As I sat on the eight-hour direct flight from Geneva to Newark returning from the 2015 World Championships just a week ago, I ran through my mind the previous several hours, into days, and finally, weeks. At best, all I wanted to do was forget. Forget it all. The brain does this amazing thing called dissociation when faced with stress or conflict. You can block out an incident or time and nearly forget it ever happened. At varying levels, dissociation describes a wide array of mild to severe detachment, including simply daydreaming when bored, to more serious altered states of consciousness, the latter of course linked to much more serious episodes than a bad regatta. Pretty incredible when you think about it.
A week later and the pain of what was, simply put, a terrible World Championships experience has slightly dulled, perhaps only due to a strong will to forget and thanks to the amazing brain’s coping mechanisms. There were lessons learned and I’ll hold tight to those, but revisiting anything else is only an invitation to be stuck in the past, brought down by sharp regret and disappointment. A week later, and it’s time to move on. A week later, and it’s already the start of the 2016 Olympic season. I’m a planner. Let’s get on to what needs to happen next. No time for moping.
They say winning isn’t easy. Whoever “they” are, got that terribly wrong. Winning is the easiest part of what we do. It’s the losing that will test you beyond measure; scrape out of you the emotions and parts you try to hide or pretend don’t exist. They’re those parts that whisper, “it’s not worth it” or “why do I even do this?” in the privacy of your own solitude and suffering.
When things come together just as (you think) they should, perfectly and all to plan, it’s bliss. When you’re riddled with setback after setback, fighting only not to fall apart completely, that’s the real struggle. In a sport like elite rowing, you work 357 days out of the year (and many more before that) in hopes to put together eight days of successful competition. It’s easy to sit back and enjoy the ride of the perfect week, just as you’d imagined it. It’s crippling to be tossed from one end to the next, white-knuckling the grip on your composure as the world around you seems to collapse.
It’s exciting to wake up the next morning, greeted by your smiling reflection, refreshed with the joy of knowing all of your hard work finally paid off. It’s depressing to pull yourself out of bed, weighted down by the burden of disappointment and no realization of the sacrifice you offered to chase the dream. The face in the mirror screams at you, “your best just isn’t good enough.”
It’s uplifting to look forward, to meet the eyes of your family and friends, those that supported you and experienced the victory with you. It’s crushing to keep your head down, eyes shifted to avoid any recognition of the pain for you on your loved ones’ faces, feeling your own hurt compounded by the weight of theirs.
It’s logical to comprehend that your hard work deserves success. It makes sense! It’s mind-boggling to accept that your blood, sweat, and tears amount to nothing. It feels good to take the pats on the back and high fives; it’s deafening to hear the silence of empty consolation, “Get ’em next time.” It’s easy to be reassured, you’re on the right path. You won, so you have to be! It’s halting to be doubted, no stable ground to push up from. Where do you go from here?
Winning is the easy part.
We’ve all been there. That is the push and pull of rowing. It’s what sucks you into this sport and refuses to allow you to give up. The pursuit of perfection. The allure of the game-winning goal and fairy tale ending. There are incredible peaks and valleys in sport, especially in rowing. The ability to ride through the highs and lows with a similar approach and steadiness is what will allow for greater success, not promise it. In a race, there is only one winner and en route to victory there is going to be a lot of losing along the way. A lot. Can you survive the beating and retain your belief that you will succeed? I think perhaps it’s this brutal reality that keeps rowing a small, amateur sport.
I like to believe I’ve experienced my share of valleys, but I have a strong inkling that the terrain ahead will continue to bring several ups and downs. In fact, I hope that it does. Bring ’em on. The lows are what truly test you and if you can handle them, you will come out stronger than before. As we look ahead into the 2016 year, the stakes will only be higher and the pressure more intense as we near the Summer Olympics. Every day brings a new challenge. Every day brings victory or defeat.
To say the least, the 2015 World Championships was an incredibly challenging regatta for Ellen and me–emotionally, mentally and physically. It was not the overall outcome we wanted nor expected, but at the end of the day, we got Olympic qualification for the women’s double taken care of (mini fist pump) and that was the critical mission. Sometimes things just don’t fall your way and we faced one too many hurdles last week to get on the podium.
