A Way Forward

By Bryan Kitch

Meghan O'Leary and Ellen Tomek at the 2016 Olympics. Photo by Peter Spurrier.

2017 has seen sweeping changes within USRowing in the wake of the Rio Games, and the recent release of the High Performance Task Force summary report is the latest attempt to reset the table for Tokyo 2020. The report, the product of a series of recommendations and interviews with the High Performance Task Force, a body made up of athletes and coaches, offers insight into eight subject areas, from defining what success will mean over the next four years, to governance, to external relationships and funding.

Of course, one part of defining success is medal count. The U.S. came away with two medals from Rio, with one coming from a USRowing training center boat (the women’s eight), and one from a non-training center boat (Gevvie Stone in the women’s single). Needless to say, these results fell short of expectations. The High Performance Report sets new ones for 2020: three medals from training center boats (men’s and women’s combined), and one from a non-training center boat. These are based on past experience, as well as an understanding of the international playing field in elite rowing at this time.

“Not that it’s unrealistic to want to expect higher [medal counts],” explains 2016 Olympian, former interim USRowing board chair, and task force member Meghan O’Leary, “but given our history, as well as the results that other countries have had, we are trying to take a very realistic approach and then of course building from there.”

But the document goes well beyond the numbers. It also looks to redefine key roles within USRowing’s administration, more clearly outlining those of CEO and high-performance director, as well as recommending that USRowing move away from the dual head coach system for the men’s team. The report also aims to redefine the criteria for high-performance committee membership. In general, the theme appears to be a much more hands-on approach.

“I think that the task force’s goal [for the high-performance director] was to make sure that the role was clearly defined,” O’Leary says. “The position is one that the USOC strongly encourages every national governing body to have, and [creating a new position] was part of our falling in line with that, along with the growth of the national team infrastructure. Now this is taking it another step forward, saying let’s make sure to clearly define the needs and the role for a high-performance director within our program.” While Curtis Jordan filled the role over the past four years, O’Leary says she feels the role was not as thoroughly outlined as it will be going forward.

“We’re making sure that we’re clearly defining—based on our expectations for medals, prioritization of boats, our system of inside and outside the training center—the high-performance director’s role. Like any evolution of any job description, or just growth, you live and learn a little bit and you can then say OK, these are the areas we really want to focus on, and these are this person’s responsibilities.”

Two more major focuses of the document cover coach and athlete development and retention, a top priority for USRowing building toward the next Olympic Games. First up will be finding a replacement for U.S. men’s coach Luke McGee, who recently announced that he would be stepping down from his role with the national team. Regarding the athletes, the task force recommends that more investment be made in the under-23 system to “diminish the financial obstacles” to participation. The under-23 system is seen as key cog in preparing the next generation of Olympians for the elite level.

Also recommended is a reshuffling of boat classes and priority boats in the form of a four-tiered structure, with Group I made up of training center medal targets (here defined as the women’s eight, men’s eight, women’s four, and women’s pair); Group II as training center development (for 2017, defined as the women’s quad, men’s four, and men’s pair); Group III as high-performance club medal targets (women’s double, men’s and women’s lightweight double); and Group IV as club development boats (men’s and women’s single, men’s double and quad).

Athlete support and external funding are further features of the report, not just in terms of direct athlete support, but also physical therapy and nutrition. This touches on the significant financial implications of achieving the goals outlined within the recommendations, as well as a search for sponsorship that has long been a feature of USRowing’s strategy for sustainability and growth.

“The task force recommended a lot of great things,” O’Leary says, “but a lot of them have a big dollar sign next to them, and we can’t do them all at once. As our budget continues to improve we can increase the national team budget, we can continue to peck away at the recommendations, but we’re acting responsibly in terms of implementing them.”

She continues: “Increased sponsorship is a priority for any national governing body. And that’s an area where USRowing will always want and need to continue to grow, not only to grow the sport, but also to better support our national team and our membership. I think what a lot of members don’t realize at times is that any sponsor that comes to USRowing, the money actually goes into membership—the national team athletes aren’t the only ones receiving benefit. So of course, it’s our goal to grow revenue and sponsorship has a direct impact that way.”

While there are many challenges facing USRowing with a view toward Tokyo, the hope is that by outlining a path to achieving success at this early stage, administrators, coaches, and athletes will have a race plan going forward.