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Jerry Sullivan: Kwitchoff the latest in the rowing pipeline to Princeton

In the summer of 2013, after his freshman year of high school, Charlie Kwitchoff attended a Princeton rowing camp with a bunch of his pals. Marty Crotty, the lightweight coach at the Ivy League school, was from Buffalo, so he naturally took an interest in the group from his hometown.

Crotty chatted up the kids and their families. He asked for their best score on the 2-Kilometer rowing erogmeter, a common measure of a rower's power. Most were in the low seven-minute range, which was quite respectable for a kid that age.

Then he asked Charlie, who proudly informed him that he had pulled a 6:46 2K on the machine.

"Wow!" Crotty said. Then he turned to the parents and said, "What are you feeding this kid that you're not feeding the other kids?"

Crotty made a mental note to keep track of Kwitchoff, whom he remembers as "this 130-pound little spitfire." He saw something special in the kid, a rare combination of talent, hunger and will that only the best rowers possessed.

Kwitchoff felt something special, too. After spending a few days on Princeton's majestic old campus and being exposed to it prestigious rowing program, he was hooked. He fell in love with the place.

"He came home and said, 'That's where I want to go to school,'" his father, Artie, said. "I said, 'You've got your work cut out for you! I'm glad you want to go. Do you realize what that entails?"

Artie laughed at the memory. If there's one thing about his son, it's that once he set his mind to something, he'll do everything in his power to achieve it. From  that moment on, as an honor student and star rower at St. Joe's, Charlie had a singular goal: To attend Princeton and be part of the rowing program.

Of course, Buffalo and the West Side Rowing Club have a rich history with Princeton. Olympians Tom Murray and Kevin Cotter attended Princeton. So did Steve Coppola, who won a bronze medal at Beijing in the men's eight and is now an assistant coach for the women's team at Princeton. Jim Neil, who competed in the 1992 Olympics, trained there.

Kwitchoff, 18, knew more recent Buffalo rowers who had competed for Princeton, Jamie Hamp and Will Downing. Then there was Crotty, who had been a lightweight for the U.S. in international competitions before taking the Princeton job in 2009.

"When I came to visit, I must have seen what those other guys saw," Kwitchoff said, "because it's really a special and exciting place."

So he put in the work, on the water and the ergometer and in the classroom, and became a top student and rower, one of the best in the country. Last year, early in his senior year at St. Joe's, Charlie committed to Princeton. The little spitfire, now a wiry, 5-foot-11, 157-pound lightweight, has been everything Crotty imagined.

"Despite the fact that we had pretty high expectations for what he was going to bring -- at least in the work ethic side -- he's exceeded those," Crotty said, "and it was definitely reflected last week with this little erg score he got."

Last Friday at Princeton, Kwitchoff broke the 18-and-under world record for lightweights (under 165 pounds) in the 6,000 meters, clocking a 19:47 on the "Concept 2" ergometer to beat the old record, which had been set a few weeks earlier by a young rival in Texas.

For the layman, the idea of racing six kilometers on a machine, rather than on water, must seem a bit incongruous. But erg training is a vital part of the sport, a reliable indication of a competitor's speed, endurance and power.

"We had a pretty good sense because all the million different workouts do translate," Crotty said. "It's like track workouts. You have a pretty good idea of what a guy can do. We knew he was going to give it a run, so we said, 'Well, let's make it official.'"

To register as official, an erg workout has to be filmed and sent to Concept 2, the universally recognized certifier of indoor rowing records. Crotty said Kwitchoff, a quiet, self-effacing sort, was sort of embarrassed by it all.

"It's a bit of a weird process," Kwitchoff said. "You have to film your weigh-in and the entire race. You have to take pictures of the screen on the rowing machine. You really see what motivates guys. You'll see a few guys who are really quiet, a few who are loud, and you'll see some in-between, guys wanting to get mentally ready for the pain that they're about to endure."


"Yeah," said Kwitchoff, who plans to major in public policy. "That's essentially what it is, right? It's a pain contest."

Jim Neil, who coached Kwitchoff when he was a young rower, said he and other top heavyweight rowers didn't approach that time until they were well into college. Crotty said it was remarkable, and a sign that Charlie could be the next Buffalo rower to make a run at the Olympics (That assumes the IOC, which is meeting this weekend in Japan to discuss the rowing events, keeps lightweights in the Games.)

"Some people might say that's premature, but they weren't pulling 19:47 when they were 18 years old," Crotty said. "Charlie has a blend of rare athletic gifts and a work ethic to match it. He goes about his business. He's humble. He's quiet. He's put the time in and it's paying off."

Kwitchoff said the Olympics is "only in the back of my mind." He said right now it's all about Princeton, about getting an Ivy League education and becoming better as a rower. He agrees with Crotty that he's in for an awakening when he begins competing against the best in the country on the water this spring.

He said his work ethic comes from his parents, Artie and Joan. His younger brother, Max, is an eighth-grader who will attend St. Joe's next year. His parents told Charlie he could achieve anything if he had a passion for it and was willing to work hard. The key was finding the right place and coaches to nurture his talent. He found that at Princeton.

"He's going to be challenged," said Artie, a noted music promoter and owner of the iconic Town Ballroom in Buffalo. "He's going to get his ass kicked a bit. He studies and he rows. He likes being in that environment. It's a perfect environment for him."

Charlie is keenly aware of the rowing bond between Buffalo and Princeton. The national team trains there. That's where Tom Terhaar prepared his women's team, including fellow Buffalo native Emily Regan, for the Olympics.

"People are very passioniate about the sport here," Artie Kwitchoff said. "Charlie was lucky. These guys tapped into what they saw in him and he felt that history; he felt that responsibility to carry it forward."

Crotty admits he has a bias for Buffalo kids, and rowers from rust belt towns, because they're hard workers and leaders and almost invariably succeed.

"We've had a lot of success with Buffalo kids down here at Princeton," Crotty said. " Now Charlie is the next to come along. There's something working as far as Princeton and Buffalo. Keep 'em coming. Keep 'em coming."

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