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The Upstart

BY JEN WHITING
IMAGE BY ADAM REIST

What if you truly don’t yet know how fast you are? Rowers, coxswains, coaches—everyone in our sport. What if there’s the possibility that you aren’t quite sure what kind of speed your effort can generate? If you’re a rower, is there another inch of arc you can find at the end of your stroke? Coxswains, can you intuit the needs of your rowers more closely, sensing exactly the call they need to override the desire to stop and turn their power over to the boat? Coaches, can you explain the rhythm—the demands of this sport—more succinctly, more deliberately, and with more patience. Can your megaphone become a bugler’s call moving the army forward?

Olli Zeidler knew how fast he was in the pool. Since he was seven years old, the tall, blond-haired German had trained as a swimmer, winning the 2014 and 2015 German national championships. “My events were sprints,” Zeidler says, in crisp English, as we begin our interview. “The 50, the 100-meter,” he smiles. “In no way do they compare to a 2k race.” Zeidler is 24 years old, stands two meters and three centimeters tall (nearly 6’ 8”), and has a soft smile that shows up even when he speaks. 

“I didn’t make the 2016 Olympic team so I had a tick behind the Olympic dream. In swimming, we trained really hard and a lot—even more than I train today.” Zeidler settles easily into the rhythm of our talk. “The switch to rowing was not that complicated. I had to train for the six-to-seven-minute race. In swimming, I had been a sprinter. That’s a one- or two-minute race. But the quantity of training in rowing is actually less.” When Zeidler sat on the starting line of the first World Rowing Cup of 2018, it was only his fourth time on a racecourse. “I started sculling in 2016,” Zeidler explains, as we go through the timeline of his short but steep career in rowing. “My father is my trainer.” 

Olli’s father, Heino Zeidler, stands even taller than his son. He was a member of the German national team in the 1990s, competing in the men’s pair. Olli’s grandfather was also a rower, competing in the men’s double in the 1972 and 1976 Olympics. His aunt, Judith, rowed on the German national team in the 1980s and ‘90s, and Olli’s sister, Marie-Sophie Zeidler, rows alongside her brother on the German national team, most recently in the women’s eight. To say the Zeidler family is a rowing powerhouse in Germany is a wild understatement.

When Zeidler was competing as a swimmer, he asked his father to teach him how to row. “I just wanted to learn it to have something next to swimming,” he says. Zeidler used erging as cross-training for swimming and found he could create speed on the rowing machine. He started rowing the single not long after. “It took some time, of course,” he smiles, “about half a year. Then I learned the flow. I had a good feeling.” Zeidler’s family always supported his swimming, “My father and grandfather were always there by the poolside,” he says, “but it was natural for me to row. It’s in our family.”

“My father and grandfather were always there by the poolside, but it was natural for me to row. It’s in our family.”

-Oliver Zeidler

Zeidler waits for a beat and then goes on. “My grandfather is very proud, of course.” It is in this moment that I first hear the meter of his accent come through. The downbeat in his sentence is on the last two words, an inflection that would be unnatural for a native-born English speaker. Or maybe it’s simply the truth, the inevitability of Zeidler becoming a successful rower. “My grandfather always wants a bit more,” he laughs to himself, “considering the technique and the training.” Zeidler laughs again when I ask him about dinner in his house; he lives with his parents, grandparents, and sister. “Big meals,” he says, “always a lot of food.”

After his laughter fades, Zeidler grows serious—as if he wants to explain something I’ve missed. “I don’t remember my first success as a swimmer. There was a process going on, physically. After two years I became pretty successful so I stayed with swimming. It was really fun just to push ourselves—it was a great time. Those years were some of the best years of my life.” Zeidler’s first rowing race was an under-23 competition in Germany. Three races later, Zeidler found himself in Belgrade at World Rowing Cup I, where he won a bronze medal. 

“I definitely didn’t expect that result. It was a big surprise. I was rowing against my role model, Ondrej Synek. Passing him was unbelievable for me.” Synek came back to win the gold medal during that first meeting with the young German in 2018. “In Belgrade, I realized I could do something special in this sport. After the race, people came up to me and talked about it. Something magical happened on the water that day.”

One year later, Zeidler would pass Synek in the final of the 2019 world championships and go on to win the race in a photo finish. The finishing times of the top three boats of that race—Germany, Denmark, Norway—were separated by three-tenths of a second; Zeidler won by 0.03 seconds.

I ask him about his training and selection for the 2020 Olympics. “Ninety percent of my training is on my own,” he says. “If there are other boats on the course with the same speed, we’ll row together, but regularly it’s just me against the boat.” He stops for a moment then smiles, “It’s easier to train in the single than in the pool, but I miss the trash talking and laughter we used to have in swimming.” I can picture this tall man, his blonde tuft peeking out from underneath a swim cap, laughing with his teammates as they hang on the end of the pool waiting for the next set of intervals to begin. Something about the intimacy of that moment, that regard for speed that is often hidden away by elite athletes as they load hours of training into their bodies, resonates with the calm Zeidler seems to have about his own accomplishments.

