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All in the Same Boat

What rowing teaches me

By Boban Rankovic as told to Amy Wimmer Schwarb

Boban Rankovic is in his second season as head coach of the Barry women’s rowing team. BARRY UNIVERSITY PHOTOS

ROLE: Now the head rowing coach at Barry University in Miami, Boban Rankovic was an assistant when the team was runner-up at the 2013 NCAA Division II Rowing Championships. In 2000, he represented the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia at the Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia. HIS STORY: Ethnic conflict formed the backdrop of Rankovic’s childhood in the former Yugoslavia. But his teammates leaned on one another, even when that meant reaching across ethnic lines. LESSONS LEARNED: He calls rowing “the ultimate team sport,” and his former teammates are lifelong friends. He wants the women he coaches to have that experience, too.

Growing up, we had nothing. There were really hard times living in Yugoslavia at the time because of the embargo and the war that kept going on for many years. We had few pieces of clothing and barely food to eat. There was no money, and in the wintertime we were really cold all the time. There was no heat.

My dad got me involved in rowing. There were few sports to choose from in my hometown, Smederevo. Rowing was one of the most successful. Falling in love with rowing changed my life in so many ways.

Looking back, because of rowing, the people I was hanging out with had goals and dreams. We found rowing, in a way, kept us in check. It kept us healthy. It kept us driving forward.

Rowing definitely gave us a direction, taught us what it was to be a hard worker and not complain, but also gave us a positive way to spend our time. We literally had one piece of clothing for rowing, and we used it for practice and racing.

I was 13 when I started racing for the national team. At national regattas, you’re representing your own country, and we could actually see different clothes and different trailers from the other teams. It was very humbling at the time.

The varsity eight at Barry won the 2014 San Diego Crew Classic.

Because we didn’t have much, we were stronger for it. We were a bunch of kids who worked really hard. Seeing other teams that had more, we wanted even more to beat them. We were motivated by it. We were not discouraged, but that’s the group we were. It defined us.

Being dedicated to each other – that’s what drove us forward. My friends – the group we had there – we loved working out together. We hung out afterward. That was the main focus for a bunch of years: racing together.

Rowing is the ultimate team sport. You affect your team in so many ways. If you don’t show up or you’re not rowing properly or you’re not taking care of yourself, it is instantly felt in the boat.

How to get a scholarship in the U.S. was a very unknown thing to us. A few of my friends, they were a little bit older and came to the United States before me. They figured out what you needed to do, and the rest of us kind of followed their path. Before you know it, seven or eight of us had come to the U.S. to row.

The tradition and the hard work and everything we had back home, we kind of transferred here. Before you know it, it was like old Yugoslavia.

We rowed the next four years together. A lot of us ended up going to Dowling College. Many of us were Serbs, and there were three or four Croatians. That was the amazing part. What was happening politically didn’t affect us in rowing. We were able to keep it separate.

We’re all the same. We did not hold grudges, and we became friends. That was very unique and very different. We are very good friends to this day. We see each other, visit families. Everybody has kids now. My wife, Margaret, and I have two sons, Marko and Filip.

That’s what I try to teach with my team. It’s a very diverse group – we have international students from several countries – and we have to have patience for one another. How we grew up might be different. But ultimately, we’re all very similar. One of the best things is when they are actually getting to know one another and seeing these differences. And then one might come to me and say, “Coach, this is amazing. I feel so different just because of the diversity of the team.”

There are so many differences in the beginning – even in how they row. Each country rows differently, from how that rowing is applied, to how the school system works in each country, to learning each other’s languages – they learn how to have fun with that. It’s not easy. But once you get over those initial differences, they’re learning so much from one another.

I always wanted to be a coach. I wanted to have a positive influence on upcoming generations and teach them, to make sure I could share all the experiences I had in rowing and in life in general.

The group that rowed together in Yugoslavia – there were about 10 of us – ended up being very successful later on in life. Two of them are working at the New York stock exchange. A few of them are managers or engineers. Myself, I’m a head coach, and one more became a rowing coach. We focused on what we could do to better us. A breakthrough for us was getting out of poverty, coming to the United States, getting an education.

About Champion

Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.