From illness to simply “off” rowing, we were nowhere near being in top form. As I’ve hinted before, the women’s double sculls is possibly the most competitive event. You can’t come into any race at less than 100% and expect to do well. These are the best crews comprising the best athletes in the world. Last week, spots 1-11 (2016 Olympic qualifying positions) were separated by only a few seconds. In the double, this equals about the length of the boat, which is a very tight margin in a very deep field. To give you a comparison of similar boat size: in the women’s pair event, the gold medal to bronze medal position was a spread of eight seconds. Eight seconds behind first in the women’s double puts you well into the C Final.
In the double, any race could go any way with hundredths of seconds determining your fate; we struggled and just didn’t have things fall our way. We came into the regatta a medal favorite after nearly beating World Champion, New Zealand at World Cup 2 in June, but instead finished 11th, taking the last Olympic qualifying spot. The World Record holder and 2015 bronze medalist, Australia finished 10th. Last year’s World Championships silver medalist, Poland didn’t even medal. While only a matter of seconds separates the depth of our field, it doesn’t ease our devastation and disappointment. The silver lining is that in the big picture, we were still incredibly close for having struggled as much as we did. Last year’s World Champions, New Zealand took gold; Greece took silver; Germany took bronze. These crews are top-notch and had a great regatta. I’m continuously especially impressed by Team New Zealand who has definitely figured out how to field a winning team. With their women’s eight taking silver and their men’s eight qualifying their boat for the Olympics with a fourth-place finish, they’ve proven that they not only know how to expertly move the small boats, but can dominate the powerful eights as well.
On a higher note, the United States Women’s Rowing Team qualified EVERY boat for the Olympics. That’s right, we’re a bunch of badasses. I’d say the highlight of the regatta was the women’s quad beating reigning World Champions, Germany in a convincing win. It was impressive and I couldn’t be happier for senior team member and friend, Megan Kalmoe who has been a key figure in that boat over the past several years. She definitely finished out her last World Championships with a bang. Additionally, the women’s eight added a record 10th consecutive World Title to their belts. The men’s team had a rougher regatta, but managed to qualify the four, pair, lightweight four, and lightweight double (which we did not qualify in 2011). All in all, the United States Rowing Team brought home five medals and qualified ten boats for the Olympics.
What’s next? To break it down: While Ellen and I qualified the boat for the 2016 Olympics, USRowing holds separate selection procedures to fill the seats. So yes, exactly what you’re thinking. We did all of the hard work only to have to fight for it again in a few months. Some form of U.S. Trials are scheduled for mid-April to be held in Sarasota, Florida. USRowing has not finalized the 2016 Olympic Team selection procedures yet, so time will tell what that process entails.
For now, we’ll regroup, get healthy, and recover. After a few weeks rest, we’ll dive into full training again to prepare for the Big One. There will be changes to how we approach next year to address some of the things that we learned from the year and particularly our World Championship experience. We did a lot of things right this year, but every year is a learning experience; I like to think that as long as we learn from those mistakes and make sure we’re improving upon them, we’re headed in the right direction. I’ll take 11th this year if it means we get it right next year.
Thank you again for the continued support. 331 days until the 2016 Olympic Games. 331 days to get it right.
We arrived early last Thursday morning into Milan and traveled the short hour by bus to our pre-Worlds training site in the small town of Erba, Italy. We are staying in the “Leonardo da Vinci” Hotel where we’ve been enjoying the friendly staff and delicious meals. It’s an older, but well kept establishment, perfectly situated less than a 15-minute walk (or 3-minute drive) to Lago di Pusiano where we’ve been putting in our training miles, making last-minute tweaks and sharpening up for the big dance next week in Aiguebelette at the 2015 World Championships.
