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Renewed Hope for Rowing in the Olympics

BY ED MORAN
PHOTOS BY PETER SPURRIER
VIDEO BY ADAM REIST

Like other athletes across all sports, John Graves has been struggling with the emotions of having his 2020 Olympic aspirations taken on a roller coaster ride of hope and disappointment.

He was in Sarasota and set to row in the U.S. men’s single trials in March and, if he won, he planned to go to the Final Olympic Qualification Regatta in Lucerne, Switzerland in May.

Then, just before trials were about to begin, they were postponed. The news was disruptive, but trials weren’t eliminated, and there was still hope they would be rescheduled and that the Olympic qualifier would still happen – until FISA canceled the qualifier.

But when the Olympics were postponed all Graves could do was wonder how it would all play out. When reached by phone on the morning the IOC decision to postpone was announced, Graves’ reaction went like this:

“I’m just lying on the floor reading twitter. I feel confident that it is the right decision to postpone the Olympics, but just for me personally, it’s challenging because I was pretty confident this year would be my last year. Obviously, I don’t have all the answers right now but, this kind of opens up a whole new can of worms.”

A full week later when the new Olympic schedule was announced for next summer, Graves said he could not leave rowing without giving one last shot at getting to an Olympics. He was hitting reset, turning back the calendar, and beginning to plan out the best way to get his final season back and finish his career, which he hopes is done on the racecourse in Tokyo. He wants to be an Olympian. Or he at least wants to be able to say that he tried one last time.

It’s the path he has been walking for most of the last ten years.

John Graves at the 2017 Henley Royal Regatta.

“I hesitate to say I have any concrete plans at the moment,” Graves said. “The new dates just got named, and there is still so much up in the air, like what the qualifier dates will look like, what the trials dates would look like, stuff like that.

“It’s hard to plan exactly the next 15 months or so. At the moment, it’s challenging to know that we put in a ton of work this year and we didn’t really move the needle at all as far as getting through trials, or at least selecting some of the US boats. I would feel better about stuff if we had at least done that and I could focus on the qualifier as kind of one step away from the Olympics, but now we are essentially where we were a year ago.”

Graves’ international journey has lasted from 2009 through 2019 including roster spots on two under-23 world championship teams, six senior world teams, and the 2016 Final Olympic Qualification Regatta in Lucerne, Switzerland.

He wanted to try one more time. And 2020 was supposed to be different – different in that for the first time in his career, Graves was heading to trials with the intention that this will be his last campaign. His ultimate goal is, and always has been, an Olympic team bid. But time is running out for Graves, and this spring was to be all or nothing.

While most athletes don’t like to think, or even talk about a final year, Graves is at ease with all of it, and happy to be in the single again.

For Graves, this spring came on the heels of an up and down year that saw his plans for competing in the double he had rowed in at the 2017 and 2018 world championships fall apart, to losing at spring singles trials in 2019, and then spending the summer rowing in the bow of the 2019 men’s quad that finished out of Olympic qualification at the World Rowing Championships last summer.

The experience, Graves said, left him reflecting on how to accomplish his goal of racing in an Olympics, and moved him back into thinking his best shot was the single. So, he started training again, and mapped out a path that – if successful – would have had him winning the Championship single last fall in the Head of the Charles, winning trails, and competing for a spot in the Olympics at the final qualifier.

He checked off the Head of the Charles win, but the COVID-19 crisis wiped out the rest of that plan for this season. But it did not end his desire to row one last campaign.

“This definitely will be my last go at it, and I think it’s really important that I put myself in an environment, and a situation, where I felt I was getting everything out of what I am putting into it,” he said.

“This fall was a moment for me to take a second and figure out what I really wanted out of the next year, and how I can best go about doing that. And for me, the single was the best way to go after the goal of qualifying a men’s sculling boat for the Olympics, and to use everything I’ve learned over my career.

“And then, regardless of the result, be happy finishing my career going as fast as I personally can, and being able to live with that.”

There have been no announcements yet from World Rowing about how, or when, the remaining Olympic qualifications will be run, but the one certainty not changed by the postponements and disruption of the COVID-19 shutdowns is that getting to the Olympics will be a long and competitive battle for whoever comes out on top of the U.S. Olympic Trials.

The men’s single is not a pre-qualified U.S. boat, and earning a place in Tokyo will mean winning one of the final two spots available for the single at the Final Olympic Qualification Regatta, where the field will be incredibly difficult to get through.

But the first step for any U.S. sculler hoping to be in Tokyo will be the U.S. trials.

There were 25 men’s single scullers scheduled to race trials before they were canceled.

