Mike Teti knows American men’s rowing arguably better than anyone. With Tokyo 2020 a little more than a year away, can the veteran national team coach convert his experience into another Olympic gold?
By: Alan Oldham
Photography: Ian Tuttle
Nobody knows American men’s rowing like Mike Teti. As much as he is known for his passionate coaching style and anti-elitist orientation, it’s Teti’s golden touch that USRowing bet on once again when he was named last year to lead the men’s squad for the 2020 Olympics.
Now, barely one year back on the job and with a little over a year to go until the Games, I wanted to find out just what the so called “eights whisperer” has in mind.
I’ve talked with Teti a few times in person and over the phone, but I wouldn’t have said that I knew the man. Yet as we talked on the phone for this interview—Teti’s formidable way with words carrying our conversation late into the evening—I began at least to understand something more of his passion for the sport and his motivation to strive for success.
In 2004, during the heat of the Greek summer, crews lined up for the second heat of the men’s eight at the Lake Schinias Olympic course on the plains of Marathon just outside of Athens. While the wind-swept region figures largely in Western history as the site of a major Greek victory over a much larger Persian force, that 2,500-year-old battle was hardly top of mind. Yet for the rowers sitting on the starting line, the odds were just as real: history was about to be made.
An American men’s eight screamed down the course, putting a stop to the two-time world champion Canadians, in a development reminiscent of the Sydney 2000 Games, when Teti’s eight failed to convert on three consecutive world titles. Teti and his crew were determined that things would be different this time around. High winds helped both crews break the world best time that day, but it was the resolve of the U.S. men more than the push of a trailing breeze that earned them Olympic gold in the final.
“Mike loves the national team. Coaching for the U.S. has been a passion of his. He’s got 35-plus years of coaching experience that he brings to the table and he is enthusiastic about it.”
It was Teti’s third Games as a coach with the U.S. men; his sixth if you include his time as a rower. Yet it was his first Olympic gold. The win also broke a long drought for the United States in men’s eight rowing. Teti himself had been in the last U.S. eight to stand on an Olympic podium, when his crew won bronze at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul.
It’s hard not to regard that 2004 gold as a major moment for U.S. men’s rowing. Looking at the entirety of the modern Olympics’ 24 successfully concluded regattas since 1900, Athens 2004 was the United States’ 12th victory. No other nation has come close to that record, yet 15 years later and with Tokyo 2020 looming, that gold remains USRowing’s only Olympic men’s eights title since the 1964 Games.
Mike Teti turned eight in 1964. Living just beyond the outskirts of West Philadelphia, Teti’s hard-working Italian-American family had little time for luxuries like following the Olympics, let alone a sport like rowing. Looking back on his upbringing, Teti sees the seeds of his future success. “I am one of 10 kids growing up in a two-bedroom house,” he said. “I think that prepared me better than anything else. You learn a lot of life lessons.”
Teti was in high school when he discovered rowing for the first time. “One of my best friends on the football team—his father rowed in the 1932 Olympics. A lot of the guys on the football team would train with the rowers just to stay in shape. This was before ergs. So starting in January, the rowing team would do this physical fitness stuff, stairs, running, jumping, and they opened up the winter training to all the athletes at the school.”
By the end of winter, Teti was in the best shape of his life. Then came the opportunity to try his newly-acquired fitness out on the water. “I thought, great, I’ll try it,” he recalled. “When I got down there I found it was a whole part of Philadelphia I’d never known about.”
What drew Teti to the sport was much more than the physical challenge, or that he happened to be good at it. “I never had a goal of winning Olympic medals or anything,” he said. “I rowed because I liked it, and even when I was going to the Olympics, I still rowed because I liked it.”
“People ask me, ‘When did you retire?’ I say, ‘I didn’t, I got cut.’ If I was any good I’d probably still be rowing. It wasn’t that I wasn’t motivated to win,” continued Teti, “I just liked the people and the training was fun. I love rowing. As insignificant as rowing is, it’s what I’m into.”
“I think if I want to keep my job, I am required to win a medal. What I am trying to do right now is develop a program that is sustainable, that is broad based, That will be a strong program well into the future.”