After less than a week here in Erba, the group will pile into a caravan of coach buses this afternoon and make the 5-6 hour trek through the Alps to Aiguebelette, France. The lake there has restricted access until only a few days before racing begins so all of the national teams have been training in various areas scattered throughout Europe. We are currently sharing Lago di Pusiano with a small Team Cuba and the local resident Italian junior rowers. The training center is beautiful with a picturesque view of the mountains directly across the lake. The main building is a simple structure of concrete and glass–modern in style and practical in execution–cleaner than any boathouse I’ve been in. We need more boathouses like this back in the States! The lake is small, but perfect for rowing, with old churches, quaint restaurants and homes surrounding the water’s edge. Except for the occasional slow-moving work boat–and the one day a seaplane landed on the water (which was pretty cool)–there isn’t much other traffic to manage outside of coach launches and other rowers.
I’ve passed the time outside of the boat mostly enjoying a new book, napping, and wishing I could remember the little bit of Italian I learned while studying here one summer during college. It’s been too long since I’ve had the time to read with heavy hours of training separated only by eating, sleeping and working in my free time. I managed to leave (forget) my computer charger at home…something I’ve never done before. Ever. It truly has been a blessing in disguise. Fortunately, Amanda Polk (3-seat of the W8+) has been sharing hers with me when I need it. Not staring into the blue screen of a computer has lent toward more time spent truly resting, reading a book (on actual paper), and allowing myself to disconnect and fully focus on the challenge that lay ahead. It’s a simple concept, but one that can easily go overlooked. Less Facebooking and Tweeting, less Instagram scrolling, less mindless distraction and less stress. I realize the irony in this as I stare at my screen to type this very post ;) The point being: there is real value in putting on the blinders, disconnecting a bit and allowing yourself the space to truly focus. Energy is finite and every bit counts in a 2,000-meter race.
For our last evening here in Erba, the hotel staff fixed us a delicious send-off dinner, capped with a little birthday celebration. I haven’t had the joy of blowing out candles for the few years now that I’ve been traveling as a part of the National Team as my birthday always falls over the World Championships trips. They prepared an amazing shortbread pudding cake with fresh berries and a framed ‘Happy Birthday Meghan’ message. Favorite moment? They wheeled the cake in while blasting some ’80s music. Well done, Italy. You know how to make a girl feel special.
This is only the third time I’ve experienced the ritual of World Championships prep and my first encounter with an Olympic qualification regatta. While the stakes are in theory, higher, the focus, approach and end goal are all the same as any other major international regatta. My partner, Ellen Tomek and I have put in more miles and gone to greater lengths this year to make sure we’ve left no stone unturned and no step missed on our journey toward putting the United States Women’s Double on the podium. Aiguebelette is a big step, and one step closer to Rio.
It’s been almost eight weeks to the day since the USRowing National Selection Regatta I, where Ellen Tomek and I won our bids to represent the U.S. at a World Cup in efforts to qualify the women’s double and our spots on the 2015 U.S. National Team.
I’m proud to say that in another eight weeks, Ellen Tomek and I will be in the middle of our last bit of preparation as members of the National Team representing the United States at the 2015 World Championships in France.
Hands down, Ellen and I had our overall best regatta performance this past weekend at World Cup II in Varese, Italy. We had the baseline goal of qualifying the boat with a top seven finish. Beyond that, it was the aspiration to medal and less tangibly, we felt we had something to prove–more on this in the next post. For the U.S. National Team and elite level, there’s not a lot of racing. We race maybe three to four times a year. As a crew, our last race had been NSR1, and it was a rather lukewarm performance for us. At the World Cup, we would see the best crews in the world and couldn’t get by with just lukewarm.
Going into the regatta, we felt good. The rowing had been going fairly well, we were comfortable in our boat, healthy, and ready to see what kind of speed we had at this point in our training. The first two days of the regatta flew by. We won both our heat and semifinal, posting the fastest times in each round. This was good; now we knew we had speed. But in a field as competitive and deep as the women’s double, you can never read too much into how the heats or semifinals go. It’s anyone’s line to grab come the final. After crossing the line first in the semifinal, we celebrated the small victory of officially securing our spots on the National Team and then quickly returned to full focus; the big one was tomorrow.
