With a long list of accomplishments at the international and national levels, Zenon Babraj begins his first season as director and head coach of the USC women’s rowing program.
Babraj and his wife, Kelly, were hired as co-head coaches of the Trojans’ program in June of 2002. The pair take over as only the second coaching staff in USC history since rowing was first adopted as a scholarship sport at Troy in 1996.
“This was a great challenge for us,” said Zenon. “We know that with hard work we will be able to bring this program to a very high level.”
A native of Warsaw, Poland, Zenon was a member of the Polish National Team for 10 years (1969-78) as both a sweep oarsman and sculler. In 1978 he was named head coach of the SKRA Warsaw club program and director of the Olympic Training Center. During his tenure, he led his crews to nine national championships and saw 15 of his athletes selected to Poland’s National and Olympic teams.
In 1984, under martial law, Zenon defected to the United States and made his first stop in Seattle, Wash. There he served as a volunteer assistant coach at Washington under legendary Husky head coach Dick Erickson for one season.
He moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, in the spring of 1985 where he directed the Cincinnati Rowing Club. During this time, the CRC became a designated National Training Center and Zenon helped organize the National Championship Regatta. In the summer of 1986, he accepted his first position with the U.S. National Team as an assistant coach.
Zenon was hired as an assistant coach at Brown University and in 1986 led his freshman crews to the Intercollegiate Rowing Association (IRA) Championship in the eight and four events. That summer, Zenon returned to the U.S. National Team where he coached the pre-elite crews to gold and silver medals at the U.S. Olympic Festival.
During the summer of 1986, he was hired as the men’s rowing program director at UCLA and took over a floundering program. In his five years with the Bruins (1987-91), he led the men to an unprecedented three straight Pac-10 Championships (1987-89) and earned Pac-10 Coach of the Year accolades each season. UCLA’s 1987 Pac-10 Championship was the school’s first in 17 years, while the 1988 title marked the first repeat in the 55-year history of the program. In 1990, Zenon guided the Bruins to a bronze medal at the Collegiate National Championships, marking the highest finish ever by a UCLA crew.
While at UCLA, he produced seven National Team athletes and three Olympians. In 1987, Zenon was an assistant coach for the U.S. at the World Championships in Copenhagen, Denmark, helping lead the eights to a gold medal. In 1989 he served as head coach for the World University Games held in Duisburg, Germany.
When the UCLA varsity program was cut in 1992, Zenon and Kelly moved to Alaska and opened the Alaska Sports Academy, training individuals and teams in several sports at the high school, collegiate, and elite level. Together they coached a number of athletes who went on to compete on U.S. National teams in their respective sports. The pair left Alaska in 1999 when Zenon was again hired as an assistant rowing coach with the U.S. National Team in preparation for the World Championships.
Zenon turned down a permanent position with the National Team in 2000 to instead rebuild a struggling program at Hobart College in Geneva, N.Y. At the same time, Kelly accepted the head coaching position at William Smith College (Hobart, a men’s private college, is a brother school to William Smith, a women’s private college), where the pair spent the past three years (2000-02). Zenon led the Statesmen to two undefeated seasons (2001-02) and his crews finished as the top Division III team at the 2002 Head of the Charles and Stonehurst Invitational.
Zenon holds a master’s degree in physical education and a rowing coaching diploma from the Academy of Physical Education in Warsaw. He earned a general certificate of education from the Engineering College in Warsaw in 1974. In 1973, while attending Engineering College, he was honored with the City of Warsaw Award for saving a woman’s life. Zenon also served in the Polish Special Forces and was named a top cadet in 1979.
Born in Warsaw on Sept. 1, 1954, he and Kelly currently reside in Palos Verdes with their two children, Arianna (7) and Konrad (2). Zenon is the 1985 World Master’s Champion in rowing and the 1997 U.S. Master’s National Champion in cross country skiing.