Winning Ways

By Connor Walters

2018_4 FSRA Sculling States: Girls Varsity quad with Olivia DeNiro at stroke followed by Julia Braz, Jessica Frisch and Christina Strates. Photo by Lisa Worthy.

Is there a formula for success in rowing? Like an order-of-operations, boats-plus-rowers-times-hard-work-equals-wins formula?

Or maybe winning crews have a special recipe: Mix together teammates, equipment, and a rigorous training schedule. Sprinkle with that secret ingredient. Serve warmed up.

Perhaps great rowing teams are like a machine. When all the pieces are in good shape, when the nuts and bolts (and washers) are all in place, when the machine operator is experienced and able to make tweaks as necessary—the machine works at its best.

In many ways, each of these metaphors simultaneously offers an accurate and yet incomplete description of success in rowing. Each highlights the ways in which great teams operate while also leaving out key components that are critical to building winning crews: chemistry, trust, a favorable climate, and even a little bit of luck or good fortune.

Sarasota-Bradenton, Fla., provides an interesting case study of what makes a successful rowing team. The city certainly gained its share of attention from the international rowing community in hosting the 2017 worlds at Nathan Benderson Park. But the eyes of the U.S. rowing populace were already drawn to this rower’s paradise, attracted to the rapid rise of one team that is still in its adolescence.

Founded in 2002, Sarasota Crew is one of the nation’s premier junior rowing clubs. The program has become unbeatable at home, winning the Florida state rowing championship team points trophy every year since 2011. In 2013, the club’s boy’s varsity eight was crowned national champions at youth nationals, one of five varsity eight podium appearances since 2012, plus one for the girls.

Since 2014, the program has annually churned out national team athletes who have excelled in under-19 competition. One goes by the name of Clark Dean. Heard of him? The current Sarasota senior captain captured the rowing world’s attention last summer when he won the men’s single at the world junior championships. Dean’s victory was the first junior men’s single title that the U.S. could claim since Jim Dietz won the event at the inaugural FISA Youth Regatta in 1967—a half century earlier.

Sarasota Crew executive director and head coach Casey Galvanek has become a change agent both locally and nationally. In addition to leading Sarasota since 2008, Galvanek also took the reins of the U.S junior men’s program in 2017, during which Dean earned his gold and the boys’ eight claimed silver.

So finding an apt metaphor for a team’s success seems futile. The formula makes winning look easy. The recipe says the coach can control everything. The machine suggests that one approach works for every group and every circumstance. On Sarasota Bay, none of these is quite true.

The simple truth is there are many ways to win. In Sarasota, they have found the one that works for them—and everyone is paying close attention.

Where does the story of Sarasota Crew begin? Ironically, with a group of parents who wanted to start a program focused on more than just winning. But the early years of the club’s existence were full of challenges: number of athletes, type of equipment, sufficient coaches, and a brand new board at the helm.

Enter John Leeming.

The father of a rower in Sarasota’s fledgling middle school program, Leeming had been asked to help coach in the mid-2000s. He had rowing experience from his high school days and his wife was already involved in the young club’s board of directors. Sarasota had 65 rowers total and, despite the best intentions of some of the early board members, the team emphasized and prioritized whichever boats had the best chance of winning—not necessarily everyone’s success.

“The crux of it is parents like medals, almost as much or more than the kids,” Leeming says. By focusing primarily on the crews with a chance of medaling, “you’re inevitably going to leave a lot of kids behind.”

In 2008, head coach Tom Tiffany announced his retirement. The Sarasota Crew parents sensed that things needed to change. They asked Leeming to lead the board and hire the new coach. Galvanek had joined the program in 2007 as a part-time sculling director and was recommended by Tiffany to succeed him. It was not a slam-dunk decision.

“Casey kind of said, ‘We have to do this differently. If we focus on everybody and stop chasing the medals and really try to build a broader base program, the medals will follow.’ That can be a tough message to swallow,” Leeming says.

“They originally started this program to make it board-run and not head-coach-run,” Galvanek says. “They wanted to have more people making decisions and when I was being interviewed I said I wanted nothing to do with a program like that.”

They negotiated. Galvanek told the board, “Give me three years and my culture and what I define as success will provide you with success as what you define as success.”

He was hired. Three years later Sarasota Crew won its first Florida state team title, an achievement it has repeated every year since.

Success did not come overnight, however. During Galvanek’s first year as head coach, the program had just 15 varsity boys and 10 varsity girls who showed up to practice regularly. He began implementing sculling into the team’s practices, growing their equipment by permitting athletes who owned their own shells to store them at the boathouse, buying old used singles, or soliciting donations.

