Meet the former U.S. Olympic hopeful from Oak Park (OPRF) who is relentlessly pursuing a state title for Fenwick.
By Mark Vruno
The first observation most people make upon meeting Pete Kowalczuk, Fenwick’s first-year Head Varsity Wrestling Coach, is that he is a very large man with a broad frame. When he still was competing five years ago, Kowalczuk wrestled as a 265-lb. heavyweight. That weight class was trimmed down by 20 pounds from his high school days at Oak Park River Forest, where he was named All-State and finished as the #2 heavyweight wrestler in Illinois as a senior in 2007. (For three seasons, he also played on both sides of the line for the Huskies’ football team.)
Wrestling is the sporting circle in which the K name is best known. In 2008 after high school, Kowalczuk placed fourth at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Greco-Roman wrestling and was a Junior World Qualifier at the Fédération Internationale des Luttes Associées (FILA), which is the sport’s international governing body (and changed its name to United World Wrestling in 2014). Since his days of grappling on the mat officially ended five years ago, the XL man known by friends and former teammates as “Big Petey” answers to a different moniker: Coach K.
The 28-year-old still likes rolling around on the Wrestling Room floor at Fenwick and maybe even clamping on a vise-like, “figure-four” leglock move, especially with 200-pound Jacob Kaminski ’20. Kaminski is last season’s All-State freshman phenom — 22-2 record, CCL and Sectional Champ — who has his sights set on being a legitimate state championship contender in early 2018. He was undefeated heading into the Christmas Break, currently competing in the 220-lb. class.
Fenwick’s “Coach K” demonstrates a take-down technique on sophomore sensation Jacob Kaminiski.
The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines relentless as showing or promising no abatement of severity, intensity, strength or pace: unrelenting. There is a highly intense, physical brand of wrestling that Kowalczuk is trying to instill into FHS’s hallowed halls. “I was brought in here to change the culture,” he notes, “to bring an element of toughness back to Fenwick Wrestling.”
The young coach is beginning to make his tough, hard-nosed mark. During their daily practice grind, he preaches to his sweat-drenched matmen about “giving your best” and the quest for ongoing improvement. There are 21 wrestlers on Fenwick’s Boys’ Wrestling Team this season; Kowalzcuk wants to get that number up to around 35. “We will never be at 100 kids like a [large] public school,” he realizes, “but that  is a good number for us.”
Among the team’s members are nine freshmen boys, about half of whom played football and are in the process of losing their “baby fat,” getting into optimal shape. But Coach K is not happy about that number, either. “I want between 16 and 20 frosh next year,” he states, stressing that number as critical to his program’s growth, development and future success.
Kowalczuk and his creative coaching staff welcome inexperienced “newbies” and are trying their best to make practices more fun. On social media, they are employing hashtags such as #scratchandclaw and #enjoythejourney to help inspire their athlete-followers. “For me, it’s all about giving maximum effort and trying to get better every day. I tell my guys to enjoy the journey and not be as concerned about the outcome.” Kowalczuk adds what he knows from experience: that once the kids buy into his methods of teaching physicality and being relentlessness, the victories will come.
A Sophomore Shall Lead Them
Kowalczuk and Fenwick Wrestling are pinning their championship hopes largely on the strong shoulders of sophomore Kaminiski, who aspires to greatness and already is one of the best wrestlers in the United States, let alone in Illinois. Coach K knows who the national competition is. For the past three off-seasons, he has led Team Illinois’ frosh/soph Greco-Roman wrestling program to a national title and a third-place finish. So the 16-year-old protégé wants to prove to his new mentor just how dominant he can be. The coach admits to Kaminski being a “huge pull” for him taking the Fenwick job, and expectations already are sky high for late February at the State Farm Center in Champaign, IL. (Last season, Kaminski was undefeated heading downstate and was the only underclassman among his 16-man field.)
Mat grinders: The 200-lb. Kaminski perfects a move in practice with senior Aidan Flaherty (182 lbs.) as fellow senior heavyweight Liam Mahon observes.
