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The Long Game

BY ED MORAN
VIDEO BY ADAM REIST

Mike Teti and Tim McLaren keep a small whiteboard fixed to the wall inside the men’s national team coaches’ office at the T. Gary Rogers Rowing Center. They use it the same way most coaches do—to list the day’s workouts, athlete names, and boating assignments.

But Teti and McLaren also use it to track the progress of the 24 athletes that have come to Oakland, Calif., from all over the country to train with the best young oarsmen the U.S. has to offer in this 2020 Olympic cycle. Many of those named on the board rowed at the last worlds in Linz, Austria, where the U.S. qualified two men’s boats—the four and the eight—from the A final. There were no medals, but it was the first time the U.S. had qualified both crews from the A final since the Olympic schedule was overhauled in 1996.

More important, it is the first time in two Olympic cycles the U.S. men qualified the eight directly from the world championships, avoiding the grueling and unsettling effort of having to win a spot at the Games at the last-chance qualifier in Lucerne, Switzerland. Today, that means every athlete training in Oakland is in contention for one of the 13 guaranteed seats in the coming 2020 Olympic Games.

The group is a mix of veterans and first-year senior national teamers, and its size and depth is something Teti envisioned when he agreed to a plan to finish out his time as the men’s head coach at the University of California in 2018 and take over the men’s national team program for the second time in his long coaching career, a stint that included leading the U.S. to the last two medals for the U.S. in the eight—a 2008 bronze and a 2004 gold. Teti also guided U.S. men’s crews at the 1996 and 2000 Olympics.

Teti had nine names on the whiteboard for his first selection camp in 2017. The list increased and filled out in 2018 and 2019, but it did not include the names of a handful of some of the top collegiate athletes in the country. It could have, but Teti had another idea. He wanted to engage the top collegiate athletes, and their coaches, in the idea of developing senior national team athletes at the under-23 level, getting them in fast crews, and creating a farm system where young rowers with potential could experience rowing internationally, and win. 

Teti wanted those young athletes in this camp, but not until they could come in and make an impact in the drive to Tokyo. So, he left them in the capable hands of Washington coach Mike Callahan, who headed up the under-23 crews, and took them to race in World Rowing Cup regattas, and under-23 world championships, where they won medals the last two summers. 

It was the roadmap Teti had in mind when he agreed to take the U.S. job again. And it was a plan that is about more than just this Olympics. That is, of course, the initial goal, but it is also about creating a situation where the U.S. can build a deep pool of young talent, give them reason to stay in the game for more than a single cycle, and possibly place up to six men’s crews in the finals of the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles

And it is intensely focused on finding and developing the best young American collegiate athletes in the U.S. “To me, the model for success, really, is having a solid two boats for under-23 every year. We need to have an eight and a four for under-23s, and make it attractive so that kids will want to do it,” Teti said. “And we need to keep doing that, every year.” 

Mike Teti at the United States Olympic Training Center in Oakland, California. Photo by Ed Moran.

“If you look at this group now, I don’t think we have any game-changers, however, I do think we have about 24 guys that are legitimate international caliber athletes that are capable of winning medals for us at some point. Hopefully this year. And by making that investment in under-23 boats the past two years, that group has made a huge infusion into our group now and really enhanced them.”

Teti stays away from making bold predictions about any possible Tokyo result. But he knows that this group is on the hook for at least one medal, of some color. He will say what he hopes he and McLaren are building is a system that could create an era of success for the U.S., changing the direction the men’s sweep team has taken over the last two Olympic cycles.

“I’m trying to think more long-term,” he said. “Instead of going [in four-year cycles], we’re trying to think in terms of 10-year blocks. We can’t afford to lose out on our top collegiate athletes. They’ve got to be in the pipeline. We have to give them incentive to stay with the sport.”

For Teti, building a sustainable pipeline meant relocating the training center to a major metropolitan area, someplace where just graduated American collegiate athletes don’t have to necessarily choose between rowing on the national team, or working and starting a career, or family life.

Here, athletes are encouraged to find jobs, to earn money, and to notch out a place where they can live, work, and train while they develop and wait their turn to move up on the whiteboard and make an Olympic or world championship team.

