Larry Klecatsky (left) and Bill Belden, partners and competitiors
By the time Vinny Ventura began training in the competitive rowing group at the New York Athletic Club, Dr. Larry Klecatsky was already a national champion and well on the way to becoming one of the most decorated scullers in US history.
"We were the great unwashed intermediates, and he was already having a tremendous career," said Ventura, who went on from competitive rowing to elite coaching. "He was winning his national championships, and winning in Canada, and he was on World teams, and we were just intermediates. But he never treated us like that. He treated us as equals."
Klecatsky, Ventura said, was overly modest, almost shy, and not prone to talk about his accomplishments, or trying to tell other rowers how to train or how hard they should work. What he did do, Ventura said, "was set an example, just by the way he practiced and acted.
"We all had jobs, and worked in between training back then, and we had to be very efficient with our time," Ventura said. "But he would always do extra miles. Nobody could match him. So, to get better, we just watched him. We watched how he worked and how he reacted in situations.
"We would watch him and think, OK, we have to do more if we want to be good. He used to say, 'The boathouse is always open. The lagoon is always open. The weight room is always open'," Ventura recalled. "He never yelled at anyone. He would just say, if you want to get better, work harder."
Work harder, and let deeds speak for themselves was something that marked Klecatsky's life. From the time he discovered rowing as a teenager in 1957, Larry Klecatsky worked hard to excel, and demonstrated that mindset through every phase of his athletic and his professional careers.
When he was finished competing at the elite level in the later 1980s, he had amassed some 50 US national championships, 60 Royal Canadian Henley titles, rowed on eight national teams and one Olympic team, six of them as a lightweight, and distinguished himself as a doctor and hospital administrator who specialized in emergency medicine, leaving a legacy that will be difficult to match.
Klecatsky died Friday at his winter home in Florida. He was 77.
Born in St. Paul, Minnesota, Klecatsky began developing his lifelong passion for rowing as a teenager who at South St. Paul High School. He continued into college, and began developing into an elite sculler while attending St. Thomas College, in St. Paul, from where he graduated in 1963.
After finishing his undergraduate education, Klecatsky rowed for the Minnesota Boat Club and competed in his first major international regatta at the Pan American Games in Mexico in 1964. While continuing to row in Minnesota, Klecatsky enrolled in medical school at the University of Minnesota, where he earned his medical degree in 1967, the same year he won his first US national championship.
Following medical school, Klecatsky enlisted in the United States Navy, serving as a Physician and reaching the rank of Lieutenant First Class. Klecatsky was eventually posted to Brooklyn Naval Station. He joined the New York Athletic Club and made the New York City area his home, continuing both his medical and athletic careers.
Internationally, Klecatsky rowed in eight World Rowing Championships and one Olympics between 1975 and 1985, winning a silver medal in 1980 in the light double with partner Scott Roop at the World Rowing Lightweight Championships in Hazewinkel, Belgium.
While Klecatsky made his name as a lightweight, he rowed on two senior US teams in the men's heavyweight double, including the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, Canada, with fellow lightweight Bill Belden. The year prior to the Montreal Olympics, Klecatsky won a silver medal in the World Games in Mexico with Mike Verlin in the heavyweight double.
Klecatsky is a member of both the National Rowing Federation Hall of Fame and the New York Athletic Club Hall of Fame.
Throughout his entire career at New York AC, Klecatsky set a standard that many felt raised the level of club. But he was also a standard bearer in the medical world. One member of New York AC that knew Klecatsky outside of his rowing career is Dr. Jo Hannafin, who was also a lightweight sculler at the club, went on to become a doctor, and has served as a team physician for multiple United States national teams
"Larry had three major loves in his life," she said, "his family, his rowing and his career as an ER physician. He lived in between the hospital and NYAC and would run to and from the boathouse at least twice daily for a row.
"He was first on the water in the morning, and he set a standard for all of us. I saw him in action in the ER taking care of my young son and he was kind and thoughtful with that Midwestern sensibility. He was very respected by the staff at Sound Shore Medical Center," she said.
