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Exit Strategy

BY ED MORAN
PHOTO BY PETER SPURRIER

John Graves had been dealing for weeks with an unpredictable roller coaster ride of hope and disappointment. After a winter of training in Austin, Texas for what he planned to be his final attempt at an Olympic team, his campaign was postponed just before the U.S. singles trials were set to start in Sarasota, Florida.

Like the rest of the athletes who were gathering there in March, Graves packed up his equipment and headed for another training site to keep rowing and wait out the interruptions, regatta cancelations, and postponements that were sweeping the country as the COVID-19 pandemic forced Americans inside and the entire sports world to come to a halt.

His initial thoughts were to keep training and wait to see if the Olympic trials would be rescheduled or paired with a second set of trials that were supposed to take place a few weeks later. But instead of being rescheduled, news came that both events were cancelled, which was followed closely by the postponement of the Olympics until 2021. The decision effectively derailed Graves’ plan to end his rowing career this spring with a run at the Summer Games.

The news left him wondering what comes next. 

Tokyo 2020 was not canceled outright, but the length of the delay would impact any subsequent decision. The  morning the news of the Olympic postponement broke, Graves spent part of it, “just lying on the floor reading Twitter. I feel confident that it is the right decision to postpone the Olympics,” he said that morning, “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 week later, a new date for the Games was announced: August 2021. Graves took a few days to let his emotions settle and think through what he wanted to do. He decided he could not leave the sport without one last shot at making it to the Olympics. He was hitting reset, turning back the calendar, and beginning to plan the best way to get his final season back and finish his career, which he hopes is done on the race course in Tokyo. He wants to be an Olympian. Or he at least wants to be able to say that he tried one last time.

“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 will 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 U.S. 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, and included roster spots on two under-23 world championship teams, six senior world teams, and the U.S. squad at 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 and this spring was to be all or nothing.

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

For Graves, this spring followed an up and down year that saw his plans for competing in the double—he raced in the event at the 2017 and 2018 world championships—fall apart. After losing at the spring singles trials in 2019, he spent the summer 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 at 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. 

“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 FISA, rowing’s international governing body, about how—or when—the remaining Olympic qualification regattas will be run. But what the postponements haven’t changed is the fact that whoever comes out on top at the U.S. Olympic Trials will still face a tough fight to make it to the starting line in Tokyo.

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 event at the Final Olympic Qualification Regatta, one of the most cutthroat and competitive events in rowing.

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 in the mix were Kevin Meador, who rowed the U.S. men’s single at 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 Senior National Team Trials V last August. It was there that Meador earned his spot on the worlds squad.

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

He raced the lightweight single in the 2010 under-23 worlds and was in a lightweight double during the 2012 U.S. trials for non-qualified Olympic 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 doubles 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 70 kilos.

“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 Vermont’s 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 the sense that 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 the fall speed order, and then the spring National Selection Regatta. In 2014, Graves rowed in a Craftsbury quad coached by Roock with his brother Peter Graves, Steve Whelpley, and Ben Dann, won a bronze medal at World Rowing Cup III, and finished eighth at that year’s worlds. He then teamed up with Dann to row the double in the next world championships. That was followed by the 2016 quad that won U.S. trials but failed to earn an Olympic bid in Lucerne.

Graves went back to the single and rowed in the Diamond Challenge Sculls final at the 2017 Henley Royal Regatta, where he lost to New Zealander Matthew Dunham. Following Henley, Graves jumped 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, California and put himself in the mix for a sweep crew and Graves went into the 2019 quad.

When he came home after the world championships, he made the decision to go back to the single for this last run. He remains 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 successes 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 heavyweight 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 [Belgian sculler] Hannes Obreno. He was fourth in Rio and won Henley against [Mahé 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 singles 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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