The Oakland and San Francisco area is an expensive place to live, he said, but it is also a place with ample opportunity for college graduates. “There are a lot of things to do here, and you have these great opportunities for guys with degrees. We have guys working commercial real estate, we have engineers, we have private equity, we have all that stuff.”

Tokyo First

While Teti is focused on the long-term goals of building a base of rowers that will stay in the sport long enough to develop into “game-changers,” he also knows that the 2020 Games are what the rowing world is watching, particularly in the U.S. after the last two Olympics. 

One medal from the men’s sweep program out of the last two cycles—a bronze from the four in London— was disruptive and discouraging. And after both cycles, USRowing blew up the plan, vowing to have a better result.

After failing to earn a bid in the 2011 qualifying world championship, Teti was asked to coach the eight during the collegiate off-season and led the boat to a qualification spot in the Lucerne regatta but finished fourth at the London Olympics.

Tim McLaren, then the overall head coach, was not returned to the team and USRowing started over, redefining what crews would be supported, focusing limited resources on the crews that have been traditional U.S. strengths.

Two young coaches, Bryan Volpenhein, who stroked the 2004 gold medal eight, was hired to coach the four, and Luke McGee, who made a name for himself as a young assistant coach at Brown and Washington, was hired to coach the eight. The four qualified. The eight did not, and again had to go through the final Olympic qualifier to gain a bid to Rio in 2016, where it once more finished fourth. 

McGee was let go following Rio, and a task force was formed by the national governing body to seek answers. Teti, historically the most successful men’s coach in U.S. history, served on that task force and eventually agreed to return. He coached the men’s team to a silver medal in the 2017 world championships, with Volpenhein at his side to assist. 

He returned to Cal for another collegiate season, and then took over full-time at the U.S. helm after the 2018 IRA championships. Volpenhein left and took a job as the head coach of the San Diego Rowing Club, and is now in his first year as the head men’s coach at the University of Pennsylvania.

Building the Pipeline

When he agreed to return to the U.S. national team, Teti sought to build a pool of athletes that could be successful for years to come, and he wanted it to be a system that would develop and retain athletes, one he said he hopes “can succeed no matter who the coach is.”

Teti believes the work is progressing, and points to the under-23 athletes who just joined the center this fall as an example and some of the young names on his whiteboard are of athletes who are in serious contention to make this Olympic team. 

“Now, we don’t just have these under-23 guys that joined us, we have under-23 medalists. We have under-23 gold medalists. And so now, maybe a couple of these guys are ready to help us this year. [Alex] Miklasevich is a perfect example.

“He was a young guy two years ago, and you know what, maybe the under-23 eight was a little beyond him, so he went in the coxed four. And they won. And when he came back last year, he was just a different guy. And then he wins another medal (silver in the eight) and he comes to us, and he’s just a different guy. And there are five or six here now just like him.”

Miklasevich, who rowed at Brown University, knows now what Teti is talking about. But he might not have his first year in the under-23 camp. 

“It was a really good learning experience the first summer,” Miklasevich said. “I sort of went into that year thinking I was going to be in the eight, and that was just how it was going to be. I knew I was going to be one of the stronger guys on the team.

“But I really struggled through selection and ended up making the coxed four. We ended up winning, which was awesome. The next year I made sure I really came in with the understanding that the coaches don’t know how good I am, and I needed to prove it every chance I got instead of assuming I was going to get a spot. It definitely humbled me, and I realized I had a lot to learn.”

Coming back for the 2019 under-23 campaign, Miklasevich was determined to leave nothing to chance.  

“I needed to prove myself every chance I got. Initially, I was sort of separated from what seemed like the breakaway group, and then we did a test on the erg, and I made sure I left it all on there. Whenever I got a chance, I didn’t let go of it.”

Today, Miklasevich lives every day with the thought that there is something left to prove. “This has been a little bit different because you don’t really have many chances to prove yourself on the erg, so if you have a bad practice, you have to just fix it on the water the next day. You can’t come in and have a big erg and everything will be alright. I definitely have some confidence with my past results, but going in with a silver at under-23, I felt like we could have done a little bit better. 