"The Two Lives of Dr. Klecatsky"
Klecatsky was so driven to excel in both his medical and athletic careers, he caught the attention of New York Times reporter Jim Naughton, who wrote a profile about Klecastky in July 1979, titled; "The Two Lives of Dr. Klecatsky."
Naughton caught up with Klecatsky between practice and work one morning and later wrote a piece in which Klecatsky shed some light on his thinking, and his constant pursuit of excellence. This is what Naughton wrote:
"Some say Dr. Klecatsky is self-disciplined. Some say he is masochistic. He says both, but he manages at the same time to be one of the United States best-known rowers and one of his community's best-known doctors. The key, he says, is that the two endeavors complement each other.
“They both require persistence and determination,” Dr. Klecatsky said during a break from his duties in the emergency room last week.
“In each,” he said, “it is easy to see how hard work can be rewarding.” “Both are almost at the passion level for me,” he said. Rowing is a solitary passion.
“I'm pretty much by myself every morning,” he said. “I don't have to get a team together.” The independence of single sculling has allowed him to stay in competitive sports despite an eccentric schedule. His medicine is not so solitary.
“The director of an emergency room is an interface between the community and the medical profession,” he said. People do not go to an emergency room for a routine checkup; they go when they face danger, whether real or imagined.
“You have to be a jack-of-all-trades as far as medicine is concerned. It's beautiful that way.”
NYAC lightweights - Scott Roop, Mack Good, John Fletcher, Larry Klecatsky
Klecatsky's partner that summer the article was written was Scott Roop, and his coach was Ventura.
Roop recalled that Klecatsky was an established elite oarsman as Roop was just beginning his international racing career, and said that rowing with Klecatsky at New York AC brought stability to his training and set an example of how to work and compete at that level.
"He was an older guy, and I admired him," Roop said. "I was the young guy, just getting started. He was just a good man, a very hard working guy. In the two years that I rowed them him, there was never a time when I didn’t look forward to seeing him, which I think says something about a person. I always enjoyed practicing with him," Roop said. "I learned a lot training with him. He had a tremendous work ethic.
"There was a great collection of characters at the New York Athletic Club around the time I was there and it was a really thriving place for rowing," Roop said. "I just have really great memories of my time with Larry, and my time at the New York Athletic Club. For me having Larry Klecatsky to look up to was a real gift."
Among the "collection of characters" at that time was US sculler and Olympian Jim Dietz who competed with, and against, Klecatsky. Dietz has a book full of stories of rowing with "the Kat," but what he remembers most about him was how competitive he was and how calm he could be in a race situation.
"I always tell people that if there was a stick floating down the river, he'd be racing the stick. He made the New York AC the strong club that we were because everybody realized it was about the work. And Larry did the work, and Larry was very successful. And everybody saw that and thought, 'Man, he's faster than all of the heavyweights.' And everyone thought, if I work like that, I can be fast too," Dietz said.
In later years, after Larry had "retired," he was joined at the club by row2k founder Ed Hewitt. "Where Larry was at his most tenacious and legendary was on the lagoon at NYAC. If you rowed at the same time, which I did for one long winter, you would arrive to see Larry, all smiles and quickness, and into the boat he would go with a one-foot shove, a quick tie-in, and then a relentless 'catch-swoosh' around the bend and onto the racecourse," Hewitt said.
"Many young lions who thought they had some boat speed found themselves chasing Larry, certain they were catching up to him, only to arrive at the other end of the course and see Larry already well underway in the other direction. It happened to me over and over again.
"Back on the dock it was smiles, friendship, and quickness again; Larry was awesome to be around, and hell to row against - but you can bet you got better rowing with him, as countless NYAC scullers will tell you."
Hewitt remembers a story Klecatsky's 1976 Olympic partner, Bill Belden, told him of how the two intense rivals came to be partners.
"When they were both at their peak, Larry and World Champion single sculler Bill Belden raced both against each other and together, but the competitive edge never dulled. Bill told me the following story in the early 90s:
"At a point in their careers, where both had won a ton of races, proven themselves fast, tough, and reliable, and were looking at another year of racing each other, one year (I believe it was 1976) Bill called up Larry and said 'hey, what do you say we skip all the competition and trialing and just get in the double now.' Larry paused a moment and quietly said "Why would you want to row with anyone who doesn't want to be the fastest single sculler in the country?
