The 3X Olympian passing the torch in Oklahoma

Why coach Bryan Volpenhein is leading Olympic hopefuls on the Oklahoma River.

Bryan Volpenhein is a three-time Olympian, rowing coach, father, and husband who lives in Norman, Oklahoma. Bryan has lived all over the country — Ohio, Pennsylvania, Washington, New Jersey, California — but Oklahoma keeps calling him back. Now, as head coach of the Oklahoma City University rowing team, he’s shepherding the next generation of Team USA at RIVERSPORT’s OKC National High Performance Center, an official US Olympic & Paralympic Training Site. In this episode of Flyover Stories, we met up with the gold medalist to see why he says Oklahoma sets him up for success in coaching and fatherhood too.

Training in OKC’s Boathouse District

I had won the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens. I was living in Seattle, starting my coaching career, and I was invited to come to Oklahoma City [for the opening of the Chesapeake Boathouse]. As soon as I arrived in Oklahoma, I was amazed by what had been done in such a short time along the Oklahoma River. After my next Summer Olympics in 2008, another boathouse had been built and Oklahoma City had a very thriving rowing community.

Two gold Olympic medals sit next to watercolor paint and paper on a kitchen table.

The Oklahoma River is one of the best parts of the city, and the joke is that they used to mow it. Now it’s full of water. As an Olympic hopeful, this is a great place to be, because everything is geared towards you. You have everything you need to succeed as an Olympian. There’s a state-of-the-art boathouse, all the equipment you need. They have an altitude chamber in the boathouse, which is unheard of and very rare. They can put on world-class events on their race course. You feel like you’re training at a high level when you’re in these facilities, and in addition to that, having all the support from the community makes such a big difference.

Bryan speaking with rowing athlete while standing next to various row boats inside the boathouse.

Life in Norman, Oklahoma

My family and I live in Norman, and it has been amazing. I have been able to do all kinds of things with my kids that, you know, you can do anywhere really, but here, it’s easier to do. 

Norman is a lot of fun. It’s different from what I expected. I thought it would be much smaller than it is. There are all kinds of community events you can go to, and it just has that small-town feel. At the same time, it’s close to a major city [Oklahoma City], and it’s easy to get in and out of. 

Bryan with young child standing in front of a Bison installation at an Oklahoma museum.

It’s a slower pace of life. Everything is relatively close. There are tons of parks. There are tons of museums. Plus, you have all kinds of sporting events [at the University of Oklahoma]. We’ve been to soccer games, tennis matches, and basketball games. Of course, we’ve been to football games. 

You can do all of these wonderful things here, and as a dad, it makes it easier because I can just look up on a few websites and then there’s tons of things that I can go do — and they’re all within a ten-minute drive.

Work-Life Balance in Oklahoma

Bryan with two young kids at an arts and crafts table working on various art projects together.

Family is very important in Oklahoma, and that allows my wife and I to really be a part of our kids’ lives. The employers and the people I’m working for — and the people who my wife works for — are very understanding of parents. They give you the space and the time to do family things. 
I’m able to coach the archery team at my kid’s school. I can go to pick the kids up from school, and I can volunteer way more than I was able to in other places I’ve lived. Being able to see the kids grow up at this time in their lives has been amazing. That is a huge opportunity that comes with being in a place like Oklahoma.

Paper plate craft pinned to the wall with a child's drawing of family in red marker.
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