Sunday morning before the race, Ellen and I went for our usual pre-race paddle. Ate our breakfast quietly, personally contemplating the potential fate of what lay ahead. We both tried napping…unsuccessfully. Perhaps it was the hotel staff cleaning the room above ours (it sounded more like roller skating), or perhaps it was the adrenaline already coursing through my veins, but I only closed my eyes to see race scenario after race scenario. I must have gone through 2,000 meters a hundred times.
We threw down what was arguably the closest race of the entire regatta in the Final to come away with the silver medal, just 0.14 seconds out of first behind New Zealand. I’ve alluded to the women’s double being the most competitive and deepest event across all boat classes, and this weekend’s World Cup racing did nothing but validate that. It’s an honor to compete in such a top class and high quality field of athletes. The funnest part about it is that every race is an all out battle, and there are no gimmes.
I couldn’t be prouder of my partner, Ellen Tomek in stroke seat for setting the rhythm, trusting my calls, being confident in our abilities and leaving it all on the water as we raced the best race in our history together as a crew. Missing out on gold by 0.14 seconds to the 2014 World Champions is only fuel to the fire we’re building for the 2015 World Championships in September, and beyond that, hopefully a run next summer in Rio.
If you haven’t had a chance to watch any of the racing, all of the A Finals are available on the World Rowing website HERE. Separate from our race in the women’s double (W2x Final – FA), there were several other fantastic Finals. I was literally jumping on my bed in the hotel watching the W2- Final come down (this was while I was supposed to be resting and preparing for my Final a few hours later). Megan Kalmoe and Kerry Simmonds threw down a heroic race to win silver and set the tone for the rest of the day. The United States brought home a total of eight medals. A big shout out to the U.S. Women medaling in every event entered (W1x, W2x, W2-, W4-, W4x, W8+).
What’s next? We returned to Princeton, NJ where we’ll spend the rest of the summer. We took a short day to recover from competition and travel, and then dove right back into training. The 2015 World Championships take place August 30-September 6 in Aiguebelette, France. We’ve got another eight weeks to build on what we’ve accomplished thus far and make sure that we finish on the other side of that 0.14 seconds come September.
Two weeks ago, the USRowing National Selection Regatta I opened the beginning of the 2015 racing season for elite rowing in the United States and with it, a major step on the road to Rio.
As we have for the past couple of years, Ellen Tomek and I competed in the women’s double sculls event. For the third consecutive year, we won the NSR and the opportunity to compete at a World Cup to hopefully solidify our spots on the 2015 United States National Team. This year is especially significant as the 2015 World Championships in September will double as the Olympic qualification regatta; which means the results will determine which events the United States qualifies for the 2016 Summer Olympics.
There is a running joke that the NSRs unfailingly bring out the worst of conditions on Mercer Lake. In my short rowing career, I’ve only experienced that this myth becomes very much a fact every April and May as we line up to test ourselves against our teammates and other American crews. This year was no exception and may go down as one of the wackier regattas in terms of weather and circumstance.
Due to high winds, the majority of the already limited practice windows were canceled during race week and crews were confined to training on land as they prepared for racing. Over the course of the four-day regatta, heats were canceled, races were delayed and moved, boats took on gallons of water and oars literally snapped as crews fought down the 2,000-meter course against waves and 15-20+mph gusts to try to make it across the finish line first. As I already mentioned, it was a wacky regatta.
Staying together for three years now to build the women’s double is a very foreign concept in American rowing. It’s an experiment and approach that is working well for us thus far, although it is not without its challenges.
Coming into the NSR as the incumbent boat–in any event–you do have a target on your back. You’re the boat to beat and the one with something to lose. To many, this can create a lot of pressure and perhaps take you out of your game, away from your focus. You go to the line just like every other crew, in our case with four sculling blades, a shell, and two moving seats. All that matters is getting across the line first. It doesn’t matter if you’re an Olympian or a novice, or how many National Teams you’ve been on. All that matters is getting across the line first. There is no if, there is no should or could, it’s about just doing in that moment.
