How do you choose success? Is it something that’s learned—when you’re half a boat-length behind in a race—or is it something you’re born with. An innate longing to be ahead, even when it demands more from you than is comfortable?
Megan Cooke Carcagno has, by all accounts, been successful. A member of four U.S. national teams (2004-2007), she has the world championship and World Rowing Cup medals to show for it. She was in the U.S. women’s eight that began the streak of international gold medals that has extended 11 years and counting. She has coached at all levels—junior, masters, club, collegiate—and taken her teams to their own pinnacles of success. It was no surprise, then, when she sought another level of achievement, both for herself and for the team she joined in the summer of 2015 as head coach: Duke women’s rowing.
“I was—my husband [Simon Carcagno, a fellow coach and member of the U.S. national team from 2002-2008] and I were—happy in Wisconsin,” she says as we settle in for an interview. Cooke Carcagno was the freshman coach, an assistant coach, and, in her last year with the University of Wisconsin Badgers, an associate head coach. “But my position there had run its course,” said Cooke Carcagno, who coached at Wisconsin from 2008 to 2015. “I had added what I could add. The Duke position was always something I’d been watching with curiosity. It’s a great conference, a great school with great resources. When the job became open, I knew it was the right time.”
The years of training and racing at the elite level racing haven’t left Cooke Carcagno, and you can feel it in her presence. In my mind’s eye I can see her bringing the Wisconsin crews to their fullest potential with the confidence that comes from the experience only a few hundred rowers each year get: sitting on the starting line of an international race.
Her voice brings me back to the present, and her comment makes me wonder if she knew I was imagining her triumphs of the past. “When you’re young, you haven’t made a lot of mistakes yet. You’re kind of able to run with it. I’m glad I got the [Duke] position when I did; it couldn’t have come at a better time.” Cooke Carcagno explains how she and her husband have an agreement in their marriage. “We’re always open to change and to following the biggest lead,” she says. This seems like a position two elite rowers and coaches would take. It’s here that I begin to form the question of going after success, and how that desire is manifested in each of us.
“We both said, ‘This is one of those jobs we need to do.’” Cooke Carcagno knew, even during her job interview, that Duke was a program she wanted to lead. She knew that her experiences, combined with the right staff, could position Duke to reach a new level. “I attribute so much to Robyn [Horner, the first, and only, Duke women’s head coach before Cooke Carcagno]. She built this program. She took the team to varsity status. She worked to get the boathouse built. I can’t begin to thank Robyn enough.”
Cooke Carcagno arrived at Duke with the support of her family. She and her husband have two young boys, three and five years old. Her husband spent the first year as a stay-at-home dad. She brought two assistant coaches on board: Chuck Rodosky, who had been an assistant coach at Ohio State for six years, and Chase Graham, the head of Saugatuck Rowing Club’s junior girls’ program.
“My hiring was done on purpose. I wanted to work with them because they’re no strangers to winning. That’s the atmosphere we wanted. I wanted people who had just recently won, and who planned on winning.” She pauses ever so slightly,
“These guys are confident because they’re successful and successful because they’re confident. Second place isn’t OK.”
I ask her where she developed her approach to coaching. Her response goes back to the beginning. “I got my feet wet coaching at every level. After rowing at Cal, I decided very quickly I wanted to go to the Olympics. After graduation, I wasn’t fast enough so I did what any athlete does: I trained more.” She’s talking quickly, and I struggle to keep up. More, though, I wanted to make sure I was getting her words right. “I decided I wanted to go to the Olympics,” she’d said. Not, “I wanted to try to go to the Olympics.” Again, the question of pursuing success flitted around the edge of our conversation and I wanted to listen to the inside of her story, the part that’s from the moments when success isn’t certain, but experience is.
In 2002, as a newly-minted Cal alumnae, she took a job coaching the Marin masters in the morning, the Oakland Strokes juniors in the afternoons, and the Cal novice women in between. “I’d get up at 4 a.m. to drive to Marin to coach the masters,” she says, and then explains how she would do every workout with her crews, and more training in the middle of the day. “Everyone would use me as their training rabbit,” she chuckles. “After doing 10 workouts per day, I got scores that were good enough to go to the [national] team.” She pauses while my pen catches up. “Training on your own is really hard.
“What I learned from coaching at different levels is that you have to know your group, you have to know what they want. Each level has its own goals. You have to coach according to their goals.” I ask her for details. “With the masters, they wanted to be pushed, but they also knew that seeing the sunrise was a great thing, getting on the water was a great thing, and doing coffee afterwards was a great thing. Coaching the Cal novices was about teaching the girls how to get fit and how to row. And Oakland Strokes is such a strong program.”
I ask her about being a rower at Cal under coach Dave O’Neill (now the head women’s coach at the University of Texas). “Dave’s first year coaching at Cal was my first year rowing at Cal. For the first two weeks, we didn’t know who was going to coach us and then in walks sunny, blond hair Dave and he stole the show.” She says all of this with the respect a rower has for a coach, developed as he was building the program at Cal into a force in women’s rowing.
I ask Cooke Carcagno if her coaching draws from O’Neill’s. “I use phrases and workouts I’ve gotten along the way, yes, but you can’t emulate anybody. You have to be yourself. You can never pretend to be anyone else.” She goes on in the self-deprecating manner that is so often a trait of successful people. “I’m not as smart or methodical as Tom [Terhaar, the U.S. women’s coach] and I’m not as fun as Dave.”
