More Than A Name
Richard Ersted/KLC Fotos

More Than A Name

This feature originally appeared in the Summer edition of the Cal Sports Quarterly. The Cal Athletics flagship magazine features long-form sports journalism at its finest and provides in-depth coverage of the scholar-athlete experience in Berkeley. Printed copies are mailed four times a year to Bear Backers who give annually at the Bear Club level (currently $600 or more). For more information on how you can receive a printed version of the Cal Sports Quarterly at home, send an email to or call (510) 642-2427.

Natan Wegrzycki-Szymczyk always knew when a professor had reached his name while taking roll.
"When they stop, I know they've gotten to my name," he said.
Wegrzycki-Szymczyk may have a challenging name to pronounce, but the bigger challenge is finding a way to slow him down in the water. The three-time Pac-12 Men's Rowing Athlete of the Year is one of the most accomplished rowers ever to wear the Blue & Gold, and he was equally accomplished in the classroom. He was named the 2018 Pac-12 Scholar-Athlete of the Year and is a two-time Pac-12 All-Academic selection.
Wegrzycki-Szymczyk (pronounced wuh-GRIN-ski SIM-check) was also a 2016 Olympian for his native Poland, finishing seventh in the single scull event. He was the youngest athlete in Brazil for his discipline.
"You can almost use him as a model," Cal head coach Mike Teti said. "English is his second language and he was able to come in and improve every semester, and improve with his rowing as well. I couldn't have done it. I think it takes a special person to do what he has done. That's Cal in a nutshell."
Wegrzycki-Szymczyk began rowing around the age of 10 when his father, Jaroslaw, took him to a master's club he belonged to in their hometown of Krakow. First using rowing simply a vehicle to have fun and spend time with friends, Wegrzycki-Szymczyk began focusing on the sport more seriously as he grew bigger and stronger.
When he won the Junior World Championship in 2013, American college coaches began taking an interest. Wegrzycki-Szymczyk knew about Cal's academic reputation, but the concept of collegiate athletics was a mystery to him.
Wegrzycki-Szymczyk was intrigued by the prospect of earning a Cal degree, despite questioning whether he could handle the workload.
"I wanted to develop myself, not only in rowing," Wegrzycki-Szymczyk said. "I knew Cal was a great university and well-known worldwide, but it's not like I knew how athletics worked in the States. I didn't really know about collegiate rowing, but I was really excited about the academic side of it"
After the language barrier presented some early struggles, Wegrzycki-Szymczyk quickly adjusted to life in Berkeley during his freshman year. Then he was faced with a difficult decision – take his sophomore year off and return to Poland to train full-time for the Olympic Games, or remain in Berkeley to attend school, practice with his Cal teammates and balance training for a trip to Rio on his own.
Wegrzycki-Szymczyk couldn't imagine leaving what he was building at Cal, and he decided to remain in Berkeley.
"I had a great first year here – I improved a lot and met all my friends," Wegrzycki-Szymczyk said. "I was very happy. I wanted to prepare the best I can for the Olympics, but I also didn't want to separate from here. I just felt like it would be best if I stayed here."
Despite most Polish athletes training at home, his country's federation supported his decision. Wegrzycki-Szymczyk was able to work out a balance between training with his teammates and doing so on his own, and the results couldn't have been more optimal.
Within a period of a few months, Wegrzycki-Szymczyk helped the Golden Bears win the 2016 IRA national championship and then had a strong showing at the Olympic Games.
"I think he had the best of both worlds," Teti said. "He rowed with us and won a national championship and also qualified for the Olympics. I think everybody won in that situation."
Wegrzycki-Szymczyk's decision to stay in Berkeley had more to do with academics than rowing. He felt he had gotten into a groove in the classroom and a year away would set him back. Plus, Cal was starting to feel more and more like home.
"It's hard just doing one year and then not doing anything the whole next year, and then trying to get back," Wegrzycki-Szymczyk said. "It was a little bit risky, but I just believed that being in the right environment would help me to succeed. It worked out really well and I'm really happy about that."
Wegrzycki-Szymczyk spent much of the fall of 2015 working with his teammates and when the calendar turned to 2016, he started focusing more and more training by himself in the single scull for the Olympics. Teti said the arrangement worked because Wegrzycki-Szymczyk had the full support of the coaching staff and his teammates.
"The biggest thing is his support group was here," Teti said. "It says a lot about the class he is with as well because there was never a time when he was off in the single and they said, 'What about us?' They were all supportive of him."
Wegrzycki-Szymczyk said he never would have predicted his academic success, but added the setting at Cal turned him into the student he became.
"I wouldn't have expected it from myself a couple years back," Wegrzycki-Szymczyk said. "But the environment here has shaped me toward that. I just realized that it's possible when I put the effort in. It made me realize that it's possible for me to do well and I need to take advantage of that."
Wegrzycki-Szymczyk became so accomplished academically that he won a highly sought-after Pac-12 Postgraduate Scholarship of $9,000. He has been accepted into the Master's of Philosophy program at Cambridge, where he plans on pursuing an interest in corporate social responsibility while competing on Cambridge's esteemed rowing team.
Wegrzycki-Szymczyk had no idea what he wanted to study when he arrived at Cal, but one introductory sociology class changed all that, and it became his major.
"I really enjoyed learning about how society operates," he said. "Part of it was looking at where change is happening. I learned about the way large corporations generate their profits and how that ultimately shapes everyone. I also learned about the different way companies emphasize their social responsibility and practices."
For the record, Wegrzycki-Szymczyk said Academic Advisor Cassidy Raher of Cal's Athletic Study Center is the most adept at pronouncing his last name. He hopes his name is remembered in Berkeley for a long time.
"I owe everything to Cal," Wegrzycki-Szymczyk said. "It shaped the person I am now – the way I think, it shaped my goals, it shaped my point of view. I developed so many friendships here that I will never forget and I will keep the rest of my life. I'm sad it's over because I'll miss being here, but on the other hand, I feel like I've learned a lot. It really prepared me for the future, and that's something I will always be grateful for."
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