The Final went well. Not great, not bad, but enough. We knew that the other boats would start out fast, so we just stayed as relaxed as we could and made sure we pushed away with every stroke once we hit our base rhythm. It was windy, very cold, and the water was a bit bumpy–we had one or two mishaps with our oars (well, I had one or two mishaps), so we just decided to cruise to make sure we held the lead that we had gotten in the first half. We ended up winning nearly six seconds ahead of the second place crew. You can rewatch all the excitement of the 2015 National Selection Regatta HERE.
Two days after winning the NSR we were back on the water, training hard and preparing to qualify at the World Cup II in Varese, Italy June 18-21. We celebrated the NSR victory briefly, knowing the summer racing was only weeks away and would bring faster boats and higher stakes.
This past weekend (January 25th), I had the honor of being recognized by the University of Virginia as part of their 2015 celebration of National Girls and Women in Sports Day. (The National Day is recognized on February 5th, 2015). My trips back to Charlottesville are always special, but this one was especially memorable.
After torturing myself on a hard end-of-week erg workout Saturday morning, I jumped on a flight to travel across the country, from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. I guess you could say my sprint across Dulles Airport was my “flush workout” as I bounded up to the gate, sweating and panting, just in time to catch my connection to Charlottesville.
The weekend was perfect. There to celebrate the weekend with me were my mother, my twin brother and his wife, one of my best friends from college, and several of my great friends and mentors who are still in Charlottesville. The Athletics Department, Virginia Athletics Foundation, and the Maxine Platzer Lynn Women’s Center put on an amazing event. I was truly made to feel quite like a celebrity and was extremely honored and humbled to be recognized as this year’s honoree.
I’m writing this post not to showcase my own weekend but rather the event itself. To be completely honest, I knew very little about National Girls and Women in Sports Day before being chosen as this year’s honoree. As I learned more about the day and all that it is about, I couldn’t help but be grabbed by its significance. As I stood up speaking in front of a large and diverse crowd which included women who fought and struggled to even participate in sports years ago, juxtaposed against young girls who finally, have opportunities to compete and experience the benefits of being an athlete, it struck me how important a day like this was. There is still so much progress to be made, but in that room a story of struggle, sacrifice, and finally victory could be seen full circle.
I did my best to do the day and the people there justice by honoring them with a few inspirational words, but truly it was the experience that inspired me. I left the weekend feeling prouder than ever to be a University of Virginia graduate and more importantly, a female athlete.
Below, I’ve shared my written speech and video taken of the speech from the weekend. For all of the younger athletes out there, remember to never take any game or practice for granted. And for the mature and “wise” athletes, simply, thank you.
Every Day Counts.
2015 National Girls and Women in Sports Day – University of Virginia Celebration
First, a big thank you to everyone in this room–all of whom represent or in many cases, are the people that have been an invaluable part of my story and reason that I am back here today. The University, Department of Athletics, the VAF, University faculty and staff, the Jefferson Scholars Foundation, and of course my teammates, friends, and family. A special thank you to the Maxine Platzer Lynn Women’s Center for co-hosting such a wonderful event in recognizing National Girls and Women in Sports Day, and most importantly helping me get a free trip back to Charlottesville during restaurant week.
When I found out the theme for this year’s event, I was immediately excited. “Bold in the Pursuit of Excellence.” I’ll argue that this should be the theme every year, because all of the female athletes coming out of UVA can be identified by this. So in preparing for what I wanted to talk about, I considered the meaning of the phrase. The words passionate and fearless come to mind.
One of my favorite quotes and sort of a mantra I’ve come to live by – forgive me, I’m actually not going to quote Thomas Jefferson – reads:
“There is no passion to be found playing small, settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living.” – Nelson Mandela
For as long as I can remember, my life has been intertwined with sports. From the time I could walk, I was throwing or kicking a ball and trying to run faster than anybody who would line up next to me. While growing up, my family moved around a lot, and my most critical decisions seemed to revolve around what AAU or travel ball team I would be able to join. Even as a 10-year old, I wanted to find the best team with the best coaches and compete in the best leagues. I wanted to learn, to be challenged, and simply to be the greatest at whatever it was I was doing.
