A coxswain who sees what's going on around him is critical to a race. John Chatzky is that kind of coxswain–then and now. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in 1979, Chatz, as he’s known in the rowing world, built a successful legal career. Chatzky competed on the national team in the years leading up to the (US-boycotted) 1980 Olympics and knows all too well the sacrifices athletes make to train for the biggest stage in the world.
More recently this coxswain has taken the rudder back, so to speak, “driving” many of the national team boats to opportunities they wouldn’t have without his generosity as a benefactor.
Mike Cipollone, a coxswain himself (see the article on Mike for his complete bio), sat down with Chatzky just before Chatzky was awarded the Jack Kelly Award at the USRowing Golden Oars event.
Mike Cipollone: Tell us about your rowing career and how you got started as a coxswain.
John Chatzky: I was a freshman at Penn in the fall of 1974 and knew nothing about rowing. A big guy asked me, “Hey, how much do you weigh?” He was a rower and he introduced me to Ted Nash [the University of Pennsylvania crew coach]. When I met Nash, he said, “Welcome aboard, son.”
But, I didn’t start coxing then. He and I were both strong-willed. We both had things we wanted. I wanted to get my scholastics established; he wanted a coxswain. It wasn’t until the first day of the spring semester when I went back to his office. There were pictures on his wall of rowers who had rowed for the national team. “Seems like you’ve got your studies figured out,” he said to me. I looked around at the pictures on the walls of his office. “I’d love to be on that wall,” I answered. He told me I could be, if I wanted it.
MC: Talk about coxing on the national team.
JC: In my junior year at Penn I tried out for the lightweight eight on the national team. Todd Jesdale said to me, “The first time you put on a USA shirt and are on the starting line when they call ‘USA’ you’re going to get goosebumps." I coxed the lightweight eight at the 1977 World Championships then, after graduation, got a deferment from law school. Rowing with Ted was a blast [Ted Nash was the coach of the national team]. You're only young once.
I went to the 1978 Worlds in New Zealand [Chatzky coxed the men’s coxed pair and won the B Final, taking seventh] and then in 1979 the selection was done at a Harry Parker camp. The top half of the guys were put into the eight and the bottom half were put into fours. I steered a coxed four in Bled, finishing fourth, 0.02 seconds from a bronze medal.
In the winter of 1979, I was in Florida when the Russians invaded Afghanistan. After the boycott, Harry Parker said, “We’re going to select a team.” Rowers had a small voice at the time. But it was important. I put off my career. We sent boats to Lucerne to race, to Henley, to Amsterdam. But not to race in the Olympics… It was the worst thing that ever happened to me. I am blessed that that is the worst thing.
MC: Do you watch the Olympics now?
JC: Every Olympics is hard to watch. The medals ceremony, especially.
MC: Can you talk about what it was like to be coached by Ted Nash?
JC: Other than my dad, Ted Nash was the most significant influence in my young life. I was with him from age 19 to age 24. Rowing was my life. The things I remember the most are “the yell” from Ted and “the stare” from Harry–both would communicate everything you needed to know from those coaches. Rowing for these two men made me appreciate my own father in my late twenties. He was strong-willed, too, and taught me to have a strong work ethic, just like Nash.
MC: How competitive was the US men’s eight in 1979?
JC: In 1979, the eight finished fifth at the World Championships and won the Grand Challenge Cup at Henley. The crew had the potential to medal at the Olympics. An unusual series of events [the US-boycott of the Olympics] made this impossible. At the Worlds in 1979, we were faster than we were first. We were excited–about to win a medal at Worlds–and we went out too fast.
A substantial number of those guys continue to row. They’ve done the Head of the Charles from 1980 to 2016 as a boat. It’s basically the same crew. They’ve medaled in every age category.
MC: What’s your involvement with rowing today? Can you talk about what you’re doing now, the support you give to rowing and rowers?
JC: I was on the board of the National Rowing Foundation for ten years, and I’ve been on the board of Penn Rowing. In the spring and summer I go out in the [national team] launches. I like to be involved as much as I can be.
I also like to invest in start-up companies where the founders are rowers–people who are taking a risk. Rowing is a lifetime bond. If an athlete has rowed, I know they have a strong work ethic.