By Leanne Signoriello (Lasell College '18)
For Nikolay Kurmakov, a typical day begins by waking up at 4:00 a.m. to meet the Simmons College women's crew team at the Riverside Boat Club for practice a little over an hour later. The rest of the day, or during any free time, is filled with tedious, but necessary tasks such as painting the oars, ordering the equipment, loading the boats in and out of storage, as well as making minor repairs on the boats. Most rowing programs have a number of people that they turn to in order to complete these assignments. Simmons College in Boston, however, is able to count on their head coach Nikolay Kurmakov and his irreplaceable work ethic to take on these duties as one individual.
Kurmakov, who was born in Ukraine, has been exposed to rowing for nearly 50 years, both as an athlete and as a coach. The sport that would become a large part of his life was introduced to him in a very ordinary and casual way at the age of 15, when his friends invited him to a day at the river. "I used to play soccer, cross country, chess, track and field, I did a lot of different things," said Kurmakov. "Then one day, one of my friends said 'Do you want to try crew?' and these friends invited me down to the river."
"It was pretty nice to be surrounded by people who tried 100 percent to be good. It's an individual performance and a team performance so if you're not pushing yourself, you will not make a team, because a team works as one unit," said Kurmakov.
Although Kurmakov notes that the hard work and competition aspect behind the sport heavily influenced his new passion, he gives credit to the coach that came into his life on that same day at the river.
"It's like having a good professor, if you like the professor, you will like the class more," Kurmakov continued. "Our coach set the most ideal example, he was a model to look up to. I was lucky to have a very good coach when I started because that man put me in love with the sport."
The new sport quickly became a regular part of Kurmakov's life, practicing nearly three or four times a week or finding other ways to stay active during the days or seasons that there wasn't practice in order to maintain a routine.
"If it was winter time we would do cross country skiing, thanks to our coach who organized everything. If we didn't have any races in the summertime, he would always try to find us different races in boats that we had never seen before. In the fall time, we would do a lot of cross country races in the woods," Kurmakov continued. "Our coach was always forcing us to do something to stay active and stay busy. Some weeks we didn't even have a day off and practice felt like my second home."
The team's willing effort and regular practice routine set them up for success, as they achieved a number of notable accomplishments such as winning the Ukrainian National Championship as well as other local races. With Kurmakov's humble manner, he emphasized the hard work behind the team's success rather than focusing on the accomplishments that were achieved.
Kurmakov made the transition to a coaching position starting in the fall of 1976 following his near 3 years of serving in the military.
"I went to college for law and economy but after six months, I realized it was not for me. I was a professional rower and it was not an opportunity for me to continue to row and be in school. I went to the National University of Physical Education and Sport where I had the opportunity to continue to row and get my degree as a crew coach," said Kurmakov. "Before, I didn't think I would be a coach but after, I realized I could not be studying economy and continue to row."
Kurmakov's stint in the military helped mold his philosophy that would be implemented in his early coaching days. "Military service is mandatory but it was fine. It was a good man's job, I can't complain. It taught me how to conduct and handle a lot of things in life," he said.
The first 15 years of his coaching career were spent at a boarding school in Ukraine, up until 1992 when Kurmakov and his family had a decision to make. After facing sociopolitical issues in their native country, Ukraine, Kurmakov decided to uproot his family, including his wife and two young boys, and make the transition to the United States.
"We had some issues in Ukraine because my wife is Jewish, and there was some verbal and nonverbal pressure to leave," said Kurmakov. "I think these issues are everywhere in the world, but it was time for us to come straight to Boston."
Despite having never stopped foot in the United States, Kurmakov, who was at the age of 41, knew that it was something he had to do, which made the move to the New England city an easy decision. "We got an invitation from my wife's brother who was already here so we had a reason to reunite with family," he said.
The move may have been an effortless decision, but the transition did not come as easy. Since it was Kurmakov's first time in the United States, the English language did not come easy to him, which made it a struggle to find jobs upon arrival.
Kurmakov managed to work a number of part-time jobs, including with the Riverside Boat Club in Cambridge, in order to support his family. Little did he know that his job at Riverside would lead him to greater opportunities.
"I was coaching a very small group of women at Riverside and they did pretty well. I have no idea how it happened but National and U.S. Rowing invited be to be the head coach for the Olympic Reserve Lightweight team. We did very well in '93, winning a national championship so they invited me again in '94 and I decided to [coach] again," he said.
Ultimately, a strong friendship that was formed with his assistant coach at Riverside at the time, helped him find a new coaching position in downtown Boston. "My assistant coach, Ashley, was a coach at Simmons and, she asked me if I would be interested in taking a job at a college because she would be leaving and thought I would make a great addition," he said.
