- March 11, 2021
Not much about Bernhard Stomporowski, the director of rowing and head coach of the Sarasota Scullers, is traditional.
Not his credentials — the 56-year-old "Stompo" is an Olympic rower and world champion from Germany, and has coached the sport in Switzerland, China, Brazil and California among other stops — and certainly not his way of telling stories, or the contents of those stories.
To wit: asked about his origins in the sport, Stomporowski paused before he spoke.
"Do you know the band the Sex Pistols?" Stomporowski said. "I love the Sex Pistols."
So began the tale of how Stomporowski found his life entwined with rowing. Growing up in Germany, Stomporowski admits now that he was a bit of a scamp, a punk in the cultural sense. He dressed like his favorite bands and dyed his hair different colors — he still dyes it, he said — and believed in the freedom of doing what you want. He also made some bad decisions that landed him in trouble. Stomporowski said his grades suffered as a result, and he often slept in places that were not his family home, as was the punk way.
Eventually, Stomporowski said, he found himself in front of a judge at age 16, who told him that he'd have to clean up his act unless he wanted to ruin his life forever. The judge used the local rowing club — the once across the way from where Stomporowski and his friends often sat and smoked — as an example of something that might be good for him: a club that valued structure and discipline. It was something that might teach him a few things while also being fun.
Stomporowski did join the club, but at first, he and a fellow punk friend only planned on using the club's facilities as a place to sleep. Only when he started competing in races and feeling the thrill of victory did Stomporowski start to think of the sport as something more: a future. In his first year as a rower, Stomporowski won a German junior championship. After that, his career took off: Stomporowski went on to win world championships in the lightweight 4x in 1989 and 1990, and represented Germany at the 1996 Summer Olympics in the event, finishing fifth (6:14.79).
After his own rowing days were over, Stomporowski spent time as an interior designer before getting into coaching. He joined the Sarasota Scullers in December after years of coaching high-performance teams, including the nationals teams of China and Brazil. In joining the Scullers, Stomporowski said, he's looking to get back to his roots and find the sport's joy.
"I love rowing," Stomporowski said. "It gave me my life, basically. It got me out of that downward spiraling life of being a punk. It helped me stay afloat. It's enriching, and I want these rowers to feel that enrichment."
What that means, practically, is that Stomporowski is not concerned solely with wins or losses, though he certainly hopes his kids win when they take the water. His first goal is making sure his athletes have a good experience and leaving the Scullers with a lifelong appreciation of rowing, whether they continue to row in college or not — or even if they're "good" or not. Stomporowski said that he's willing to help kids reach the upper echelons of the sport if they ask him for assistance — he has the teaching pedigree to help them give it their best shot — but that won't be his focus. The environment of the Scullers will be a welcoming one, with people of a mix of skill levels working together to achieve the best results they can without setting unrealistic expectations that might turn some rowers off.
An example of the passion Stomporowski want to breed already exists. Stomporowski said one of the rowers he coached in Switzerland is now the president of the same club that brought them together. If 20 years from now one of Stomporowski's Scullers is leading the club, he'll consider it a job well done.
"That's the kind of deep love for rowing that I want to foster," Stomporowski said.
The Scullers aren't exclusively rowing anymore when together, though. They play soccer together on Saturdays, for instance, and Stomporowski joked that he went so hard that he injured his shoulder in the last game. The club has also hosted a number of movie nights — this week's selection is "Rocky IV" — and gone on beach outings. So far, Stomporowski said, the kids are loving it. The Scullers set up a WhatsApp group, something Stomporowski learned about abroad, where everyone can share pictures of their workouts or fun activities, or just spout nonsense and silly jokes. It's a popular way for everyone to communicate, Stomporowski said.
Having been on the job just over two months, there's still a lot for Stomporowski to go to put his mark on the program. The Scullers sent out their first newsletter, written by Stomporowski, on March 3, providing the Scullers community with news on the program, lots of smiling photos, and results from the American Youth Cup and Sarasota Invitational Youth and Masters regatta, both of which were hosted at Nathan Benderson Park. It's another way Stomporowski can make the community feel like a connected group.
Now married with two kids, Stomporowski said his days spent traveling the world, a new destination every few years, are coming to an end. He and his family like Sarasota, he said, and he likes the potential he sees in what the Scullers can be.
But he still listens to punk music sometimes, not only the Sex Pistols, but bands like the Dead Kennedys and even rappers like Grandmaster Flash, who Stomporowski said were expressing themselves like punks, just with a different sound. He may not dress like like those bands anymore, but he still believes in some of their ideals, like letting people be themselves.
With the Scullers, Stomporowski finally has the perfect group to combine that ideal with the sport that changed his life, and helping young rowers flourish.
"Ultimately, I want to provide a good experience for everyone," Stomporowski said.