It’s 6:41 a.m. Hues of pink and orange are just beginning to emerge in the distance. To the west, the hills are covered in a blanket of silence; to the east, the sun just barely begins to peek out over the horizon; the sky nearly empty notwithstanding some scattered power lines. There is already some life out on the water: Some rowers have already begun their morning workouts, their coaches trailing behind in boats of their own.
Movement stirs inside the boathouse. Rowers in T-shirts and spandex exit the building, seemingly unnerved by the chilly morning temperatures, to make their way towards the parking lot, where they unload boats off a trailer. Careful to communicate while handling the bulky boats, they walk to the dock and carefully place them into the water.
Overseeing the whole operation is their coach, Craig Amerkhanian. He shouts instructions to his team and at the dock teaches a rower how to set up a bungee cord around one of the boats.
He dons a black zip-up sweatshirt with an easily recognizable seal: that of the U.S. Olympic Team, likely an homage to the four former Stanford rowers who competed for the United States in the 2012 Summer Olympics — more than any other college team. He puts on a Stanford baseball cap to tame his thick, tousled hair before slipping on a thick, neon jacket that looks like it’s made more for the tundra than Redwood City. He’s ready for the water.
Once the rowers are settled in, he jumps onto a motor boat from which he will follow the team on the water. Knowing his route and the feel of the gas perfectly, he effortlessly pulls out of the dock, barely even having to look at his surroundings.
Amerkhanian takes one of two megaphones (he has found that somehow when he switches between the two they work better) and shouts instructions to the 16 men and two women coxswains: his rowers, his pupils, his team.
The two boats align, waiting on the coach’s command to get started with the drill. With a voice comparable to Dick Vitale’s, he gives them the word they’re looking for. “ROW,” he shouts thunderously. And the boats surge.
Craig Amerkhanian has transformed Stanford’s rowing program from an underdeveloped work-in-progress to one of the nation’s elite teams. Since his arrival to the Farm in 2000, he has coached nine Olympians, 16 competitors at the World Championships and 17 rowers at the Under-23 World Championships.
“I’ve rowed under a lot of coaches in my career and I don’t think there’s anyone else who could’ve done at Stanford what he did here,” said Jake Cornelius ’06, one of the team’s assistant coaches and a former rower for Amerkhanian at Stanford.
While Amerkhanian’s accomplishments with the Stanford program are undeniable, it’s his engaging coaching style — one that employs a conglomeration of historical and pop culture references, motivational adages, and character-building principles — that stands out and has shaped those around him.
Amerkhanian spent his first two years after high school in junior college at Orange Coast College before he arrived at Cal, where he rowed under one of the sport’s most renowned coaches, Steve Gladstone.
Despite now being known for his dynamic personality, Amerkhanian was more subdued in his early days as a rower.
“He was not particularly talkative,” said Gladstone, who now coaches at Yale. “The guy did his work and did it with real endeavor but he was not flamboyant. He was not particularly talkative, but he was funny and very intense.”
Amerkhanian attributes his intensity to his family’s immigrant past. His grandfather from the Armenian side of his family immigrated to America in the early 20th century, fleeing from the Ottoman Empire’s genocide of Armenians. His Dutch ancestors lived as dairy farmers in a part of North Holland characterized by its extremely unwelcoming climate. This toughness gene turned Amerkhanian into a skilled rower and fierce competitor who stood out on the Cal team.
Amerkhanian’s unparalleled impact on Cal’s team extended beyond his talent.
“There’s no doubt that he played a leadership role but it was not obvious by conversations or lectures to people,” said Gladstone.
Amerkhanian graduated in 1980 with a degree in history and in 1993 he earned a master’s degree in education. He dabbled in many different careers, working with the Oakland Athletics, in the mortgage industry and as a teacher in local schools before returning to Cal in 1992 to coach the freshman team.
In 1996, he was reunited with his former coach, Gladstone, who returned to Berkeley after a stint at Brown. This duo created a rowing dynasty at Cal, which eventually went on to win four consecutive Intercollegiate Rowing Association (IRA) titles. After spending a total of nine years with the Bears, Amerkhanian accepted the head coaching job at Stanford, where he has continued to help rowers thrive.
