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Norwalk Rowing Couple Lives the American Dream

NORWALK, Conn. – Norwalk’s Yan and Olga Vengerovskiy are living the American dream. But the Maritime Rowing Club coaches endured some nightmares to achieve it.

“Sometimes when I think about it, I just want to cry,’’ said Yan, who will be honored with his wife as the recipients of USRowing’s John J.  Carlin Service Award at Saturday’s annual convention in Hartford. The award recognizes individuals who have made significant and outstanding commitments to rowing.

The Vengerovskiys founded the Maritime Rowing Club and the Water Sports Center in Norwalk in 1996 and started New Canaan crew for high school rowers. They have developed Olympians and national team rowers, junior national champions and a strong masters program. The path they took to create it incorporates some of the best American values, including freedom, work ethic and determination.

Though he had enjoyed 23 years of coaching in the Soviet Union, things were changing rapidly. “Everything collapsed,’’ said Yan, now 63. “It wasn’t just the rowing. There was a little bit of Jewish oppression as well. I couldn’t do a lot of things that other people could.”

Yan was a Ukrainian national team rower and a former coach of the Soviet Union junior national team. Olga is a former world champion who coached in Ukraine as well. They immigrated to the United States in 1991 with about 10 months of living expenses, a young son and no clear direction on job prospects. They did not speak any English.

They first moved to Westport and lived with the family of Mike Pettee, who is still a rower at the Saugatuck Rowing Club . Yan worked part time with the club founder, James Mangan. One of the club’s members was Stew Leonard Jr., who got Yan a job for $7 an hour as fish and meat cutter in the family’s Norwalk store. “I worked there the same way I coached,’’ Yan said. “I wanted to be the best.”

Lacking transportation, the Vengerovskiys lived near the store so Yan could walk to his job. He stayed with Saugatuck until 1994, when he joined the Norwalk River Rowing Association. One of the first rowers he saw was Dan Walsh , who has won an Olympic medal and is still a member of the U.S. National team. “At that time, rowing wasn’t big,’’ Yan said. “I couldn’t coach there full time.”

Also, he wasn’t even sure he wanted to continue coaching. “At the beginning, I didn’t want to do it,’’ he said. “It’s very stressful. I was a little bit burned out from coaching in the Soviet Union.”

The passion for rowing, however, never left Yan and Olga. In 1996, they took loans and rented a garage on Goldstein Place to start the club. “Everything was done with my hands,’’ Yan said. “I built a simple rack for the shells out of the wood scraps I could find. I built a dock out of Styrofoam. I couldn’t afford to buy a $4,000 dock.”

Vengerovskiy thought he could attract rowers. In the first year, however, the only member was their son, Roman. Yan had rented two shells for four-person crews and had no one to row in them. He kept his full-time job at Stew’s; Olga worked as a baker at Food For Thought, an organic grocer. They took English lessons at Norwalk Community College. “We lived,’’ Yan said, “very simply. We did not take any vacations. We worked seven days a week.”

Even Roman was unsure about the new club. He wanted to remain with his friends at Norwalk River Rowing. “I told him we will survive together or we will die together,’’ Yan said. “He didn’t really care much about his dad’s business. I told him he didn’t have a choice.”

Roman, however, turned the fortunes of the club around, medaling as a single in every regattas in which he competed in 1997. He also won the Stotesbury Cup, a prestigious event in Philadelphia. “It impressed the kids and the parents,’’ Yan said. “They thought maybe I’m not such a bad coach.”

Charlie Cole , now a member of the U.S. national team and potential Olympian in 2012, was among the middle school students who joined the growing New Canaan crew. Yan and Olga started a Learn to Row program for parents of New Canaan rowers. With more kids came more trophies. Yan was achieving the same success with American kids.

After nearly five years of running the club and working at Stew’s, Yan felt comfortable enough to quit his job. Now, there are 120 high school students, 60 middle school students and about 40 masters rowers at Maritime.

The club now includes a large workout facility and many boats and shells. The rowers also win medals and trophies by the bushel. Yan and Olga will be proud when they receive their award Saturday.

“This is an award for our family,” Yan said. “It’s not something that belongs to me, or to Olga. This is an award we earned together. It’s an award that is not just for the family, but it’s an award for New Canaan Crew. It’s an award for the Maritime Rowing Club. It’s an award for all the coaches that worked with us, and for all those athletes that were in the program.”

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