Fifty years and many athletes later, the Konopka family does not want to stay away from Penn rowing.
The Konopkas' relationship with Penn started in 1969, when Walter Konopka was admitted to Wharton and started to row competitively for the Quakers. In the following years, Walter's younger siblings followed in his footsteps. His sisters, Catherine (W’75) and Joan (W’83), were recruited for the women’s team, while his brother, Bruce (W’78), competed as a lightweight rower.
Despite describing himself as “the lightest guy by a mile” on the roster, Bruce soon proved to be one of the most successful athletes in the program’s history. He served as a captain during his junior and senior year, earning first team All-Ivy honors twice. In 2017, Bruce was inducted into the Penn Athletics Hall of Fame.
“I had a lot of determination. I did have some success in high school, but the drive to succeed in college just got bigger and bigger,” Bruce said. “It was nice to be part of a common group of people where we all worked really hard every day because the desire became infectious on the entire team.”
Soon after graduation, Bruce accepted an invitation to return to Penn to work as an assistant coach for the freshman heavyweights. He then took over the women’s program for two years before becoming the lightweight head coach in 1991, a position he held for the following 12 years.
“Our family is really big on finding ways to give back to the places that have helped you before, so I tried to give the athletes the same experience that I had," Bruce said.
Penn Athletics also had an impact on Bruce’s personal life. Through rowing, he met Molly, who was part of the varsity women’s squad in the 1980s and later became his wife. Bruce and Molly's close relationship with Penn rowing had a big influence on their children as well. James, their oldest son, recalls being at rowing events at Penn from a very young age.
“During my sophomore year, I filled out the Penn recruiting questionnaire, but I didn’t hear anything back. So back in my mind, I didn’t really think it would work for me,” James said. “It wasn’t until the current lightweight head coach, [Colin Farrell], contacted me at the beginning of my senior year based off that questionnaire. That’s when the reality of rowing at Penn started to come to fruition.”
Nonetheless, the 2018 graduate found great success during his time at Penn. James competed all four years at the Intercollegiate Rowing Association National Championship, achieving a fourth place finish in the varsity lightweight 8+ in 2016 and a fifth place the following year. He also served as the team captain during his senior year.
In 2018, James' younger sister, Josie, joined the Quakers and continued the family’s rowing legacy. Despite being a three-sport athlete in high school, Josie displayed dominant performances as a rower, especially in 2018, when she finished second at the Stotesbury Regatta and at the SRAA National Championships.
“I looked at a bunch of places during my junior year, especially because I was a lightweight rower in high school and Penn doesn’t have a lightweight team,” Josie said. “But my parents still encouraged me to reach out to the coach and start talking to Penn because the program was starting to do pretty well. My brother also loved the school so much and talked so highly of it, so that also influenced my decision to come to Penn.”
The Konopka family has left a mark in other sports at Penn, as well. Bruce’s brother-in-law, Glenn Partridge, was a member of the baseball and soccer teams that received NCAA Tournament berths during his time at the school. He also became a Penn Athletics Hall of Famer in 2003.
“He might get a little overwhelmed by the rowing conversations at times,” Bruce joked. “But really, I’m proud of our experiences at Penn, and it’s something we’d like to keep going. They have been so good to us, so we want to be good to Penn.”
Indeed, the Konopka dynasty has been good to Penn and its rowing programs for the past 50 years and counting.
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