Front Row Seat

By Jen Whiting

20040815 Olympic Games Athens Greece [Rowing].Schinias Photo Peter Spurrier .USA W8+ Bow - Kate Johnson, 2. Samantha Magee, 3. Megan Dirkmaat, 4. Alison Cox, 5. Caryn Davies, 6. Laurel Korholz, 7. Anna Mickelson and Lianne Nelson cox Mary Whipple[Mandatory Credit Peter Spurrier/ Intersport Images] 2004 Olympic Regatta, Rowing Course; Lake Schinias Olympic Rowing Course

I was scheduled to interview U.S. national team women’s assistant coach Laurel Korholz for this story, but first I had to find her. I was at the Mercer Lake boathouse in New Jersey, one of the locations the national team uses to train during the warmer months. It was the right time, but I couldn’t find her office.

“We’re in the back of the boat bay, behind the racks,” said Korhlz, when I rang her phone, apologizing for being late. She came out of her office—a cinder block affair, with stark walls and desks covered with computers and training logs—and, for the first time in my life, I did an entire interview standing up.

Korholz is a tall woman. She used her height and power to make the national team 11 times as an athlete. Korholz medaled in the Olympics, won several World Rowing Cup races, switched from sweep rowing to sculling—and back again—and finally joined the coaching staff of the team she had grown up on.

In 2005, head women’s coach Tom Terhaar was in the market for a new assistant coach. After Korholz had won a silver medal in the 2004 Athens Olympics in the eight, he brought her onto his staff as the administrator and assistant. Terhaar, who had been the women’s assistant coach under Hartmut Buschbacher from 1994 to 2001, knew how important this position was to the development of the women’s team.

“Laurel is great because there’s not a lot of fluff,” says Terhaar. “She understands what’s really important. You’re dealing with adults. You can be straightforward.”

As I stand in the national team boat bay with Korholz, I notice how she embodies what Terhaar told me I would find: a straightforward thinker who doesn’t mince words. When I ask her about her 11 years as an athlete competing on the national team, she says matter-of-factly, “My first year I was a spare. Then, yes, I spent 11 years competing.” The boat bay is quiet between us, and I wonder if we’re going to head back to her office to sit down. She doesn’t seem phased by the stand-up interview and continues, half-joking, “Back then I had the delusion that I could get better.”

Of course Korholz did get better, rowing in some of the fastest crews the United States had ever produced, with her last race in Athens inching the United States ever closer to the dominant team they are today.

“Is it the same team now as it was when you were on it?” I ask, the wind blowing in through the open boat bay doors.

“It’s the same team,” she starts, as my pen scribbles on a pad balanced on my arm, “in that everyone wants to go fast. Now, though, we have greater numbers and the talent has grown deeper.” She backs up, almost to correct herself. “Not that the people I was rowing with weren’t talented. It’s just that the numbers of rowers are greater now, which brings the competition up.”

Korholz speaks as one who has felt the demands of the coaching world—the intense control that it takes to prepare a boat and then the letting go when the boat launches from the dock for the final race—but doesn’t get ahead of herself. “We rely on the athletes wanting it,” she says, when I ask her if she travels to recruit athletes. “We get information out there, and under-23s [the arm of the development system that grooms college-age athletes for international competition] is a valuable resource. Many of these athletes,” she waves her hand toward the boats that are on the racks surrounding us, implying her current athletes, “were involved in under-23s. There is still a jump to make from under-23s to the senior team, but at least it gets them in the system and gets us aware of them.”

Korholz steers the conversation away from talking about the team she was on as an athlete and focuses solely on the team she now coaches. She goes on, giving advice to rowers who want to get a shot at representing their country. “I’d say, if you’re still in college, go to under-23s. If you’ve graduated from college, it becomes trickier in that, if you rowed in college and didn’t do u-23s…” Korholz shifts her word tense here. She stops giving advice and starts using examples of rowers on the 2016 Olympic team. “Tessa Gobbo didn’t do under-23s, Tracy [Eisser] didn’t think she was good enough to do under-23s. U-23s is not mandatory, but those two athletes are hugely talented physical specimens that didn’t do under-23s, but still had the physiology and talent to make up for the lack of experience. I think, if you go through college and then, at graduation, you think, ‘I’d like to go to the Olympics,’ find a good club or call us up and say, ‘I’m X-Y-Z, will you give me a shot?’ If it’s not a pre-Olympic year, the answer is probably yes.”

Korholz explains how a 2013 identification camp brought five of the 2016 national team members to her and Terhaar’s attention. “Lauren Schmetterling, Olivia Coffey, Grace Luczak, Vicky Opitz, Grace Latz—all these athletes came to an ID camp, we did some erg testing, and then invited them to train with the team. Everyone is invited to ID camps. If you show up and pull some numbers that we’re interested in, we’ll invite you.”

Under the surface of Korholz’s calm demeanor, there are subtle cues about what resonates with her after 12 years of coaching the best women’s rowers in the world. Power is one of those things. “Hilary [Gehman, the Cornell University women’s coach who coached Tracy Eisser] contacted us. She said, ‘I’ve got a rower who’s 6’ 2” and has over 700 watts of power.’” The boat bay echoes as she tells the story. “We said, ‘OK.’” Tessa Gobbo, who is a now an Olympic gold medalist, didn’t do under-23s, but routinely sent Korholz her erg scores.

