STORY AND IMAGES BY ED MORAN
Most mornings in Oakland, California these days, Tim McLaren can be found at the wheel of a coaching launch, quietly following one or two crews of U.S. national team athletes training in pairs and working on the tiny details of their rowing skills.
McLaren is mostly quiet, while keenly attentive to what the athletes in front of him are doing. He speaks infrequently – and in short sentences – to make suggestions or ask for adjustments from the athletes. He teaches while they are still rowing, and during the times the crews are stopped to turn around at the top or bottom of the Oakland Estuary, where the U.S. men’s team training center is located.
His attention to the details of each athletes’ stroke – where they place their blades in the water, how they apply pressure against the oars, how they finish their stroke, to how they match up together as they move, even making suggestions for rigging adjustments, is something McLaren is known to do particularly well.
It’s a skill he developed as Australian Olympic sculler during a career that saw him win a silver medal in the quad at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, and one that he later built on during 14 years as director and head coach of the University of Technology Rowing Club in Sydney, Australia, where he helped develop 30 Olympians over three cycles.
His reputation as a small boat coach, as a teacher, really, is the reason he was asked in 2007 to come to the United States and help establish California Rowing Club, and then later, in 2008, to take over the U.S. men’s national team when Mike Teti finished his first run as the U.S. head men’s coach to become the head coach at the University of California.
With Teti shifting away from international coaching, and the U.S. under pressure after the 2008 Games to increase the men’s medal potential in small boats during the London Olympic cycle, McLaren (who coached a CRC men’s double to a trials win and a place in Beijing, 2008), seemed the right fit for the job.
He stayed in the position during the entire 2012 London cycle but went back to Australia right after. He led the U.S. to a bronze medal in the men’s four, but the 2012 Olympics – despite having men’s crews in six of the eight men’s events, with the four medaling and the eight finishing fourth – was considered a poor showing for the U.S. men.
So, as he told USRowing he was going to do months before the 2012 Games even began, McLaren went home to resume coaching in Australia. It seemed that his time coaching in the U.S. was finished for good.
That changed again when Teti returned to the U.S. team and needed someone to help him begin to rebuild the U.S. men’s program, establish a new U.S. Men’s National Team Training Center in Oakland, and push toward medal performances over the next several Olympic cycles.
McLaren was the first person Teti thought of when the subject of an assistant coach came up. “Basically, when [U.S. high-performance director Matt Imes] said who can we get, I said Tim. He’s the first person that came to my mind,” Teti recalled.
Teti said needed an experienced international coach with a solid performance record, and he needed someone who could teach.
“I felt the makeup of the team was going to be young. We knew what we wanted to do, we wanted to really focus on the undergraduates in the under-23 program knowing that if we are trying to win multiple medals, obviously at least one of them is going be in small boats. Tim has small boat expertise, and has won medals in small boats across the board – sculling, sweep, women, lightweights, everything.”
Teti said he knew that after spending six years in the U.S. and moving his family back and forth from Australia and Oakland, he was going to have to let McLaren set a situation in place that he could live with.
“So, I called him and said don’t answer me yet, but think of a scenario that could work, a scenario that could work for you,” Teti said. “I told him, I don’t want you to move your whole family over here now – again – but think of how we could come up with a scenario that could work. And he did,” Teti said.
“We basically let Tim make the schedule that would work for him, and he did and it also worked really well for us as well.”
Today, McLaren maintains his home Australia and comes to Oakland during the periods he is most needed to help develop the training group. He was in Oakland during part of last fall, went home and came back in January for the lead up to the National Selection Regatta, and then he went back again for March, and to attend his daughter’s wedding.
As far as Teti is concerned, McLaren’s impact developing the team has been evident, particularly for NSR pairs racing.
“All the pairs were pretty good,” Teti said. “There was some separation in the finals, but for the most part, the whole time there, in the heats and semis, of all these boats racing we had eight or nine boats within two and a half seconds. And, the times were fast. We had a bunch of boats going under six-thirty in a slight headwind or neutral conditions so, that’s good. It’s encouraging.”
Lessons Learned – Experience Gained
When Teti reached out to McLaren to join him, it didn’t take McLaren long to warm to the invitation. “Mike rang me up last year and I came out a few times before last Christmas, and then the New Year, and I stayed through worlds.”
What he found after being back was that his first stint in the U.S., coaching in the national team system has helped him develop a better understanding of how rowing in the U.S. works. McLaren was used to coaching in Australia, where athletes could work for most of the year, train either in groups, or on their own, and then come together as a team to prepare for international racing.
During the 2012 cycle, McLaren was coaching in a system where athletes were training full time and living mostly at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, and not working. Teti is trying to change that in Oakland, where athletes are encouraged to find jobs and start careers. That environment, along with a better understanding of how the American system works, appealed to McLaren.
“It’s more familiar to me,” he said. “And, I feel a bit wiser. I think I understand things a little better having worked here. Looking back to when I was here, it gives me a good sort of perspective to have another chance to have an impact. I know Mike pretty well and, yea, I’m just here to help out. It’s a good a fit,” he said.
“So, I sort of cut back on my work back home and came over,” he said. “This is a pretty even group. You have some experienced guys that did the last campaign, but not that many. It’s a good group and the aim is to hang onto the guys for another cycle. It’s a solid group and I think we can do well.”
During the times the athletes are training in team boats, Teti takes the group and runs the practices. But for rowing in the smaller boats, overall boat-moving skills development, and off-water weight training, McLaren is the go-to.
“Once you jump out of the eight and into the smaller boats, there is a bit of learning going on,” McLaren said. Mike has done a good job, and [Washington coach Michael Callahan], has done a great job working with the under-23 kids, and creating some energy there,” McLaren said.
Teti said feels the same about working with McLaren:
“I have a tremendous amount of respect for Tim, I always have. I think he’s a great coach, not a good coach, he’s a great coach,” Teti said. “He’s an Olympic medalist himself. He’s coached crews to lots of medals in the Olympics and world championships, I mean lots, and I think he brings a component that I probably don’t have.
“He’s very good technically. He has a tremendous amount of knowledge, he has great patience with small boats, and he has a great demeanor. And, Tim is a good person. If my kid turns out like Tim, I’d be a really happy dad. He cares. He puts the time in, and cares, with almost with no ego.”
McLaren said he likes what he’s doing and hopes that he can help Teti establish his goals of developing athletes that will stay in the U.S. system beyond a single Olympic cycle.
“It’s good to work with Mike. It’s good to work as a team,” McLaren said. “I think I do that well. So, he’s running the show and I’m just assisting as best I can, and it’s enjoyable. I think the guys are doing well and they’re improving.
“I don’t like being away from home that much, even though I’ve done a lot of it. But it’s what you do, and I’m trying to manage that as best I can. I enjoy coming here. I have good memories of America, and my kids went to school here.
“I enjoy the people here in America. It’s been a good experience for me regardless of what things are beyond my knowledge. And I enjoy the (Olympic) campaign. It’s always a tough campaign when you’re on your own,” he said.
“But this will be good. We’ve qualified a couple of boats and we think we can give it a bit of a shake and it will be fun.”