On sculling days, everyone went out together in their singles—boys and girls together. On sweep days, seats were awarded based on performance in the single, meaning that the eights were mixed, as well. This gave the team the opportunity to begin shifting its focus to the eight while also providing young athletes who were used to being stars the chance to still stand out.

Word spread about the changes at Sarasota Crew and numbers grew. Soon practices were separated by gender again. The team continued to alternate scull and sweep days and award seats in the eight based on performance in the single. As the team’s size increased, so did competition, which ultimately made everyone—top to bottom—faster.

When Sarasota finally did win its first team state championship, upending a formidable Winter Park program, Galvanek tried to put the achievement into perspective for his young athletes.

“Back then I remember saying to the team, ‘If we were a football team, they’d close down the schools downtown and there’d be a parade. Cherish this moment because nobody else will,’” he says. “There were some kids that put in some very hard work early on and built that foundation that this program is built on today.”

They did, indeed. Sarasota’s boys’ varsity eight that year advanced to the grand final at youth nationals. Their finish was announced as third, but the final result showed fourth—four-thousandths of a second out of the medals. A year later, they took silver. Then, in 2013, Sarasota Crew became national champions in the boys’ varsity eight.

“Even though you don’t want this separation of boys and girls, those guys set the tone and everybody saw them,” Galvanek says. “It showed what could be done. The girls put in a lot of effort, too—real hard work, guided really well by their two coaches. It set the tone for how it’s done.”

Sarasota’s girls were rewarded a year later with their own national bronze medal in the varsity eight. With national honors regularly within reach, a culture of success has blossomed at Sarasota Crew. Today, everyone has a hand in how that culture is made manifest on and off the water.

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ne might call Galvanek the architect of Sarasota Crew’s culture. He, however, prefers his own unofficial titles: Chief Bottle Washer and Mop Boy. His reasoning is that, with 26 coaches and a 10-person board of directors, the credit should be distributed far and wide.

“There is no way that this program would be what it is today without the assistant coaches and the board,” he says emphatically. That’s more than just Galvanek’s humility showing; it’s the reality of running a program with approximately 400 youth athletes (including middle and elementary school), more than 100 shells, plus programs for adults, masters, and adaptive athletes.

“I think the big picture is we have goals as a team through the year and then the little picture is, in order to achieve those, there are stepping stones in training as well as regattas,” says Kirby Gallie, assistant coach in charge of the varsity women. “The even smaller picture is how we handle the day-to-day and talking with the athletes and making sure they’re all good and healthy and ready to do the work.”

To that end, coaches meet with each athlete a couple times per semester to track their progress, check in, and make sure what each rower wants is what he or she is receiving. Rowers take ownership of their training and their abilities, and nothing quite illustrates that like how selection happens.

“We’re very transparent. It’s about your ability that puts you in a boat…not your attendance,” Galvanek says. Boat assignments are made in a method rather similar to European soccer leagues. Once a week, on a sculling day, rowers compete in a determining piece. The top finisher out of each eight moves up a boat and the bottom finisher moves down.

“Every month, we do a time trial where we reset the entire group,” says Galvanek. ”If you were absent, it’s up to the coach to demote you or the person who lost. Every time you’re absent you allow the coach to make the decision for you instead of your own ability.”

Gallie says that the depth of the team, plus the attention and opportunities the athletes receive, yields a positive, hard-working culture.

“There’s a huge team driving everyone and everyone’s excited to do the work and be part of the process and part of the cause to grow the success,” she says. “It’s important also that the 2V, 3V, 4V, and 5V are all important and they are still doing the same amount of work.”

Of course, many a board of directors wants to have input on every facet of how the team operates. Leeming (whose time on the Sarasota board ended in 2015) says that it can be difficult, especially when boards are composed of parent volunteers, to not interfere with coaches’ plans and decision-making. But that’s when teams can work at their best for the benefit of the team and each individual athlete.

“A board should stay as far away from the coaching experience as possible. Just handle governance, fundraising, and operations, which is usually food and moving kids around,” he says. “Let the coach and staff figure out the rest.”

He adds: “This is an incredible opportunity to empower boys and girls to contribute on a lot of different levels. We tend to do it all for them. They start to have to do for themselves—rigging, loading, training, studying.”