Zeidler explains that the German national team selection process changed in 2019: they selected Zeidler as the Olympic men’s single sculler without requiring a selection process in the year leading up to the Tokyo Olympics. “This is an unusual situation for me,” he explains. “Usually we have to go against each other in the single and then erg scores set the other boats. This year, the [German rowing] federation was more open, more transparent. Now the other scullers are vying for the double and the quad,” he says, adding, “there’s a big benefit to this. I don’t have to concentrate on the national selection process. I don’t have to worry about getting to the Olympics, but I have to find my speed and test it before the [World Rowing] Cups.” To Zeidler, those competitions are discussed on a first-name basis. “Right now I don’t have a benchmark.”

And here it is: that question of speed. Is it possible to know how fast you can go, how much speed a body that grew up swimming at the elite level can generate? It’s likely that Zeidler’s success in rowing is as more a product of his swimming than his family’s legacy. After we finish talking, I watch the races that Zeidler has done so far. The three  World Rowing Cup regattas in 2018, where he went bronze, bronze, and silver, respectively. The 2018 World Rowing Championships, where he had a near-miss with a blade in the opening strokes but delivered a solid row after that, taking sixth. And then, the next year, the 2019 European Rowing Championships, where he snuck across the line, matching the leader stroke for stroke but winning the race with a kick that reminded me of a swimmer’s race, with that last surge swimmers make when lunging their hand to be the first one to tap the wall at the end of the lane. Next, the second World Rowing Cup of 2019, where he placed fifth, followed by World Rowing Cup III, and his first-place showing in the C final. And then, finally, the 2019 worlds.

Watching these races, and specifically watching his stroke—a three-quarter-slide stroke, where he winds up just enough to get a full stroke but doesn’t compress past the point his frame can leverage full power from—I begin to see a pattern. Zeidler, a swimmer since age seven, seems comfortable with the last 5 percent of the race being the determiner of the outcome. It’s as if he understands that the race doesn’t really start until the last 200 meters; you just need to be in the pack at that point to have a shot. I think back to the swim meets I’ve watched, everything from summer camp meets, to high school meets, to those crazy sprints during the Olympics, and I realize he seems to treat the 2,000-meter rowing course like a swimming pool. He has a kick at the end of his race that is typical for swimmers, but perhaps not so typical for rowers. Every rower wants that final kick—a sprint to cap off a solid race—but to deliver time and again, to win by such small margins, seemingly drawn toward the line by instinct, it makes me think that Zeidler is mixing his sports—using the techniques of moving through water and the race management he learned as a swimmer to win rowing races.

“I’ve always liked being around water, moving through it. It’s the same as it was with swimming,” Zeidler says to me when I ask him about crossing over from swimming to rowing. “The movement techniques are the same.” He pauses, “The 2k is six times longer than my swimming races, which has taken some adjusting.” Zeidler, who has been performing at the elite level as an athlete for many years, knows that his trajectory in rowing—at such a young age and with so much water still ahead of him—affects people. “When I go to a regatta, many people ask me for a selfie or tips.” He chuckles a bit about the selfies. “I have the chance to inspire people. It’s the best feeling I’ve ever had in sport.”

Zeidler’s training for Tokyo was simplified when he declined the invitation to go to the national team training center in Hamburg. “They told us to go to Hamburg one year before the Olympics to train, self-supported. We declined. I know that in the single we will make this work, no problem, living at home in Munich and focusing here.” The Zeidler household has two national team rowers eating under one roof. “We eat a lot of food,” he smiles. “Bananas, cereals, meats, and carbs for lunch, of course, and every evening something warm or just meat and bread. I’m lucky that I can eat everything I want.”

I ask this Olympic-bound rower what his focus has been in his recent training. With only two years of racing a single under his belt, his response reminds me not to be fooled; this rower has been training and competing at the highest level, even if it was in a different sport, for more than two years. His response gave nothing away, “Oh, we have a few points we can improve. Technique, fitness.” 

Zeidler has a smile that seems to surface without effort. Every race he’s been in, he wears a white ball cap flipped backward, the bill of the cap grazing the back of his neck as he completes each stroke. In several of his races, the announcers mention the cap, and specifically, that he wears it backward, like a kid on a college campus or in a pick-up basketball game. 

This image—that of the athlete who has won championships now in two sports, but keeps a casualness about himself—is perhaps the one that brings Olli Zeidler to life for so many athletes who are chasing how fast they, themselves, can go. 

At 24, it is clear he is just getting started, just pushing off the wall to position himself at the top of the pack. I wonder if Zeidler knows how fast he can be yet, or if his training is still revealing it to him. “Is it interesting being so early in your career and being successful?” I ask. “It is. It is.” Zeidler, all at once, is as open as a book and as guarded as a castle.

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