This love for sports fostered an incredible drive and competitive spirit–passion–that opened up a world of opportunity off of the playing field. While it may have caused a temper tantrum or two when losing in a family game of Monopoly, more importantly, it drove me to give back to my community, to become Valedictorian, Student Council President, and eventually, a two sport athlete and Jefferson scholar at the university of Virginia. Through my involvement in sports, I learned that with hard work and determination, anything is possible.
I vividly remember writing down my goals in the second grade: I dreamed about going to the Olympics. I would record any women’s athletic event that came on television–using up countless VHS Tapes–some of you in this room don’t even know what those are–and watch the games over and over again. I had female athlete role models. The magnitude of that is so important. While my brothers had posters of Michael Jordan and Emmitt Smith on their walls, I idolized women like Mia Hamm and fellow Wahoo, Dawn Staley. As a young girl, I was allowed and encouraged to want to become a strong, powerful, and successful person. Athletics gave me the confidence to dream big and pursue nothing short of excellence. To be fearless. To be bold.
My time at the University of Virginia only strengthened this zeal for greatness. It was a perfect fit. My experience especially as a student-athlete equipped me with the skills and confidence to be brilliant, take risks, overcome the steepest of challenges, to always strive for building the best version of myself and to never settle. I had no choice but to keep up as I was surrounded by the best of the best: top students, elite athletes, and the greatest professors, coaches, and support staff in the country.
Upon graduation, I continued a life wrapped up in sports. I began a career in the sports television industry, landing my first job with ESPN. It wasn’t until a couple of years later in the summer of 2010, while working and living in Connecticut, that I attended my first rowing lesson at a small club on the Connecticut River. Now to explain the sophisticated process of how a softball/volleyball player from Baton Rouge, Louisiana (where you do not get into small boats in the water) would fall into such an extracurricular activity: I literally, Googled “rowing” and “Hartford, Connecticut.” After one day on the water, I fell madly in the love with the sport. It occurred to me on that same day that I didn’t want to just do this a few times a week, recreationally. What if I could do something really big with this? So I threw a chunk of my savings into buying a boat and made plans to race in every race I could get to the following summer. After just one year of rowing, I was invited to join the United States National Training Center. A couple of years later, I quit my job with ESPN, knowing this type of journey took full commitment.
Some would call emptying your savings, quitting your job, and chasing a dream with an unpredictable outcome “bold” and “fearless” — others may have a different genre of words for it — but nonetheless, I had an unbelievable support network and the confidence built on my experiences as a young athlete and as a Cavalier, that I could take on any challenge and succeed. It should be mentioned here that UVA has continued to play a significant role in this journey. When I first began rowing, I called Head Women’s Rowing Coach Kevin Sauer, seeking his advice and guidance. His first response was, “oh, now you decide to try rowing!?” followed by “I’ll help you in any way I can.” And that he did. Today, I consider him one of the most influential coaches in my career and have become a big supporter of the rowing program here.
Flash forward another couple of years and I am a two-time U.S. Women’s National Rowing Team member en route to hopefully competing with Team USA at the 2016 Summer Olympics. If you asked me in my First Year at UVA where I saw myself in ten years, my answer wasn’t “training for the Olympics,” but it was undoubtedly something equally as bold. It turns out that the little softball player in second grade knew what she was talking about. It would just be in a totally different sport.
I am truly honored and humbled to be recognized by the University of Virginia as a part of this year’s National Girls and Women in Sports Day celebration. The role athletics has played in my life is invaluable. From my youth to my years at UVA, to continuing a professional career in sports, athletics have shaped me and made me the person I am today. Beyond the endless gratitude I have for my teammates, family and coaches, I am forever indebted to those women–women like my mother and Jane Miller–who years ago dared to dream and took those bold steps to challenge the status quo, paving the way for young girls like me to have the chance to play sports just like my brothers did. I only hope that an increasing number of girls and women continue to see greater opportunities through involvement in sports, empowered by the realization that they can be strong, they can be fearless, and they can be anything they dare dream to be.
2014 absolutely flew by. I guess people say that about each passing year, but this one felt especially quick. As an Olympic Hopeful, the closer the Rio 2016 Games approach, the faster the days seem to pass by. It’s unbelievable to think we are already looking at 2015 and with it, Olympic qualification in September at the 2015 World Rowing Championships.