And yet Sarasota’s board has been instrumental in the team’s rapid rise. The addition of middle school and even elementary school programs has broadened rowing’s reach locally. A masters program was started to provide funding for a scholarship fund for junior athletes. Leeming himself illustrates the enormous effort board members give to teams.

“During the recession, it was brutal,” he says. “I was coaching, parking attendant, and board president.”

And yet everyone buys into the process for the betterment of each young rower. Gold medals for the coaches, parents, and volunteers are young people who graduate with a strong work ethic, confidence, and good character.

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old medals for the athletes, however, are a very tangible thing and often the motivating factor for their success.

World champion, Harvard University commit, and current Sarasota boys’ team captain Clark Dean provides a great example.

“I wasn’t really interested in rowing,” the former lacrosse player says. “I signed up for a summer camp with some of my friends.”

Dean was part of the first group of middle school rowers in 2013 to get time in the single, one day a week. “I think he was getting pretty bored of it,” Galvanek says. “His mom said the thing that kept him in rowing was the singles program.” Soon one day became two, and two became four.

Sensing some talent and passion in the young rower, his coaches gave him the opportunity to row with the freshmen. He very quickly had an impact on the team, stroking the freshman eight at the Florida state championships and sitting in the engine room of the lightweight eight at youth nationals.

In Dean’s freshman year he made the varsity eight and later that summer Galvanek called him up with an opportunity to try for a spot on the junior national team. Dean turned him down, later admitting to his coach that he had looked at previous years’ results and figured the team was unlikely to contend for medals. That 2015 junior men’s eight earned a silver.

“That’s what you get for being a kid and not asking the right questions,” Galvanek says.

But Dean got the message. He stroked the quad at the 2016 world championships, earning a bronze. Then came the extraordinary summer of 2017.

Overlooked but certainly historic was Sarasota’s Sydney Edwards becoming the first female coxswain to compete on a U.S. men’s national team crew. Simultaneously, Dean was competing in the team system again. A few conversations with Galvanek and Newport Aquatic Center coach Nick D’Antoni led to Dean doing extra practices in the single.

He doubled up in races at trials. He won the single. All along, the thinking was that Dean should race the single in Lithuania to see what it would take to win in 2018. He took a spot in the coxed four because the timing of races at worlds allowed him to enter both events.

The first heat of the junior men’s single was stacked. Dean lined up against Germany’s Moritz Wolff, who had won the European championships. He beat Wolff by about three seconds.

“I got off the water and I’m like, ‘I can’t think its in the bag,’” Dean says. “That was one of the hardest things: keeping my head down the whole week. Especially in the single, you can do whatever you want with your race.”

Dean continued on that week, undefeated. He entered the grand final and lined up against Wolff again. He would lead the race wire to wire and etch his name in history.

“Clark, when he crossed the line, it was like this grin on his face like, ‘Oh my god that just happened,’” says Galvanek. “That was just tremendous—the toughest racing he’s ever had.”

Meanwhile, Edwards and the boys’ eight scored an impressive silver medal. The 2017 world junior championships concluded and Sarasota Crew had shown the entire world that it has what it takes to win.

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n old saying goes, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” That doesn’t quite fit the mold down in Sarasota.

For this program, at about 16 years young, medals are one measure of success—but they are far from the most important one.

“I want them to be successful as students and as people and as family members, and I think they get that,” Gallie says.

“I think it took a little while for us to get there,” she adds. “It has just built upon itself and these kids don’t even know the kids who were here in 2013, and it’s cool for me to see that it’s carried on through the generations.”

Galvanek attributes the massive growth of Sarasota Crew to the family-like culture that has formed there. “We are a community program,” he says. “We don’t make cuts. We never turned away a kid for finances. All of that helps in the messaging that we are a community program.”

Leeming says that even with all the success the program has found, he thinks Galvanek has remained committed to providing a meaningful experience for all rowers.

“While Casey always enjoys the winning experience for the benefit of everybody, he’s probably pretty pure to the point that he always wants the best experience possible for the kids,” Leeming says. “He’s a little bit unique in his ability to put his own aspirations aside with hopes of really trying to create that extraordinary program.”

This spring, Dean and his teammates are dead-set on earning a second-ever national championship in the eight. “A lot of these guys are seniors and are tired of the bronze streak we’ve been on,” he says. It would further cement Sarasota Crew’s reputation as a program that knows how to win, both in the traditional and non-traditional sense.

“Winning for me is making sure when you graduate that you’re a better person,” Galvanek says. “Winning for you is a smile and a gold medal.”

Who says it can’t happen both ways?