“There has to be enough desire to make some sort of communication on your part,” Korholz dives in, revealing her understanding of what it takes not only to make the national team, but to survive a four-year training cycle. In many ways, making the team could be seen as the simple part. Surviving an entire quadrennial is another matter entirely.

I ask Korholz if expectations have changed since she was competing. “The process is different now. With Hartmut [Buschbacher], we were in Tennessee, on a river.” I look up from my notepad, unsure why being in Tennessee made the training expectations different. Korholz appeases me.

“The small-boat rowing was less reliable,” she explains. “These guys, a lot more is expected of them in the small boats than was expected of us. Here,” she waves her hands toward Mercer Lake, “we have a buoyed course. It’s a reliable course. It’s not as iffy as when we were in Chattanooga. We do a lot more training in small boats now.” She stops, and I wonder if she realizes we’re still standing, or if she spends so much time on her feet—in a launch, in the erg room, at the three training centers the national team uses—that this is natural for her.

“We have some athletes that don’t have much time in a small boat, and some who have never sculled before, but we say, ‘Here’s a single, off you go.’” Without missing a beat, Korholz goes on, “We prefer it to be warm when that happens, to be honest.” After a moment of silence, I realize she’s being serious. “When we get the question from an athlete about what a toe-steerer is, we know their life is going to be tough for a while, but they figure it out soon enough.”

As I stand next to this woman who towers over me, I think back to something Terhaar shared with me as he described working with Korholz over the years. “We both have a quiet approach. You go through all of the phases that every coach goes through. It’s gotten simpler and more clear. You get better at knowing what is important for selection.”

Korholz echoes Terhaar’s comments, “We have similar traits, yes. We are more similar than we are different, but a lot of that is that he’s worked with the same coaches I rowed for. We were on different sides of it, but we learned from a lot of the same people, we experienced a lot of the same coaching styles.” She stops for a moment. “We both believe the team should function a certain way.”

Korholz explains that, until the boats are selected, both she and Terhaar work with all of the athletes. “Once the athletes have delineated, and the team is selected—but that may not be until the middle of the summer—we’re both spending time with all of the athletes. Pretty much we coach who’s in front of us,” she says.

One of the aspects of coaching the national team that Terhaar shared with me was the attrition of experienced athletes. I ask him if he tries to keep certain women in the eight. “That would be nice,” he says, “but we don’t really have that approach. We want the experience, but what ends up happening is that all of those athletes have to defend or continue to improve in order to make it. I don’t say, ‘She’s been in two Olympics, so let’s keep her.’ It’s a good thing and a bad thing. It stinks because, unless an athlete returns, they’re cut. They may have a lot of experience but not be able to do the training, or perform up to that level.” He pauses for a moment as we talk. “We start new every year. I know people talk about a streak [the eight’s 11-year streak of consecutive world and Olympic championships], but it doesn’t feel like a streak. These athletes are competitive people. They want to win. They drive it, really.”

Korholz explains their approach to creating the fastest boats in much the same way. “It is very much, get the most out of every race we can.” I ask her if they build their lineups for World  Rowing Cup events differently from how they seat crews for worlds.

“We don’t put people in the boat who haven’t earned it. We wouldn’t leave someone at home because someone else needs the experience. That doesn’t work.” She glances around the boathouse, surveying the shells that sit on the racks between practices, as if she can see who last rowed them.

“I would say, now, this squad is young. Many of them have done under-23s but in terms of senior team experience, they’re young. So if we didn’t have a chance to send them to the World Rowing Cup, that wouldn’t be good because they wouldn’t get the experience they need. Some people might ask if this is a year to save some money and not go to the World Rowing Cup, but they really need the experience.”

Korholz is, as I had been told to expect, thoughtful—pensive, almost—about rowing and, more specifically, about her coaching. She shares her current thought, “I guess the broader aspect of that question is, are we sending a team to the World Rowing Cup because they need the experience?”

I shift my weight to my other foot and ask her about the timing of building an Olympic team. “You can’t build an Olympic team in less than four years” she says. “We’re thinking about Tokyo now. You can build a couple of athletes in less than four years, but you can’t build a team.” Again, Korholz turns to examples from the 2016 Olympic team to prove her point. “It has to be an exceptional athlete. Amanda Elmore came in two years before the Olympics. In the first year she made the quad and in the second year she ended up stroking the eight. But you have to have something to put that kind of athlete in. You have to have a team that an athlete like that can come into and learn from and build off. You have to start now.”

I ask Korholz what it’s like being with the national team these past 12 years as they have dominated.

“It was a period of time that we were accumulating athletes and athletes were retaining [their spot], which allowed things to build. Now you have a lot of people retiring and a lot of new athletes, so it’s going to be a difficult challenge. I think this year, as opposed to previous years, feels more like 2005.”

That was the year after the women’s eight won silver at the Athens Olympics, when only two athletes returned to compete at worlds—Mary Whipple and Samantha Magee. The eight took fourth at the 2005 world championships, but that boat paved the way for the most durable winning streak in rowing.

“Our goal always is to build an entire team,” Korholz says. “Where it starts and where we are in that goal varies by numbers and experience.” Terhaar had said the same thing, “It’s like we’re starting again. We’ll select for World Cup, then see how people are doing and start finding the team for the world championships.

“It’s not just about a boat,” Korholz says, as she starts to head back to her office, “it’s about the whole team.” She turns around and says, “Even with our offices in the back of the boat bay, we always have everything we need to build the team. Everything.”