Izabela Krakic continues rowing success, prospers at Syracuse

Izabela Krakic continues rowing success at SU

After winning a national championship with Texas, the Croatia native transferred where she's helping make program history.
Published: April 9, 2023
Syracuse Rower Izebela Krakic practices on Onondaga Lake on Wednesday, March 22, 2023 in Syracuse.
Izabela Krakic practices with the Syracuse rowing team on Onondaga Lake in late March.

The date is Aug. 28, 2019, and it is a cool, crisp late summer morning in Ottensheim, Austria, as a light breeze blows over the Regattastrecke Ottensheim, the venue of the 2019 World Rowing Championships. The third quarterfinal of the women’s coxless pair was about to get underway, and in lane six was Croatia’s entry, the final qualifier into the quarterfinals.

For every nation, this race is where the rubber hits the road. If a boat doesn’t get a top-three finish, it can’t qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics at this regatta. Croatia’s entry into the race had at the bow position Zana Krakic, who graduated from the University of Central Florida the previous May, and at the stroke position Izabela Krakic, who would go off to the University of Texas in January.

“We both at the same time focused just on rowing,” Izabela said. “We moved to the city, so we were closer to the lake and practice. We would just row, come home, live together, eat together, always be around each other, which is good we are family.”

As the race began, the 2017 world champions, New Zealand, pulled out to a commanding lead while the Pan American Games, Chile, slotted into second, and the defending European Champions, Spain, came out in third. The German boat was in fourth 1,000 meters down the course while the Croatians had fallen back to fifth.

“Pair is a really hard discipline,” Izabela said. “If it does not go well you are very annoyed at that person, so if you come home with that person and you cannot get away from her, or she could not get away from me, you get into that cycle of negativity, and you can’t debrief anywhere.”

With 500 meters to go, the Olympic dreams looked to be fading away as the Croatian boat remained in fifth place and over 11 seconds away from the Chilean boat, who held on to the final transfer place and were looking to add Olympic qualification to their already decorated year.

“I think we are both very similar, and we are both stubborn in our own way,” Zana Krakic said. “It took some adjustments because we definitely had some hiccups in the boat, but our ultimate goal was to make the boat faster.”

The Chileans and the Germans only pulled away over the final 500 meters as the Krakic sisters’ Olympic dreams were extinguished at least for then as they watched another pair of sisters Melita and Antonia Abraham of Chile take the final transfer place into the A/B semi-finals.

“If we had the ability to row for four more years together, for another Olympic cycle, I believe that we would be able to qualify,” Zana said. “Unfortunately, it worked out that the qualification cycle happened to be too early for us.”

Izabela and Zana aren’t the only ones in their family to have successful rowing careers, as their older brother Ivo was also a very successful rower for both Croatia and Drexel University.

“I think Izabela never really had that, she had siblings in a sport, but I think she always wanted to kinda row with us and kinda experience how it is in the boat with a sibling, and I think that was the perfect opportunity for her, especially considering that Zana was also really fast and they had a really good potential,” Ivo Krakic said.

The Krakics hail from Sveta Nedelja, Croatia, a small town outside Zagreb. Ivo is the oldest, born in 1994. He was the first rower in the family. Zana was Darina and Blaz Krakic’s next child, born a year and a half later, while Izabela is the youngest born almost five years later.

“Unfortunately, I gained a lot of weight, my parents were not happy with that,” Ivo said. “My mom drove down this lake one time and saw these rowers carrying boats up and down and rowing, and she came home and said Ivo I don’t want you to row; just carry the boat once and come home.”

Syracuse Rower Izebela Krakic (center) trains with her teammates.
Syracuse rower Izabela Krakic (center) trains with her teammates.

But Ivo began to build his rowing career while Zana had another sport on her mind, figure skating. But, she slowly grew to dislike figure skating and seeing all of the fun Ivo was having rowing convinced her to move to the sport. Izabela, on the other hand, was still pursuing handball when her sister transitioned over to rowing. At 12 years old, that all changed as she moved into the family sport.

“Me and my brother, we were kinda in the sport and we were already putting our name out there and we had this younger sister and now she wanted to get in the sport,” Zana said. “We were like ‘OK if you really want to you can come and join the sport, but you probably are not going to survive longer than a couple of days.’ ”

But Izabela began to work her way up in the sport of rowing. Though this wasn’t without its challenges. When Izabela started the sport, she was small and not so spry, so rowing strained her back. But with a lot of heart and stretching before and after practicing in the water, Izabela gained a foothold in the sport.