The same joy of rowing Teti felt as an athlete has remained central to his work as a coach. This is something not lost on his new boss.
“One thing that is absolutely great about Mike,” said USRowing high-performance director Matt Imes, “is Mike loves the national team. Coaching for the U.S. has been a passion of his. He’s got 35-plus years of coaching experience that he brings to the table and he is enthusiastic about it.”
Imes has overseen USRowing’s top national team programs for over a decade; he has seen first-hand what Teti can do.
Since his departure from the head coach role after the 2008 Olympics, Teti moved from strength to strength as head men’s coach at the University of California, Berkeley, all the while maintaining his ties to the national team.
Coaching the under-23 U.S. men’s eight to gold and a world best time in 2011 left the doors open to Teti’s much publicized return to right the senior men’s ship after the crew’s first-ever failure to qualify for the Olympic Games at the 2011 world championships.
While that first comeback saw Teti turn around the crew’s fortunes in short order with success at the last-chance qualifier in Lucerne, the Americans finished 0.3 seconds out of the medals at the London Games. By bringing Teti into the picture last year with triple the lead time and in the head coach role for the first time since 2008, the hope is he’ll have both the room and authority to set things on course for Tokyo and beyond.
Old Dog, New Tricks
Even though he’s remained plugged-in since his last stint with an Olympic crew, Teti knows well that international rowing has continued advancing in his absence. “The latest seems to be that everybody comes down the course at 40 to 43 strokes a minute,” he pointed out. “I’m not saying we’re going to row that way, but it’s interesting.”
“It’s not that the top team is higher,” added Teti, “but there are way more crews that have chances to medal. I’ve never seen so many super close races as I’ve seen now. It used to be first and second were a few millimeters apart, but now you see six crews like that. You can’t make a mistake and still win. Take the women’s eight in 2017; five boats right across; it was incredible.”
When it comes to accounting for the change, Teti has some ideas. “I think everyone has access to better information now,” he suggested. “We are learning faster now. When I played football in high school, you weren’t allowed to drink water. I’m old, but I’m not ancient. That was the 1970s. Can you imagine that today?”
“From every aspect of the sport—nutrition to rigging to physiology to equipment to biomechanics,” continued Teti, “it has advanced. Everybody has access to the same information. Every so many years there is a breakthrough—the New Zealand pair, they were a whole level above everyone else—but the rest catch up. I think we all learn from each other.”
“I’m older as well,” he said, with a little more contemplation in his tone. “Hopefully I have evolved a little bit. There are definitely mistakes that I’ve made that hopefully I’ve corrected. You learn from them just like from the defeats.”
Through all the changes, at least one thing has remained constant, said Teti. “There are many roads to Rome,” he said, “but one thing I have learned is all the people who are winning have really good athletes in the boat.”
That sentiment—that developing and retaining the best athletes is essential to the process—is at the heart of his plan to create a medal-winning system for Tokyo and in the years to come. “I am trying to get as many of the best rowers in America to row on the national team,” he said. “I’m trying to make it as convenient as possible for them to do that.”
USRowing’s new national training center in Oakland, Calif., is part of an effort to do just that, creating more opportunities for the country’s top rowers by branching out beyond the single home base at Princeton, where Teti formerly coached the men during their heyday.
“We currently have three training centers,” said Imes, “Oakland [primarily men], Princeton [primarily women], Boston [primarily Para]. USRowing has separated out from Princeton as the numbers there have grown year over year [for both the national team and other users of the lake such as Princeton University]. In an effort to better serve the needs of the athletes with more timely access to resources needed on a daily training basis we have broken out into smaller, more focused centers.”
“Oakland has been really good,” he continued. “The community has been wonderful in helping out. From a job standpoint, it is a new job market for the guys to find work out there as well. As long as we are able to coexist, we like the model as it is right now. You don’t want to move athletes around on a consistent basis. You want them to have a feeling of stability.”
“Hopefully I have evolved a little bit. There are definitely mistakes that I’ve made that hopefully I’ve corrected. You learn from them just like from the defeats.