“So now, I feel again that I have a lot to prove. But also, you know you have to step up when you are rowing with guys that have rowed at the Olympics and have been rowing for the past 10 years at least. You have to bring it every day.”

Three of the guys Miklasevich is referring to are Alex Karowski, Mike DiSanto, and Austin Hack, who stroked the eight in Rio.

As Hack sees it, this is the strongest and deepest squad he has rowed with, and with no pressure to select a crew for a last-chance qualification regatta, he is feeling good about this team’s chances.

“I think a lot of the group that we have here now, and I think we definitely should be able to come away with medals. I don’t feel a ton of external pressure about it, but I know that the drive among the guys here is really high for that. I think probably horsepower wise, for our top group of guys, I think we’re probably a couple of seconds ahead of where we were in the last year just in terms of power than the last [Olympic cycle].”

Selection Continues

The athletes that have been gathering in Oakland the last few years are now at the point in the Olympic year where the cuts are about to start happening. The team left for the Chula Vista Olympic training center in late January and were scheduled to be there through the National Selection Regatta at the end of the month.

Only 20 of the Oakland group were selected to go, and when the pairs racing results are in, the pecking order of the remaining 20 will become clearer.

From there, the athletes who will fill the 13 seats will return to Oakland and continue the process until the two crews are selected in June. And when those athletes are picked, and alternates named, finding a place for the pipeline guys is the next step.

Where they go to continue developing toward that distant Olympic podium Teti has in mind is being worked out by McLaren. 

“It’s a clear plan,” McLaren said. “Like Mike said, for those that miss out, we say flip the page. This is your schedule. Here’s your regattas. Here’s your training. Here’s your coach. Here’s your expectations. There is always that fallback plan for those people, and you encourage them to keep going.”

McLaren likes to point to the legendary Kiwi pair of Eric Murray and Hamish Bond as an example of the time it can take to develop. Murray rowed in four Olympics, the first two in 2004 and 2008 in the four. His boat finished seventh in 2008 and fifth in 2004. Bond was also in the 2008 four.

“They were favorites in 2008 and came seventh. So, Murray was about to finish his Olympic career with a fifth and a seventh. Just another New Zealand boat. He hung around for four more years and (teamed with Bond in the pair) he went to 2012 and won, then he went four more years and won another one. And now he’s an icon. A legend. 

“With two Olympics and two failures, most guys around would quit. But we, too, could be not far away from being significant if we hang in there. And to hang in there, Mike is creating a system where people can work.”

Nothing Will Be Easy

On paper, there is reason to believe the U.S. men’s crews will be in contention. They have been close to medaling the past two world championships, are already qualified and are fortified with new athletes. But the competition will not care about any of that.

Germany, the Netherlands, and Great Britain all medaled ahead of the U.S. last summer. Australia qualified in fourth, and every crew, with just the right race, could have won or medaled. The Lucerne last-chance qualifier will add two more crews that cannot be counted out, among them could be Italy, New Zealand, or Romania. 

“I am always aware of what the competition is,” Teti said. “I know that as much as we say we have all this talent, well, what does everyone else have? The German eight is going to be difficult to beat. The four is a super competitive field, the eight is a super competitive field, the pair is a super competitive field, so I mean, it’s going to be hard.

“So what we’re doing is trying to improve every day. Obviously, the goal is to win Olympic medals. I’m more trying to improve daily. We have a lot of interchangeable parts. And that’s because we have more talent, because we made this investment in a younger group.

“We know we are trying to get these boats on the podium this year, that’s what we’re trying to do. And if they’re not, we’re going to be disappointed.”

And beyond Tokyo?

“I would say having four boats on the podium in 2024, and then six boats on the podium in 2028, and four with a realistic chance of winning. Winning. We need to get kids like we are getting now, every year, and we need to keep them,” Teti said.

“There’s the board over there,” he said pointing to the wall next to the door where the whiteboard is fixed. “You can see who all the new guys are. There’s a few that are in college right now that are as good as these guys we have here now. We know that.”

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