One hand on the steering wheel, the other on the gas, Amerkhanian guides the motor boat alongside his rowers. His uses the megaphone to inform his team about the current water conditions — the tide is particularly low — and gives them another interval to perform. The rowers begin their choreography — “compression and length,” as Amerkhanian puts it — as they make the boats dance across the surface of the water.
“SAW WOOOOD,” Amerkhanian bellows out, this time not needing the megaphone. “SAW WOOOOD CITY.”
Saw Wood City references the location of the team’s practice, Redwood City, and the coach’s comparison of rowing to sawing wood. The expression is part of a larger collection of what the team calls the “Craig Files,” certain phrases, references, and traditions that Amerkhanian has embraced over the years and have come to define him. The Craig Files include everything from the coach’s condemnation of hydrogenated fats and sugar, to his search for double-fiber bread at Safeway for the team’s breakfast to the team’s annual trip Yosemite.
Amerkhanian’s often outrageous speeches to the team are a calculated part of his coaching strategy.
“Laughter is huge,” Amerkhanian said. “I try to get them to laugh before we launch.”
He will bring in current events, pop culture, or even the Stanford-Cal rivalry in an engaging or oftentimes ridiculous way to get the team ready for practice. And at the end of the year, the team makes T-shirts bearing the most outrageous or humorous thing he said.
The vibrant sunrise sky has paled into a baby blue. The morning chill still bites at any exposed skin and for a moment, it’s easy to forget that this practice takes place in California and not an East Coast state.
Amerkhanian assesses his rowers: They show no indication of fatigue, their arms still pulling the oars forcefully and their heavy breathing audible from the motor boat.
He gives the team an update of how far they have rowed and how many more miles they have left of the day’s 12-mile workout.
He proceeds to tell one of his favorite historical stories: At the turn of the 20th century, President Theodore Roosevelt wanted to send the U.S. Navy to the Philippines as a display of imperialism that would intimidate the Japanese, who had just beat the Russians in a war of their own. Congress did not agree with the president’s vision and instead only fueled the Navy enough to go across the Pacific but not back to the U.S. The lesson of this story: “However far we go out, we have to get back,” he says. However far out the team rows, they have to be able to return.
One of Amerkhanian’s defining qualities is his knack for implementing historical and current event references — from Russian president Vladimir Putin to Osama Bin Laden to the tight-rope walking Wallenda family — in his speeches to the team.
“He tries to connect the sport to historical references and pop culture and puts the sport in broader context,” said Cornelius. “[He’s] conveying what he thinks is really powerful about the sport of rowing, and that’s why he uses those historical or pop culture references.”
“I love history and I love going back in time,” Amerkhanian said. “We all have a story of life and moments and if we can share and someone can learn from our experiences, to me that’s the most important attribute of a history major.”
The team’s 54-mile row to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s march from Selma to Montgomery of the same distance not only exemplifies the coach’s penchant for blending history and rowing; it also demonstrates his commitment to develop his team as rowers and human beings.
“I want them to relate to who they are deep, and find the soul of themselves and open it up and experiment and be all they can be when they’re here,” he said, “because they’re here for this moment and there are 50 years when they’re not going to be here. So let’s take this in and make the most out of each day.”
And this is what makes Amerkhanian the distinctive coach he is. He helps rowers reach their potential in the boat, which he balances with efforts of self-development. He combines the athletic with the big picture, fully realizing that the sport will not, and should not, define the lives of his rowers — that instead personal growth is just as, if not more, important than successes on the water.
“He really cares about character and character-building,” said junior coxswain Nathalie Weiss. “Our team really extends beyond just rowing and he really helps shape boys to men and girls to women for sure.”
“It’s about expansion; it’s about growth; it’s about support; it’s about selflessness,” said Amerkhanian. “It’s about embracing one another to realize team goals and life goals.”
Amerkhanian looks out at the scene around him: the rowers continuing to soar across the water, their boats moving faster than it would seem possible for such simple push-pull movements. Despite an ostensibly identical effort, the white boat inches ahead of its black counterpart; it’s something the coach will address during the rest of practice.
The sun continues on its steady ascension to the top of the cloudless sky. The temperature has risen slightly, the 6:30 a.m. coldness finally beginning to wear off. The palm trees on shore sway to the light morning breeze. It will no doubt be another beautiful day.
“The cup isn’t half full,” Amerkhanian says. “It’s overflowing.”
Contact Alexa Philippou at aphil723 ‘at’ stanford.edu.