For many of America’s top rowers, having the ability to balance elite-level training with career and family life is not just a goal, but a reality. This is something Teti is keenly aware of.
“With our demographic here in the States, our feeder system is obviously the college system,” he said. “A lot of the top rowers have degrees from prestigious institutions; they have options. What has worked for me in the past and seems to work now is to allow the athletes to have a career and train.”
“I know that other countries are doing it differently,” he continued. “I think that if I coached in Canada or Germany or Australia, I might do things differently, because the culture is different. But for us I think we have to go that route to have the best chance. At least four guys from last summer, if they weren’t able to have a job, they wouldn’t be rowing.”
To facilitate this, Teti holds two group training sessions a day at 6:30 a.m. and 6:15 p.m. “We’re trying to set up an infrastructure sort of like what we had in Princeton. Most of the guys have pretty good jobs and have to be at work at 9 a.m.”
In special situations, Teti has been known to show even more flexibility by considering athletes for his crew even when they aren’t able to be at the center full time for most of the year. “If someone has a job in Los Angeles and comes up and the boat goes better with him in it, what am I going to say? ‘OK, the boat is faster but you can’t be in it because you live in LA?’ I can’t do that. As long as they are performing, they are going to be candidates.”
Overall, Teti says he is pleased with his current cohort of athletes. “There are no issues with the guys we have now,” he told me. “I’m not saying there won’t be, but it has been a really easy group. I think a lot of it had to do with they had to move to the West Coast. Most of them aren’t from here. They have to find places to rent and work. It brings them closer and they rely on each other. I think that is good. Without promoting it, a kind of bonding happens organically.”
Measure of Success
When it comes to measuring the success of his approach, Teti draws a distinction between goals and requirements. “I think if I want to keep my job, I am required to win a medal,” he told me with a laugh. “What I am trying to do right now is develop a program that is sustainable, that is broad based. That will be a strong program well into the future. I am trying to create depth so we will be good across the board. I am trying to get everyone who is talented in the pipeline for the national team and I think that will sustain us.”
“You’d like to think over the long haul, you did the best you can—that you had a positive impact on these athletes’ lives.”
“I think everybody’s goal is an Olympic gold medal,” he continued. “Everyone wants to win and so do we. It is understood. I am not a big believer in that you have to put it on the board every day. I know why these guys are here; I see the effort they put in; we are all on the same page.”
“For us, it is understood: we have won the eight in the past and we are trying to do it again. And after that develop the next boat and the next boat and the next boat. Sort of like how the women are doing. We want to get the same results as the women. Build one boat at a time and we want to do the same thing. I know it is not going to happen overnight.”
While I had glimpsed flickers of it throughout our conversation, the philosophy underlying Teti’s vision came through most clearly when we talked about the legacy he’s already achieved and what he hopes to leave behind when he finally calls it a career.
“I know that when I was at the Dad Vail Regatta coaching at Temple or the IRA coaching Princeton or Cal or the world championships and Olympics with the national team, I feel the same thing,” he said. “You feel like these athletes are counting on you to give them the right information for success and that is an awesome responsibility. It is twofold: First, you don’t want to let these kids down. Second, you want to win—to have a little bit of glory. Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t and that is sports. I have been on both ends.”
“I feel fortunate as far as wins and losses,” he continued. “A lot of that has to do with luck and the group you’ve got. I am fortunate that I was able to coach some really successful crews.”
Even with the expectation that his latest group of rowers must rapidly be ready to take on the best in the world, Teti hopes his greatest legacy will consist of something more enduring and personal than simply medals.
“You’d like to think over the long haul, you did the best you can,” he said, “that you had a positive impact on these athletes’ lives.”
Teti points to his own experiences when reuniting with former crewmates as just one example of this. “It’s interesting,” he reminisced. “Even in my own reunion rows, some of us won the world championships and an Olympic medal together, but we don’t talk about rowing. It’s weird. Your experience together is rowing, but you aren’t talking about rowing. You just want to hang out.”
“When everyone has moved on,” he concluded, “you hope that a lot of the guys you coached feel that same way.”