Kurmakov, eager to take on the new position, was able to use his connection to land an interview in the summer of 1994 with the new Athletic Director at Simmons College, Ali Kantor.
Prior to her change in position to Athletic Director, Kantor had spent the previous six years at Simmons as the head women's basketball coach after spending time as a coach for Boston College and as a grad assistant for the women's basketball team at the University of Michigan. With Kantor's newly appointed position came a new challenge, finding a new head coach for the women's crew team.
"It was that August that the head crew coach at the time came to me and told me she was leaving for a job in Florida," Kantor continued. "The season was starting in just a couple of weeks and I was really panicking. She told me to call this guy because he's unbelievable yet nobody will hire him because his English is so bad, but he is Olympic level caliber."
With the season quickly approaching, Kantor decided to take a chance on Kurmakov and brought him in for an interview. "I interviewed him and sure enough his English was pretty bad, but at the time, Emmanuel had an English language program and I told him I would hire him under one condition: he take the classes at Emmanuel. He did, so I hired him," said Kantor.
Despite the significant language barrier, Kantor saw Kurmakov's potential and all he could contribute to the athletics department, specifically the crew team, at Simmons. Since then, Kantor and Kurmakov have been working side-by-side for the past 25 years.
Kurmakov's first day at Simmons is one that he remembers vividly, but with more of a sense of humor than he had that day. "When I came to coach for the first time, I remember I met the team at the Boston University Boathouse, where Simmons used to practice out of, and half of the team came to practice in their pajamas. I was shocked and I didn't say anything, probably because I didn't have enough words to say," Kurmakov shared.
The team told their new coach that they were there to have fun. Kurmakov's idea of fun, however, was quite different than theirs. Kurmakov told his athletes, "You might have fun jumping into the boats in your pajamas, but I have fun when the team is crossing the finish line first." Keeping this in mind, the new coach's expectations became more apparent to the team as time went on and the team really started to develop.
Kurmakov still to this day emphasizes the importance of dedication and sticking to something in order to be successful at it, specifically crew. The Ukraine native has come across a number of student athletes who are willing to try the sport, but much to his frustration, give up after not giving it their all. "He can be extremely demanding and has high expectations of our student athletes. But he will train you, he will teach you, and you will be successful if you stay with it," said Kantor.
As Kantor shared, those who do give the sport a chance, will see success when working with Kurmakov, sharing a story of an alum who was a soccer player, but Kurmakov managed to turn her into a rower. "She eventually went on to compete at a national level," added Kantor.
Despite Kurmakov's resilient and tough demeanor, the rower has a huge soft spot for his beloved family. Over the years, his passion has limited the time he spends with his loved ones because he has been so dedicated to his sport. "I spend a lot of time rowing and I'm now definitely more involved with my family than I was before. Now I realize that it's time to give my family more attention… to my grandkids, to my sons, to my wife," Kurmakov added, "Also, I'm still spending a good 80 percent of my life rowing and that's a lot."
Kurmakov still to this day continues to race in his free time, managing to place at the Royal Canadian Henley Regatta as well as the Head of the Charles Regatta, two of the biggest and most prestigious regattas in the world.
The balance between family and work has been an internal struggle for Kurmakov. However, in the early 2000s, Kurmakov faced an external struggle that would also affect his new team. The Boston University Boathouse, where Simmons used to practice out of as well as store their equipment, had asked Simmons to leave the facility. The team was left homeless and wondering what their next step would be. Once again, Kurmakov was able to turn to Riverside Boat Club for help. "We eventually had no place to go so I went to Riverside and asked for a big favor, if they would let Simmons be a part of their boat house," said Kurmakov. "Ever since then, Simmons has been there and Riverside is basically our home."
The kind-hearted gesture speaks levels to the considerate person that Kurmakov is and the lengths he goes to keep Simmons a competitive team.
"I consider him my older brother, even though I supervise him. I always tell him 'when you retire, I retire' because I'll never find anyone as good as him," Kantor continued, "I just don't think you get as many professionals that are as dedicated, hardworking, loyal, and ethical as him. He has a work ethic like I have never seen."
"He's a sweet, sweet person. I love him, and more importantly, the girls love him," Kantor added.
The relationship that Kurmakov has built with his athletes has developed through the lessons he continues to teach them on a daily basis.
"I try to teach my athletes to handle life fair, to be a good addition to human society in this world, to be honest, to work hard, to be a good teammate, to be a good roommate, to respect other people, and to have a good personality," he said. "I have no specific goal to tell my athletes that they have to look like or be like someone else."
"I try to set an example to the younger generations that if you like something you are doing in your life, you will always find a way to keep doing it throughout your entire life. You must love what you are doing with your life."