Picking Up The Pieces

By Bryan Kitch

Peter SPURRIER/Intersport Images Rio de Janeiro. BRAZIL USA W8+. Gold Medalist Bow. Emily REGAN, Kerry SIMMONDS, Amanda POLK, Lauren SCHMETTERLING, Tessa GOBBO, Meghan MUSNICKI, Eleanor LOGAN, Amanda ELMORE, and cox. Katelin SNYDER, at the, 2016 Olympic Rowing Regatta. Lagoa Stadium, Copacabana, Olympic Summer Games Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon, Lagoa.

Immediately following the Rio Olympics, USRowing came under fire for the overall performance of the team, particularly the men’s squad. While the men’s eight placed fourth for the second straight Olympics, it was a bit off the pace (nearly five seconds from gold), and the overall failure to capture a medal for the men’s team caused quite a stir. For the women, it was more business as usual, with the eight winning yet another Olympic gold, and the U.S. taking its second silver medal in the women’s single in the last three Olympics.

The first significant change was high performance director Curtis Jordan retiring. This was followed by the resignation of four board members, the departure of CEO Glenn Merry, a restructuring of the High Performance Committee, and eventually the additional departure of men’s coach Luke McGee.

A year later, the landscape has changed dramatically.

“In aggregate, I’m very pleased with where USRowing high performance is now compared to where we were a year ago,” says Rob Milam, chair of USRowing’s High Performance Committee. “And that took an enormous amount of work from a lot of people. It started with the board—it had to be effectively reconstituted. Then there was the High Performance Committee. And then there was the search for a new CEO. Now if you look at where we are, we have a new CEO. There’s a new board and a new chair. And personally, it’s been a privilege to work with such incredible professionals in our sport that have staffed the High Performance Committe in Yaz [Farooq], and Charley [Butt], and Bob [Ernst].”

To launch a process that involved so many moving parts and achieve so much in less than 12 months is an impressive feat in itself, before we even get to moving boats on the water. That’s something that Milam hopes people recognize.

Still, at the end of the day it comes down to athletes stepping up and performing under pressure. “The athletes generate the performance on the water,” Milam says. “No one’s going out there on the water with them on race day. But again, I think if you look at the performance, and if we’re having this conversation a year ago, we would have laid out something like, ‘It would be great to get one or two medals in Sarasota.’ And the U.S. came away with six.”

Not only that, but four of those medals came in Olympic events (silver in the men’s eight, women’s double, and women’s pair; bronze in the lightweight women’s double), and the across-the-board performance in making A finals set a great precedent building toward Tokyo. And while the women’s eight’s streak of consecutive world titles came to an end, the competitive level of the U.S. women’s squad remains very strong, especially given the turnover following the Olympics last year.

“On the women’s side, I don’t feel like it’s been talked about as much, but there were a huge number of retirements after Rio,” Milam says.

Long story short, the ship is being righted.

But that’s not to say that the dust has completely settled or that anyone is taking it easy. After all, none of those six medals at worlds were gold. There are also still some major questions looming for USRowing in 2018, including the exact nature of the coaching staff for the men’s team. While Olympic champion coach Mike Teti came back to take on an interim position once again this year to guide the men’s eight to a silver medal behind the vaunted Deutschlandachter, whether he returns or takes on a more permanent role with the national team remains to be seen.

Regarding the questions raised above, Milam was circumspect. “What I can say now is that we anticipate that all of these questions will hopefully be resolved very soon.”

In other words, the process that began last February is still ongoing. There are loose ends and the committee is aware of them. Milam is looking to tie everything up quickly, but the primary focus has been to go about it the right way rather than to rush anything.

“We’ve been working on this continuously since the High Performance Committee was seated, and I think we’ve tried, throughout all of these processes from the beginning, to take feedback from the community, to solicit feedback from the athletes, to observe performances from athletes and coaches, and be thoughtful and patient about making decisions. Obviously we’re not perfect, but we’ve tried to make the most informed decisions that we can.”

He adds: “That’s the focus of everything we’re doing: winning medals in Tokyo. So no one is resting on what we accomplished in Sarasota. Even in the men’s eight. The silver was an incredible achievement, but looking at the margins, we were slightly closer to fourth place than we were to a gold medal. For the broader team, we hope that all of these A final and medal performances are something that we can build on, but we know that we’re going to have to get faster in all of these boat classes just to remain at the same level. Every event will get more competitive each year from here.”

Evolving, analyzing, making measured decisions based on the data at hand. It sounds like a recipe for success. And so far, so good. But there’s a long way and many strokes to go before Tokyo.