Cooke Carcagno grew up with a father who was a basketball coach. “We were always tripping over clipboards and water bottles in our hallway,” she says. “I would watch my dad at basketball games. He would scream until he was hoarse and then, the next day, we’d run into a kid who played on his team and they’d always show such admiration for how he coached them. He was there for them as a coach, always wanting to get their best performance from them.”
When Cooke Carcagno made the national team in 2004, she was in the straight four, the boat she says is typically used as a development boat. “The next year I was in the double, then in 2006 I competed in the pair and the eight. In 2007, in the pair, I herniated two disks at the world championships. I spent three months on the bike and never really caught up. I was the last starboard cut before the  Olympics. I just wasn’t what the boat needed at that point,” she speaks slowly here. “That’s the sport. At the same time I got to do four World Rowing Cups in almost every boat class and I gained an understanding. I don’t know what else I could have done in my training.”
The 2006 women’s eight is the crew that started the streak for the American women’s big boat. “From one of the very first rows in that boat we knew it was special, something magical. We’d look at each other on the dock after a row and say, ‘Wow.’ It was work. We were fast and we kept pushing each other.” She gives me an example. “A 30k row on the square and I don’t think a blade hit once. For whatever reason, it just clicked.”
I ask Cooke Carcagno if she thinks the 11-year streak is a result of the influx of resources devoted to women’s collegiate rowing after Title IX was passed. “I don’t know,” she says. “It definitely set it up so that it’s possible. That magic is almost like a religion. It was blind faith at first, that feeling that we all had in that boat. I don’t know how to describe it, that feeling when you hit perfection—not that it was perfect. In 2006, at the World Rowing Cup in Eton, we had a strong tailwind and we just flew. As we’re approaching the finish line, we caught a digger—a rigger was completely underwater. The crowd gasped. We didn’t care. You can watch the magic. It was just, ‘Go!’” She pauses, the flight of the story still in mid-air. “World record,” she says, softly, and I feel myself exhale.
“It’s gone from magic and faith at the beginning, to an idea. Yes, it’s an idea. Just closing our eyes and knowing it’s going to happen.” I hear her words and I wonder if she’s talking about the 2006 crew in the women’s eight, or the crew that just won in Rio de Janeiro at the 2016 Olympics, or every crew in between. I don’t get the chance to ask her, though, because, with an ease that demonstrates her years of starting lines and medal-winning finishes, she turns her attention to Duke, and the group of athletes she’s led since the fall of 2015.
“The new mentality started before I even hit campus,” she says, as she tells me of her interview. “It just clicked. They were ready for it.” Again, I ask for details. “We had to talk about winning. We had to talk about being successful. It couldn’t have happened without Robyn’s work. There were enough kids there that wanted to be good. I sensed it in the interview. That’s why I took the job. I saw it in their eyes and heard it in their voices.”
What Cooke Carcagno saw in her athlete’s eyes, and what she and Rodosky and Graham did during their first year at Duke, catapulted the program to a new level of success. “We had to change what was comfortable. You can’t dance around and kind of want to win.” She stops abruptly here, and I wait, hoping she’ll go on. “We failed a lot, but we didn’t shy away from that message.” Cooke Carcagno was awarded the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) and Collegiate Rowing Coaches Association (CRCA) Coach of the Year awards for what she did at Duke during her first year, and the program was awarded the CRCA National and Region 3 Staff of the Year Awards.
“The awards were a surprise. It’s nice to be recognized for your efforts, of course. [Virginia head women’s coach] Kevin Sauer is in the same conference. Anytime you win an award that Kevin Sauer wins, you’re honored. The more important award, though, is the staff award. The Coach of the Year award is as much mine as it is theirs. Chop it in three pieces. It’s never been about me and my program.”
In their first year at Duke, Cooke Carcagno, Rodosky, and Graham led the Blue Devils to a second-place ACC finish and to Duke’s first-ever bid to the NCAA Championships, with a 12th-place national ranking. As Cooke Carcagno explains how they orchestrated one of the best first-year coaching feats in Duke Athletics history, her approach to pursuing success again bubbles to the surface.
“Beginning in March and April, we lost by 20 seconds. That was the plan. We said, ‘Let’s go race the five best teams in the country. Let’s go up against the best and see how close we can get.’ The message stayed consistent. We said, ‘This is what good is, and we can be good, too.’” Cooke Carcagno explains how she and Rodosky and Graham looked at each element of their program and asked what they wanted from it. “We had a blank sheet of paper with everything,” she says. “Our team awards, the captain position, our race schedule. We made the goal of that first year to go to NCAAs. And we made it public.
“Here were three new people saying crazy things, asking the athletes to do crazy workouts,” she catches her breath for a moment while I finish scribbling her words in my notebook. “We didn’t have time to build trust; we had to have trust. We made the team motto: ‘Trust the process.’” She comes to a full stop before going on. “And then we repeated it enough so they trusted the process. Shaping the culture was the hardest part. You can’t do it without the culture, everyone has to have buy-in.”
I ask her what sets a successful athlete apart from others. She answers without hesitation, “The decision to be good.” I’ve learned that if you listen, usually coaches will keep going; it’s their nature. “It’s a decision people have a hard time making. A lot of athletes do the workouts because they’re told to. Other athletes do it to be good—they want that challenge. They set themselves apart, they seek challenges, they decide that no matter what they’re going to strive to excel. It’s a personality, it’s not a demographic or a club. Something sparks in their eyes and you know, ‘This kid will not yield.’ They’d do anything to put their team on the map.” She slows, and I can feel she wants me to hear her next sentence.
“I have this at Duke.”