The past year was packed with a lot of change, lessons learned, a healthy mix of ups and downs, and most importantly, forward progress. Here is a short recap of some of the moments that stand out the most–whether they be good, bad, or a little ugly.
My partner, Ellen Tomek and I were named to the 2014 United States National Team in the Women’s Double for the second consecutive year. This was her sixth team and only my second, but as a crew we have matured greatly in our two seasons together.
We demonstrated our dominance as a crew at the 2014 USRowing National Selection Regatta (NSR #2), winning the regatta and thereby the bid to travel overseas and compete at the World Cups in hopes to qualify for the World Championships at the end of the summer. At World Cup II in Aiguebelette, we won a silver medal, just 1.4 seconds off of gold. It was our top finish and perhaps our best race as a crew yet.
The second place finish in France automatically qualified us to be named to the 2014 National Team. For the second year in a row, we secured our bid to the World Championships by proving we were a medal-contending boat in one of the most competitive women’s events.
Following World Cup II we went on to compete at the Holland Beker Regatta in Amsterdam and came away with two gold medals in the women’s double. We ended a month of racing in Europe with World Rowing Cup III in Lucerne, Switzerland. Despite having a pretty rough regatta, we managed to finish just over three seconds out of first, in a tight fifth-place finish. While it may not have been an overall high point of the year, the positive takeaway from the regatta was that we could consistently be among the top crews even on our worst of days.
Seeing the silver lining is powerful. Feeling discouraged by our World Cup III result, we returned to the States, hungrier than ever and hit the training hard, knowing we belonged on the podium. We bounced back stronger than ever and had a great month of training leading into the World Championships. When we left for Amsterdam in August, we felt fast, healthy, and race-ready from the lessons we learned from racing throughout the summer.
Every up is often balanced by a down, and vice versa. It is the order of things–or at least how humans tend to justify the order of things. After such a successful World Cup II, we were confident about our prospects for the rest of the summer. Rowers meticulously and religiously prepare for years, putting in thousands of hours on the water and on the erg, eating and drinking the right things, getting enough sleep and doing absolutely everything in their power to stay healthy. So much training and preparation goes into such a short race. For all the things that must go exactly right to put you in a good position to compete and be successful, it takes just one thing to go wrong to kick your feet out from beneath you. Food poisoning, a cold from traveling halfway across the world, faulty equipment, one bad stroke, or a freak injury can drastically derail a rower’s path to success.
Unfortunately, the perfect storm hit us at the not-so-perfect timing of the World Rowing Championships in Amsterdam. As I already mentioned, we felt solid when we showed up in Amsterdam. We’d proven to ourselves that we could race with the best (and win) and we’d proven to others that we were a crew to keep an eye on. You see, the United States isn’t known for our sculling prowess. As a country, we have never won a gold medal at the World Championships or any medal at the Olympics in the women’s double. I love the fight of the underdog and felt that this was our chance to make history and change that statistic.
Back to the perfect storm. From day one in Amsterdam, Ellen and I were riddled with issue after issue. It’s difficult enough adjusting to a new time zone and shaking off jetlag. You’d like to believe this will be your only hurdle to face. You’ve put so much time into preparing for everything else. We arrived to find that our racing boat looked like it was pulled through a Tough Mudder. There was a hole in the deck, deep scratches down the sides (beneath the water line), and the wrong riggers accompanying it. Deep breath, it’s all good. We’ve prepared for the worst, no problem. Grab the soap bucket and lets get some tape on this hole. Over the next week of practice, we struggled with the riggers–never quite getting the pitch right. We spent exhausting hours at the race course having checks and changes made to the boat, waiting, waiting some more, coming on and off the water multiple times in a day while our competition efficiently trained and went back to their hotels to rest. A few days before racing began, we even had a new set of riggers made and rush-delivered, only to have them arrive and find that they were manufactured incorrectly (with reverse differential welded into the aluminum…you rowing junkies will appreciate the ridiculousness of this). I thought the last straw would be witnessing the boatmaker’s employees literally bang the rigger against a tree to “bend it” back enough so that we could try and reverse the angle to create enough height. In the middle of all of this we went through two sets of oars, finding out that one was cracked and then the replacement pair was faulty as well. Oh yeah, and our boat wouldn’t run straight. Finally, after a few days of increasingly stronger pleading, the skeg was checked and found to be crooked. Must’ve banged a wall during that third obstacle of the Tough Mudder.
