Sam Ojserkis might be coming home with a medal from Rio for Olympic rowing.
Eat. Sleep. Row.
That’s been Sam Ojserkis’ life for the last three-and-a-half years, taking him from his home near the Jersey shore, to Oklahoma, to Cambridge, England, to California, to Princeton.
The kid with a degree from the University of Washington in geography, who went on to get his master’s in business management from the University of Cambridge, has been on a mission. In a little more than a week, he’ll know if it’s paid off.
That’s when the finals of the men’s eights in the Olympic rowing competition take place in Rio de Janeiro. That’s when Ojserkis (pronounced O-zer-kiss) will find out if he’ll be coming home with a medal.
If you tune in for the event, which opens Aug. 8, with the semifinals on Aug. 10 and finals on Aug. 13, he’ll be easy to spot.
He’s the coxswain, the only one in the boat without an oar but with a megaphone instead. He’s the one giving everybody orders and serving as a glorified cheerleader, which makes him no less important.
And there’s one other distinctive thing about the 26-year-old Ojserkis. He’s 5-foot-8, 122 pounds — roughly half the size of everyone else in the boat.
“I’m the little guy who shouts at them,” said the Linwood, N.J. native. “You have to be small to be a coxswain, and I fit the role for it pretty well.
“I’m kind of the brains of the operation. They’re averaging 6-foot-6, 220. I’m telling them what to do, how fast we’re going, making a lot of decisions I pass that along to them, because I have the megaphone.
“It’s a really cool sport, because literally and figuratively we’re all in the same boat together. So we’ve got to become one.”
One of those taking his cues from him is Californian Seth Weil, who, like Ojserkis, is Jewish.
“Occasionally, it comes up and gets mentioned in passing,” said the 30-year-old Weil, who feels this is his way of paying back a debt to the people who raised him and were important in his life, “but it’s never a huge factor.
“Sam’s great — a very good, honest guy. Coxswain is a very hard position.
“I’m 6-foot-6, 215. I have an oar in my hand. He doesn’t. The fact guys put him in the boat says a lot.”
It took hours of training and persistence to make that happen, something Ojserkis had in supply from the start.
“He never played any organized sports,” said his mother, Amy Ojserkis. “Just a little street hockey.
“He got into it because he was the right body type. He had a friend who was also a coxswain who said, ‘Why don’t you join the team [at Mainland Regional High].’ Then he just became a real student of the craft, teaching himself as he went on.”
Along the way, Ojserkis took a break to visit Israel on a Ramah seminar trip in 2007, which he said proved far more rewarding than he could’ve possibly imagined–even though he and a couple of buddies did take a detour to check out the Arab quarter.
“You’re all over, so it was fun to see the diversity of the place,” explained Ojserkis, who grew up attending Conservative Congregation Beth Judah in Ventnor, N.J., where he became a Bar Mitzvah. “It wasn’t just a spiritual place. There was more to it.
“It had beautiful, distant, diverse landscapes. It had a lot to offer, which was interesting to me. When you’re in Hebrew school, you’re learning about biblical times. This puts it in perspective. Man, this is a real place out there in the world. Not just something written about over 1,000 years ago.”
Brazil is real, too.
And while the perils of Rio differ from those in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, they’re still scary. Yet that won’t keep Ojserkis or his family from coming.
“I wouldn’t miss this for the world,” he said. “I have no concerns whatsoever. I’m sure they’re gonna have to keep an eye on things and make smart decisions. But when you look at the numbers, only a few hundred out of 100 million get Zika. Plus, it’s going to be winter time there, not mosquito weather.
“With a water sport, you’d like it to be as ideal as possible. But this is kind of above my pay grade, so you’ve got to roll with it and do the best you can.”
Speaking of getting paid, other than a United States Olympic Committee (USOC) subsidy for training and living expenses, those on the rowing team like Ojserkis, Weil and 34-year-old Steve Kasprzyk of Cinnaminson, N.J., who missed a medal by 0.3 seconds in London, are hardly getting rich.
“This is a full-time job,” said Ojserkis, who’s spoken with other coxswains to get hints on how to handle things when the race is on the line and they’re all counting on him. “I’ve worked all kinds of odd jobs. I was a cashier at Old Navy. I’ve been an Uber and a Lyft driver.
“We joke around and say, ‘Boat is Life.’ All we do is eat, sleep and row. We’ve dedicated so much of our lives, not just physically but emotionally and spiritually.
“It would mean so much to win a medal.”
That’s getting ahead of things, which Ojserkis and the rest of the guys in the boat certainly don’t intend to do.
The game plan — once they arrive in Rio Aug. 4 — is “take it one race at a time.” They won’t even attend the Aug. 5 opening ceremony in order to conserve energy, since that requires hours of waiting and standing around.
But since their work will be completed by the end of the first week, it means they’re free to attend events and do whatever they like afterward, culminated by the closing ceremony on Aug. 21. Along the way, Ojserkis may take a moment to reflect on everything, including the fact he’ll be among a select group of Jewish Olympians.
“Being Jewish has always provided me with great role models regardless of the field — athletics, academia or just being a businessman or family man,” he said. “Whether it’s people in my community or on TV, it seems you can always find a Jewish person doing good things.
“I’m certainly proud to be one of those people at the forefront of my field. It’s pretty neat.”
Even neater if a few weeks from now Sam Ojserkis comes home wearing something besides a Jewish star around his neck: an Olympic medal.
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