Among those on the schedule were Kevin Meador, who rowed the U.S. men’s single the last two world championships, and a long list of single scullers who have raced successfully the last few seasons, including Luke Wilhelm, Jonathan Kirkegaard, and Matt O’Leary. All three rowed in the finals of the 2019 U.S. Trials V, from where Meador earned his spot on the world championship squad.

Of that group, Graves is arguably among the most experienced and technically skilled. But he is also among the smallest of the athletes. In fact, when Graves first began sculling internationally, he competed as a lightweight.

He raced the lightweight single in the 2010 Under-23 World Championships and he was in a lightweight double during the 2012 U.S. trials for non-qualified boats. But he was not a natural lightweight, and the experience of making weight for every event nearly led to his quitting rowing.

“Being 154 pounds at double trials in 2012, I was just miserable,” he said. “My natural weight was probably 175 to 180, and it just became very challenging to me. The success of the 2012 Olympic trials for me was just getting to the weigh-in, being under 70kilos.

“I was pretty close to quitting in 2012 because it just wasn’t fun for me anymore. I just wanted to stop rowing.”

Instead, Graves went to the Craftsbury Sculling Center the next summer, where he was coached by Dan Roock, who tuned his thinking around.

“Dan Roock helped me find a way to be as fast as possible, and to let my weight kind of just fall where it naturally does,” Graves said. “He was very empowering in a sense of it really gave me confidence that I could be fast at my natural weight.”

Graves switched to the open single that fall and experienced his first successes as a heavyweight sculler. He won at the fall speed order, and then the spring NSR. In 2014, Graves rowed in a Craftsbury quad coached by Roock with his brother Peter, Steve Whelpley and Ben Dann, won a bronze medal at World Cup III, and finished eighth at that year’s world championship. He then teamed up with Dann to row the double in the next world championship. That was followed by the 2016 quad that won U.S. trials but failed to earn an Olympic bid at the Lucerne qualification regatta.

John Graves at the finish of the 2017 Henley Royal Regatta.

Graves went back to the single and rowed in the finals of the 2017 Henley Royal Regatta and lost to Matthew Dunham. Following Henley, Graves teamed up in the double with Ben Davison, who was part of that Craftsbury 2016 quad.

After rowing in the 2017 and 2018 world championships, Davison decided to go to the U.S. men’s training center in Oakland and put himself in the mix for a sweep crew and Graves went into the 2019 quad.

When he came home after the world championship, he made the decision to go back to the single for this last run, and he is happy with his decision and ready for the challenges to come.

“I am fully committed and putting everything I have into this,” Graves said. “I think being in the single this go around gives me the type of ownership of the process I want. In the single, your failures are your own, and your success are your own and that’s the type of clarity I’m looking for as I finish things up. I have my eyes fully opened to the fact that it is incredibly competitive internationally and that’s exciting to me.

“I’m a smaller athlete, probably one of the smallest heavyweights in the world. But I also think that on the technical side, I’m right there with some of the better guys and I think that’s an area that allows me to really operate right at the top end of my potential, using technique to get everything out of my physiology, and just getting as much speed out of it on the water as I can,” he said.

Graves said while most of the world’s heavy scullers are bigger, there are other successful athletes he models himself after. “A guy that I have modeled a lot of stuff I’ve done after is (Belgium sculler) Hannes Obreno. He was fourth in Rio and won Henley against (Mahe Drysdale) in 2016.

“He and I are virtually identical as far as size, erg score, everything. I look at a guy like that and think there is no reason I can’t be doing what he’s doing. He is a great example of a guy who is the same size as me who is performing at a super high level and gives hope to middleweight athletes of the world.

“I fully expect to be pushed totally to the limit, but that is part of the process. I’m excited because I feel like there is nothing holding me back from doing everything I need to do to get myself ready to get the single going as fast as I can. That to me is really all I can ask for.

“I can only control what I can control, and there might be someone out there who is going faster than me in the single and beats me at trials, and that’s OK. I definitely hope that doesn’t happen, but as long as I am putting down my best stuff, that’s what’s important to me.”

Most of what Graves said about trials and 2020 being his last season he said during an interview just before the March single trials in Sarasota were postponed, before the qualification regattas for the spring were canceled, and before the Tokyo Games were pushed back to 2021.

But none of his thinking has changed. The only change – however big it is today – is that now he has to plan for another 15 or more months of training and racing. Hitting reset is not as easy as just deciding to keep going and not let his career end without a final race.   

“For me, that’s the challenging part,” Graves said. “It’s not that my training this year has been a waste, I felt like I showed up ready in Sarasota and I was ready to begin that process and that path to qualifying.

“We didn’t get to answer questions, or get anything done. So now, I wait to hear what the new FISA schedule will be, wait to hear what USRowing comes out with, and then start to chart a path forward again.”

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