little bit of everything for his alma mater—including his current position as a member of the Penn Rowing board, which he does while working as an alumni director at nearby Episcopal Academy (whose rowing team he also coaches).
“Even to this day, I still coach at the school I work at,” he said. “You kind of know every nook and cranny of the [Schuylkill] River. I’m not quite the crazy old man on the river yet but you start getting toward that.”
Konopka is a lot more respected than his words might indicate, winning ECAC Coach of the Year honors in 1984 when he was the 27-year-old interim head man of the heavyweight team, guiding the Quakers to second-place finishes at both Eastern Sprints and the IRA Regatta and rewarding them with a trip to Henley. His first year as the lightweight head coach was a terrific one, too, as the Quakers just missed winning the 1992 Eastern Sprints by .02 seconds.
Konopka also segued his success at Penn onto the national stage, coaching fellow alum John Pescatore C’86 at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics which he called a “magical” experience. And he got to travel through Europe on several other occasions for world championships as a Team USA coach, taking home a couple of medals along the way.
“As a lightweight, I was always small and I tried to make the national team but never could make it,” he said. “When they asked me to coach the national lightweight team, I remember smiling to myself. I just found it ironic because I tried so hard to make this team as an athlete and now I’m making it as a coach.”
Although the travel was rewarding, it also became a lot to handle as he began his family, which led him to step away from coaching. But now that he’s been at Episcopal for 14 years, he said he’d “absolutely” like to get back into college coaching if the right opportunity arose.
Until then, he’ll continue to cheer on James from the banks of the Schuylkill River, where the Konopka name has become practically synonymous with Penn Rowing for the last five decades.
“He’s definitely well-known on Boathouse Row,” James said. “I don’t think you can really walk down Kelly Drive without running into someone who knows us.”