Separate from being caught in our own version of The Griswolds go the World Rowing Championships, the Bosbaan course in Amsterdam proved to be as difficult as it was rumored to be. Conditions were “challenging” and lanes were inconsistently unfair, advantaging crews and disadvantaging others. Unfortunately, we continuously found ourselves with the short end of the stick when it came to lane selection. It goes without saying that our World Rowing Championships experience was less than fantastic. Despite enduring a storm of obstacles, we fought our way into the A Final and raced with everything we had in a strongly disadvantaged lane one. We finished a disappointing sixth place. We were exhausted, a little beat down, but did our best to keep our heads up. Despite the bad, we had come a long way and accomplished a lot in just our second year. Sixth place is one better than the seventh place we finished in 2013. Another stepping stone. Momentum is on our side.
I already mentioned our win at the National Selection Regatta. Anyone that raced that event or was there in attendance can attest to the horrid conditions experienced on day two of racing. The semifinal was one I will never forget. The stake-boat holders were gripping the sterns of the boats with white knuckles, a look of fear and strain in their eyes as a strong crosswind (20+ mph) and cold rain blew directly into us. The white caps had already swamped our boat during the warm-up. We barely could get the rate above a 30 in our practice starts. We literally started the race with our bow pointed nearly perpendicular to the course. The starting equipment wasn’t working (again), so the judge had to drop a flag and “yell” the starting command into a deafening wind. I’m pretty sure the crew next to us didn’t realize the race started until a few seconds after it was called. About 100 meters in, I caught an incredible boat-stopping crab (captured perfectly by row2k photographer, Erik Dresser). Looking back now, it was quite comical…but only because we went on to win in a blazing time of 7:58.45. I think we came down the course at a stroke rate of 27. Maybe.
We had a bit of dejavu in Amsterdam during our repechage. Going into the rep as the top-seeded boat, we were strongly favored to win and approached the race relaxed and loose. Just put in the work; put in a solid race, but don’t expend too much because you’re going to need to bring it for the semifinal and hopefully, the A Final. Perhaps I was a little “too loose” with my hands. About 300 meters into the race, the sun was shining in such a way that it perfectly reflected off the water directly into your eyes, blinding you from being able to see the white rock-hard buoys that lined the lanes. We veered a bit into the buoys, and before we realized it, I hit one perfectly square on top, knocking my port oar completely out of my hands. Miraculously, I caught it on the way up the slide…but without my knowing, the blade had done a complete 180 and was backwards when I took the next two, three, five strokes. It wasn’t until Ellen looked behind me from stroke and yelled, “OTHER WAY!” that I made the adjustment, righting the blade face and getting back to work. By this point we were several lengths down but knew we had it in us to get it back. Over the next 1700 meters we worked our way through all of the crews, finishing over a length up to win the repechage. Our families and coaches in the stands were unaware of what had happened at the top of the course and commended us for racing conservatively, and just “doing what needed to be done” to win the race. You can imagine how their jaws dropped after hearing what actually led to our glorious finish. Somehow we still put up the fastest time across all of the other reps. Again, I can laugh at myself now, but my heart still skips a beat just thinking about how disastrous that one mistake could have been.
And Finally, More Good.
Following a few weeks away from the boathouse in September, Ellen and I attacked our training with a renewed zeal this fall, determined to make sure we do everything we can to have an even better year in 2015. Train harder, train smarter, and leave nothing left to doubt. We still have a lot of work to do and continue to challenge ourselves each and every day to take those critical steps toward becoming a stronger, faster, and top crew. Racing starts in only a few short months with the USRowing National Selection Regatta #1 April 21-25, 2015. It’ll be here before we know it.