"Bill said, 'okay," went back to training in the single, and they bashed heads the rest of the year - and only got in the double once neither had won the singles trials. From there they were a great crew; once again, awesome to be around, and hell to row against."
While Klecatsky's achievements in rowing were mostly in sculling boats, he could also help move - and motivate an sweep crew. NYAC teammate Sandy Killen recalled a day when the 1975 Harvard lightweight eight, on the way to race at the Henley Royal Regatta after an undefeated season, called on Jack Sulger, the late NYAC coach and asked for a dual as a warmup before flying to Great Britain.
NYAC was happy to accommodate and with Klecatsky in bow (and Killen in three seat) NYAC went to the line half expecting to be beaten. But after their opening strokes, the two crews settled into a head-to-head standoff that lasted through 900-meters. Killen recalled looking over and seeing the Harvard crew next to them and yelling, "They're not going anywhere," and called for a 10.
When the NYAC boat did not pull away, Killen repeated the call. And heard Klecatsky yelling "#!*&^%* kill'em" with every stroke taken, each time more fiercely than the previous utterance. "He has the same mind set when we practice against him," Killen said he recalled thinking.
NYAC finished the race with a length open lead over Harvard.
"And the next day the New York Times announced that Harvard was going to the Royal Henley Regatta undefeated in their collegiate season," said Killen, "emphasis added by yours truly, no thanks to the NYAC 'sculling bums.'"
Sandy Killen erging with Klecatsky during a recent visit
Klecatsky's influence at NYAC did not just benefit the rowers, and Ventura credits Klecatsky for spotting his true talent in the sport - coaching.
"I was lucky enough that he saw a glimmer of coaching ability in me and asked me to coach him and Scott Roop in the World Championships in 1979 in Bled, and that kind of launched my career. I later became the Chairman of Rowing at the New York Athletic Club and coached on two Olympic teams and several world teams, and I owe that to Larry."
And as he did as an athlete, when Ventura was a young rower, Klecatsky continued to set an example to follow. In their first race as athlete and coach, Klecatsky had a singles race and Ventura recalled asking him what his race plan was.
His answer? "Keep rowing hard until anything in front of me is behind by the end of the race."
Then, when he was coaching Klecatsky and Roop at the World Championships, Ventura said just as he was about to launch them for their opening heat, and they were about to row away from the dock, "I asked him if he was ready, and he said 'yea, we're ready. We'll see what we can do out there.'
"He was very nonchalant about it," Ventura said. "As the coach, my stomach was in a knot, and I was trying to act cool about it, like you're not nervous, and he says that."
Ventura continued his friendship with Klecatsky and the two stayed in constant touch. Over the past few years, Klecatsky's health suffered, he had suffered a stroke and he was working to overcome resulting partial paralysis.
Larry and wife Susan
"We visited him last summer," Ventura said. "He had that stroke, and he asked me about making him a device so he could exercise his arms, a kind of a pulley thing, like an indoor cross-country skiing machine, where he could use one arm to pull the other one up. So, I made that for him and he would use that all the time. He was just so determined to get better."
Klecatsky is survived by his wife, Susan, sons Brian, Benjamin, and Jeffery and three grandchildren. A Mass of Christian Burial is set for Friday, Dec. 21 at the Church of St. John Vianney, 19th Ave. No. at Bromley, South St. Paul.
Friends and family can visit between 4-8 PM Thursday, and one hour before Mass at the church, at Klecatsky & Sons Southern Chapel, 414 Marie Ave, South St. Paul.
A Celebration of Life is also being planned for the spring at the New York Athletic Club.
From Peter Mallory's 'The Sport of Rowing'
Larry Klecatsky was one of a group of US scullers that completed fiercely against each other and set a standard of that excellence for others of their time and those that came after. His relationship with Olympic partner Bill Belden fueled each man's competitive drive. Rowing historian Peter Mallory wrote about them. Check it out here.
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