By EDWARD KENSIK
for Montclair Local
Kenny Coplan, Montclair High School graduate and rower, received the worst news at the worst time when he suffered a herniated disc on Jan. 3, while rowing in London.
Coplan was looking to qualify for the U.S. 8 rowing team for the U23 World Championships in July in Racice, Czech Republic.
But even though some of the coaches told him he could reinjure his back if he continued to train in preparation for the U23 selection process, he decided to move forward.
“In the UK my coaches at [physical therapy] did not think I could get back in shape in time for the start of U23 training on June 1,” Coplan said. “They believed if I tried to go back too quickly I would reinjure myself. I was determined to give it a try because if I didn’t in my last year of eligibility it would have haunted me.”
By the time the next opportunity to try out came, Coplan would be past the cutoff age and unable to take part. If he wanted to compete, he could not miss the June tryout to be held on the Charles River in Boston.
During that selection process the coaches would put together lineups of rowers and see how quickly they rowed together, and then switch around the lineups until they found the quickest.
The process took two weeks; Coplan was one of those selected for the team. He went on to help the United States 8 rowing team to a silver medal in the Czech Republic last month.
The Montclair native said winning the silver ranked among his top three rowing accomplishments to date. The other two were his first World Championship medal, a bronze at the 2016 World Rowing Junior Championships in the coxed 4, and the bronze he won as a member of Harvard’s varsity eight at the 2019 IRA National Championships, the U.S. college championships.
Coplan, a 2018 MHS graduate and a rising junior at Harvard, gave credit to his high school rowing coach.
“I’m tremendously thankful to Jeremy Michalitsianos, who supported me throughout this process and believed in me when I didn’t even believe I could come back in time,” said Coplan, who sat in the fourth seat for the U.S. team.
It was Michalitsianos who got Coplan going on the sport of rowing. Coplan’s parents had signed him up to row at Michalitsianos’ Learn to Row camp in the summer before his freshman year at MHS.
Coplan brought home several medals while rowing for Montclair High School, and also while rowing individually, including being part of the U.S. Junior National Team and winning a bronze medal at the 2016 World Rowing Junior Championships in the coxed 4 in the Netherlands.
Michalitsianos said he was confident Coplan would be able to withstand the injury and row his best in the Czech Republic.
“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,” the coach said.
In the finals at the Worlds, the U.S. squad went neck-and-neck with Germany and Great Britain. In the end the U.S. missed the gold medal by 0.2 seconds to Great Britain, and beat Germany by 1 second to grab second place.
“I have never been in a race where the top three boats were so close together throughout the entire race,” Coplan said. “That was one of the hardest races I have been a part of, and it is one of my proudest rowing moments. My boat gave it our all. I don’t think we could have taken another stroke, we put it all out there.”
He added that the two other crews that brought home hardware were as tired as the U.S. group.
“Funny enough on the podium, waiting to get our medals, neither GB nor Germany could stand straight,” Coplan said. “They were just as exhausted as we were. I have never seen three crews from a race who were equally so exhausted before.
“I jokingly said it took me a few days to recover from that race. I am incredibly honored to have raced in such a race. It is a memory I will cherish.”
With the World Championships behind him, Coplan spent a few weeks traveling in Europe and is spending August training for a return to Harvard’s team.
Harvard head coach Charles Butt is looking forward to that return.
“Kenny has made the most of his time off by nearly winning the U23 World Rowing Championships,” Butt said. “We’re delighted that he’s stronger and faster on his return to Harvard and Harvard rowing.”
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, Coplan took a leave of absence from Harvard for the 2020-21 academic year.
Instead he went across the pond, and roughed it by living in an attic while rowing at Tideway Scullers School boathouse on the Thames River in London.
“Training in London gave me my first flavor of what life is like rowing full time,” he said.
Rowing was not really on the radar for Coplan heading into Montclair High School. He had been playing basketball in middle school and played soccer, lacrosse and hockey when he was younger.
“When I started rowing I really liked being out on the water,” he said. “I felt that training in the boats was not only great exercise but also a lot of fun. I also really enjoyed the team aspect of the sport.
“Rowing at Montclair felt like the first time I was working towards a collective goal greater than anyone’s self.”