For Kara Kochanski-Vendola, coaching is a family thing

Norwich Free Academy head track and field coach, Kara Kochanski-Vendola, enjoys a moment with her daughter, Berkley Elaine.
Norwich Free Academy head track and field coach, Kara Kochanski-Vendola, enjoys a moment with her daughter, Berkley Elaine. Seth Jacobson photo

Among Kara Kochanski-Vendola's first coaches was Linda Tardiff at Flip City Gymnastics in Taftville, a beloved figure in her life who, in addition to giving Kochanski-Vendola and her sister the highest level of instruction every night of the week, attended both of their weddings.

That's how Kochanski-Vendola learned that coaching and family could in fact overlap, which led her to incorporate a familial atmosphere into her own coaching style.

"I definitely think the way she makes the whole team a family," recent Norwich Free Academy graduate and track and field All-American Brianna Lenehan said, asked what makes Kochanski-Vendola's teams special. "We always say she's like a mom to us. She brings the team together and it isn't always easy with how many people we have."

Then, on Nov. 11, 2012, Kochanski-Vendola, the NFA head girls' track and field coach for the last 11 seasons, state champion and interval mom for the hundreds of girls who have competed for her, brought a new dimension to the Wildcats' family.

Kochanski-Vendola and her husband Rick became parents to Berkley Elaine Vendola, the newest NFA Wildcat, on a Sunday morning at 8:03 a.m.

Berkley was born more than two months early, at Lawrence+Memorial Hospital in New London, with Kara spending the final few days before her birth undergoing steroid treatment so the baby's lungs would develop more rapidly. Berkley, who weighed 2 pounds, 15 ounces at birth, spent her first 60 days at L+M, then six days at Yale-New Haven Hospital where she underwent surgery.

The baby came home on Jan. 7, still 22 days ahead of her original due date.

"It was the most scary moment of my whole life," the 37-year-old Kochanski-Vendola said of the instant she felt unusual cramping a few days before her daughter was born. "It was scary, but the doctors and the nurses are the most amazing people. They taught me everything I needed to know. I feel like I'm an expert in the field myself now.

"She was on a feeding tube a couple of weeks. She had lots of needles, an IV in the head. It was scary seeing her. Apparently, when girls are preemies they're much stronger than boys. She came out screaming and crying."

One day last month, a healthy Berkley Vendola, then up to about 15 pounds, clad in pink, sat on her mom's lap during an interview.

"She's nosy, very alert. She's funny. She smiles all the time; she has a very good demeanor," Kochanski-Vendola said. "It's been great. We wake up in the morning. Sometimes we stay in our pajamas all day. Sometimes we have dance parties. She likes SpongeBob. She likes the ABC song.

"With her, everything becomes more fun."

Kochanski-Vendola had additional reason to smile.

NFA's track team won the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference Class LL championship for the second straight season on May 30 at Willow Brook Park in New Britain, scoring 94 points to outdistance second-place Amity Regional of Woodbridge (75 points). In Berkley's first season as a fan, her mom won her fifth state championship and fourth in the past six years.

This fall, Berkley will have a chance to cheer for the Wildcats' cross country team, as well, as Kochanski-Vendola enters her eighth season as the head coach in that sport, having led the way to a state championship in 2009.

"I just loved sports," said Kochanski-Vendola, a 1994 graduate of NFA who competed in track and gymnastics at the school, of the reason she coaches. "I like to be involved. I like to teach. I love the teaching aspect, the life lessons; it's not just about winning and losing."

And of why she continues to coach: "I have such a good support system. (Berkley) can come to the meets. I see coaches at meets all the time putting their kids in strollers. I remember when Gary (Makowicki, now the NFA athletic director) coached; Lindsay Makowicki always had little NFA stuff on. All those girls (on the team) are great role models for her.

'We love the kids'

Kochanski-Vendola will resume her teaching position this fall in the special education department at NFA.

Prior to the upcoming school year, she co-taught the ACES program – Alternative Curriculum for Education Success – with longtime NFA boys' basketball coach Neal Curland, who also served as her sounding board for any problems she might encounter in coaching.

Curland, who recently took an administrative position at Bacon Academy, said Kochanski-Vendola certainly "doesn't need my expertise anymore." Curland finds it remarkable, in fact, that Kochanski-Vendola followed Makowicki, who won eight straight Class LL state track championships from 1994-2001, and built on that success.

"In coaching, you never want to be the guy that takes over after the guy, that way you're following in a legend's footsteps," Curland said. "Kara followed a legend and she kept it a dominant team at the state level. That takes an awful lot of commitment. That takes a person who is willing to give a lot more time than an average coach is willing to give.

"I've always been amazed at how she has over 100 kids in the program and, somehow, is able to make it an individual experience for all of them."

Kochanski-Vendola, who won a Class LL title as a part of NFA's 4x800-meter relay team her senior season, was a member of Makowicki's state championship team in 1994 which began the winning streak of eight in a row.

She took over as the head coach at NFA in 2003 and, after suffering a loss to East Lyme High in a dual meet, led the Wildcats to a victory in the Eastern Connecticut Conference championship meet, being named The Day's All-Area Girls' Track and Field Coach of the Year in just her first season. The following year, NFA won its first state title under Kochanski-Vendola.

In 2013, the Wildcats won their sixth straight ECC championship meet and extended their dual meet winning streak to 43. Kochanski-Vendola was named the Connecticut High School Coaches' Association coach of the year for girls' track.

"Every year goes by and I don't feel like a veteran coach, but there's a lot of coaches under me (in terms of longevity)," Kochanski-Vendola said. "We're very lucky to have the girls we have come through NFA; they see the success the program has had – it's an excellent program – and they go on to represent the program."

Curland is just as impressed with Kochanski-Vendola, a graduate of UConn and Southern Connecticut State University, as a teacher. Her mom, Lanie, was formerly the director of special education in Norwich and her dad, Joe, was a math teacher at Norwich's Kelly Middle School. Kochanski-Vendola said she loves teaching at NFA because of everything it offers students, from the arts programs to athletics.

"She's very kind, she's got enthusiasm, she's able to insert her personality and humor and at the same time get a lot out of the kids," Curland said of the ACES program. "We love the kids. We always put the kids first. These kids have not always had an easy time in school. They need a place they can call home away from home. If we can get them to trust one more adult, make school fun, maybe school will be a place they want to come to."

Seasons change

On Aug. 24, Kochanski-Vendola will get back to coaching, although the girls' cross country team will be without Lenehan, who last year swept the ECC, Class LL and State Open individual titles. Lenehan is off to compete at Columbia University.

The doctors can't tell Kochanski-Vendola why she gave birth to her daughter early; it could be something as simple as the barometric pressure that day. But she has now added mom to her list of titles which includes daughter; wife to Rick, who works for Girard Toyota in New London; sister to Joey-Marie, the former three-time State Open and four-time Class L all-around gymnastics champion at NFA; and coach.

She spent the summer acclimating Berkley to Seaside Beach Club in Weekapaug (R.I.), where she grew up hanging out, as well. She still has red-tinged tips in her hair from a paint job during her team's 2012 state championship run that never came out. She's getting ready to figure out how to beat an experienced East Lyme girls' cross country team.

And if you ask Kochanski-Vendola about her wedding to Rick in 2008, she'll tell you she had some of the alumnae from her program as attendants, tying into the thread of family that she learned long ago from Tardiff.

"I have a great picture on my phone of (NFA athlete) Dyshelle Pemberton holding Berkley before practice," Curland said. "… Kara wanted these kids to be more than kids who play on her team, more than just a teammate. When the kids feel that kind of openness, they can give you a little bit more."

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