“I was very short for the longest part of my life. I am not short anymore, but when I was younger that was definitely one thing that my coaches were concerned (about),” Izabela said. “They were like ‘oh you’re not going to be a good rower you’re so small,’ but then they said I had a big heart, I like winning and I want to do more.”

Following the success her brother and sister had at the youth level, Izabela established herself in 2015 when she finally defeated a long time foe for the singles national title.

“I kept going, I kept going and I crossed the line first and I came to the dock and my coach, he always gives me high fives, but that high five was so special. He hugged me, he lifted me up in the air,” Izabela said. “He was so proud he almost cried.”

This was only the beginning of Izabela’s winning as she completed her time in novice and moved up to the junior ranks. Zana had set the standard for the family with multiple top-10 finishes in the junior world championships.

“(Izabela) showed that she was a good rower very early on,” Zana said. “Right after novice when she entered younger juniors you could tell that she is a very good rower when she had better results than me, and we could definitely see that there was a very good future.”

That very good future came in Izabela’s second year as a junior when she was part of the first boat to bring home a women’s junior world title to Croatia. Joined by Ivana and Josipa Jurkovic as well as Bruna Milinovic, the foursome won the women’s coxless four in 2017.

“It was amazing, it was so crazy I got a tattoo,” Izabela said. “We were 17, we never had a four…It just happened that we had such a good generation of four girls and my coach [fought] really, really hard to put it into one crew because there was some kind of politics behind it…but then everything aligned.”

Because of their collegiate commitments, Izabela’s siblings watched on from the United States as she raced in Trakai, Lithuania, for a world title. This meant her siblings were watching her races in the very early hours of the morning.

“I didn’t do it, but it is one of the proudest moments of my life,” Ivo said. “We all lived with Izabela through those moments and I know how hard training was then for her to get to that point…I remember her calling me almost everyday at the world championships.”

Though the Croatian boat had won every round of the competition, the semifinal and the final against the silver medalist Romanian boat were both decided by less than four seconds with the semifinal being decided by less than 1.5 seconds.

“We know that they have good speed but we were not aware that they were fast where they can win the world championship,” Zana said. “I was watching the race from (the United) States at the time and I was like ‘oh my gosh what just happened, that never happened before.’ I was very proud.”

After her showins in 2017, the success was much more muted in 2018 as Izabela moved over to the women’s double sculls and women’s pair for the season. But the event change presented Izabela with a unique opportunity, attending the 2018 Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

“Then Youth Olympic Games came and I just was so into that idea that one day we were going to go the Olympics that I enjoyed the experience. It was three weeks in Argentina. I’ve never been there before, it was great,” Izabela said.

Izabela was joined by Aria Cvitanovic in the women’s pair event in Buenos Aires where they came in eighth place. Her future Orange teammate Kamile Kralikaite finished two places ahead of her for Lithuania.

“If I went now, now that I would say I am more mature than I was when I was 17, 18, knowing that I might not go to the Olympics,” Izabela said. “I think I would have appreciated it more and enjoyed it more, and I think I would have spent more time getting to know Kamile (Kralikaite).”

After the Youth Olympics, Izabela remained in the women’s coxless pair for the 2019 season, but this time with her sister as the bow instead of Cvitanovic. The pair competed in two World Rowing Cups before the fateful world championships where they missed Olympic qualification.

“We were very similar in that we liked just putting our head down and working and I really enjoyed that part with her whenever we would go out for 20K rows or 25K rows in the morning or afternoon. We wouldn’t really talk a lot because we understand each other,” Zana said.

After becoming a junior world and European champion, a youth Olympian and a senior world championship participant, it was time for Izabela to decide what was next for her either prioritizing her studies or her athletics.

“If you look at the whole picture rowing is (a) hard, difficult sport,” Ivo said. “It does not reward much anywhere. It is an amateur sport, so there is not really a lot of money you can earn…but one huge thing you can gain out of it is education.”

Before Izabela made her decision to come over to the U.S. after high school, her siblings had already made such a decision and had made lives for themselves in the U.S. as they both chose to stay after graduation.

On the advice of both her older siblings, who had both took the path of pursuing intercollegiate athletics in the U.S., Izabela followed by joining one of the top rowing programs in the nation at the University of Texas at Austin.