On the Freestyle and Greco-Roman circuits, this past summer in Fargo, ND, Kaminski placed third in the country in the 220-lb. weight class at the U.S. Marine Corps Junior and Cadet National Championships. But some nagging injuries have slowed down the progress of the shredded sophomore, who has shed 20 pounds in the past month since the football season ended. (Kaminski also plays defensive end for the Friars on the gridiron.) The athletically gifted youngster from Riverside, IL, is learning how to deal with some adversity.
There are several other strong members of this year’s line-up, including a quartet of seniors from the Class of 2018: 138-pounder Adam Aguilar, “Big Red” Joe Daley, 182-pounder Aidan Flaherty and heavyweight Liam Mahon. “I expect a ton of growth from Liam, and Aidan is for real. He is going to surprise some people!” predicts Kowalczuk.
As for Kaminski, the young superstar, “My job is to push Jake physically and mentally,” explains his coach, “to challenge him and make him the best he can be. He needs to rise up and chase competition, to wrestle some tough kids, if he wants to continue to get better. I’m not worried about his win-loss record. A talent like him can help elevate this program to the next level, but he needs more experience in meets and matches.” It should come as no surprise that any finish other than a 2A state title will be disappointing to both wrestler and coach. Admittedly, that is a lot of pressure.
Coach K knows what it takes to achieve elite status in the wrestling ranks. He is a four-time Greco-Roman National Champion. “I made two Junior World teams and one University World team,” he says modestly but proudly, citing some of his athletic accomplishments. “I have had the opportunity to compete in many countries, including Sweden, Finland, Bulgaria, Turkey, France and Greece,” where he won a bronze medal by defeating a Russian university opponent. The next year he was training with Team USA at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, CO, for the 2012 London Summer Games.
In high school, heavyweight Kowalczuk was ranked 4th in the state as a junior, going 37-3. In an epic Regional match that year, he defeated Fenwick senior Carmen Curio by a score of 4-3. At the ’07 IHSA State Tournament his senior year with the Huskies, Kowalczuk wrestled at 285 and posted a record of 39 wins with only three losses. Named to the All-State team, he was the #2 wrestler in Illinois, losing in the state finals match to Garrett Goebel, the Montini Catholic junior who went 50-1 that season. (The 6’4” 290-lb. Goebel later played defensive line at Ohio State University and briefly with the then-St. Louis Rams in the National Football League.)
After retiring from competitive wrestling, Kowalczuk served as an assistant under Huskies Head Coach Paul Collins for the past five seasons, helping OPRF win three consecutive IHSA 3A State titles in 2014-16. This past spring, Kowalczuk graduated with a physical education degree from DePaul University, where he made the Dean’s List, and needed a job after completing his student teaching at DePaul College Prep (formerly Gordon Tech) and St. Clement Elementary School in Lincoln Park.
The Fenwick door was opened when alumnus Tony Poro’s ’04 three-year stint at the helm of the Friars’ wrestling program came to an end. (Poro now is an Assistant Coach and Counselor at Elmwood Park High School.) As fate would have it, Brooks Middle School in Oak Park was looking for a PE teacher. “My interviews at Brooks and Fenwick were on the same day,” Kowalczuk says. “It’s funny. I wasn’t looking for a head coaching job, but I felt I was ready,” as did Fenwick Athletic Director Scott Thies ’99. “Sure I want to win, but my end goal is to develop character in my wrestlers and contribute to them becoming great human beings,” the new coach concludes.
If Kaminski stays healthy, remains coachable and drinks the proverbial water that Kowalczuk is serving up, who knows? Fenwick soon may have its fourth State Champion wrestler, joining Nick Bertucci ’05 (135 lbs.), Bobby Barnhisel ’09 (152) and two-time State Champ Matt Garelli ’12 (120), who also won at 106 pounds in 2011. And maybe, just maybe, we might hear the future Friar alumnus’s name mentioned leading up to the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris. Ready? Wrestle!
Follow this season’s mat action and results on Instagram @FenwickWrestling and on Twitter @FriarWrestling