She was noticed and recruited by American coaches, and received a couple of offers. Izabela originally chose the Longhorns where she thought it would be a good fit for her.

Rowing wise, Izabela excelled at Texas. She was a part of a Big 12 championship team during her first full season at Texas. She also helped Texas go over the line to win a team NCAA title.

“I could not watch the race. Imagine the Croatian girl who grew up in a town 30-40 minutes from Zagreb whose dreams are not even to make it to (the) states, whose dream is just to find a job…and now she is winning a states championship in the United States of America,” Zana said.

Syracuse Rower Izebela Krakic (center) trains on the water with her teammates.
Syracuse rower Izabela Krakic (center) trains on the water with her teammates.

But Texas wasn’t the fit that Izabela was hoping for. Despite all of the success Izabela had on the water, she didn’t find what she was looking for at University of Texas at Austin and so she decided to enter the transfer portal.

“At Texas she was not happy in terms of the work load or whatever else…but I could tell from outside that she was not happy,” Ivo said. “Really the most obvious to me was that she would call me almost every day when she was there, complaining about something.”

In place of the unpleasant experience Izabela had at Texas, she found Syracuse University where she already knew some of the athletes from her international career and where she is pursuing a degree to set her up for her future.

“I am really happy with my decision of transferring here,” Izabela said. “I like the team. I think the team is going to do great this season. I don’t like labels, I did not join Texas because it was number one. I like the process of getting from one point to the other.”

Syracuse has bred new life into Izabela as both of her siblings observed that she is happier and calls them much less because she has found her place in the women’s rowing team and in the greater university community.

“Ever since she transferred I get a call maybe once a month saying I am doing good how are you,” Ivo said. “That’s a huge change in her behavior, where you can definitely tell she is a lot more happier (at) Syracuse, having a lot more fun, enjoying the school a lot more.”

The decision also helped Izabela on her way to achieving her career goals as she is an international relations major at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.

She plans to finish her degree and then get her master’s degree in international law. Becoming a lawyer is her ultimate goal.

Izabela got her Orange career off to a victorious start at the Princeton Chase as she joined Kralikaite to win her first race as a pair at SU. She also stroked the first varsity 8 to a fifth place finish at Princeton and an eighth place finish at the Head of the Charles.

“Kamile (Kralikaite) is a person when I was in pairs she would always beat me, and when I was in pair with her I told myself ‘if you can’t beat them, join them,’” Izabela said. “She is really strong and I just try to follow her, it was a really great experience.”

In Izabela’s first spring season with the Orange, she took a seat in the first varsity 8, which got off to a winning start against Harvard-Radcliffe, Rutgers and Iowa on March 25.

The Orange opened the season ranked No. 10 in the first Pocock/Collegiate Rowing Coaches Association poll of the 2023 season. This is the highest Syracuse had ever been ranked in the first poll of the season.

“I look at what we did in (the) fall and where we are now, I think that we have an amazing group of women and we are working really hard to do something that we have never done before,” Izabela said.

Both Ivo and Zana, having already experienced the ebbs and flows of a collegiate rowing season, give Izabela advice as she enters her junior season even though she had the most successful junior career of them.

“Have fun with it is for sure a big one,” Ivo said. “I think a lot of times athletes get too intense and focus on very little things, forget that we are all doing this because we enjoy it. So have fun with it and don’t concern yourself with things you don’t have to.”

Even though Ivo and Zana graduated from university years ago, they both remain in the United States. After a short period as an engineer, Ivo is now the head coach of La Salle University’s men’s rowing team. Zana has now received her MBA at University of Central Florida and works for Orlando City SC.

“Make sure you use every single opportunity you have and that is what I try to tell her every single time I am with her,” Zana said. “Yeah you might feel tired, you might feel like not doing something, but I’m like if this is something you will not get a second chance to do it, make sure you use that opportunity.”

Rowing has had a huge impact on Izabela’s life as she saw her brother enter the sport when she was only a few years old and it has brought her all over the world, provided her an Olympic diploma, made her a world champion and brought her to Syracuse.

“Rowing opened doors to everything for me,” Izabela said. “It is the hard work that I put in, but rowing is the opportunity that made me come to (the) states in the first place. Even though I transferred, I transferred to another rowing school. I think that knowing rowers is always going to benefit me. It is such a small world, such a small community that everyone knows everyone.”