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Pandemic Shutdown Could be a U.S. Sculling Plus

BY ED MORAN
PHOTO BY PETER SPURRIER

Months of being off the water through the Covid-19 shutdown finally ended for U.S. Olympic hopefuls across the country. Gradually making their way back to the U.S. national training-center locations and high-performance clubs, athletes are patiently restarting preparations for the postponed Tokyo Olympic Games.

Still, the scene everywhere remains very different from what it would be if the world were back to normal. The virus that forced the loss of an entire rowing season is still very much a threat. Mitigation guidelines that include social-distancing mandates remain in place, and the only rowing being done is in singles. And that will probably be the reality through the summer and into the fall.

But with the Olympics now 14 months away, no races or regattas in view–and even the fall head-racing season in doubt–most coaches believe this is more an opportunity than hindrance.

“I’m kind of excited about it. I think it will be really good for us,” said U.S. women’s head coach Tom Terhaar. “In the past, when we did row singles, it really helped. We haven’t used the singles very much in the past four years, so this is a really good opportunity to kind of balance some bodies out and get a better foundation for moving back into sweep down the line.”

Across the country, at the men’s training center in Oakland, California, men’s head coach Mike Teti says much the same thing.

“It’s fun because it’s something new, and I’m all for it,” Teti said. “It’s good they’re rowing singles, and I think they are getting better. When you get into a sculling boat, just because it’s new, you’re going to be getting a little bit better almost on a daily basis.”

It’s not only the national team and Olympic aspirants being brought back to the sport in singles only. Junior crews across the country are also going out in singles only, and will continue mostly likely through the summer and possibly the fall, developing skills they might not have had a chance to embrace in team sweep boats.

There is no debate among coaches at every level that rowing in singles improves technical ability, and that when junior rowers are introduced to sculling at younger ages, they develop into better rowers in both sweep and sculling.

One question that can be asked now that clubs and the national-team training centers are being forced into singles exclusively is: Can it have an immediate impact on U.S. success in international sculling competition?

The most frequent answer: yes, but probably not in time for the Tokyo Games.

“Do I think it’s going to have an immediate transformational effect on sculling in the U.S. on the [senior] international side?” asked Matt Imes, USRowing director of high performance. “That transformational effect starts at the younger [junior and under 23] levels,” 

Looking Toward Tokyo

At the conclusion of the 2019 World Championships, U.S. women scullers had qualified crews for the Tokyo Olympics in three of the four available boat classes. All but the women’s lightweight double earned qualification.

That was not the case for the men. No sculling crew is currently qualified. That’s not because there are no U.S. men capable of sculling at the highest level. Rather, it’s because the focus among most of the best athletes hoping to win a medal in Tokyo has been on making one of the sweep boats and training at the men’s national-team training center under Teti.

Qualifying the men’s eight and four was the priority for the U.S. throughout the 2020 quadrennial, and that was accomplished at the 2019 world championships.

The group now rowing at the men’s national-team training center has several young experienced scullers in the selection mix, including two-time men’s junior single world champion Clark Dean, along with Ben Davison, who has raced in sculling crews in multiple international regattas and world championships. The training center also has a number of veteran athletes who have experience racing in sculling boats.

Dean and Davison could be legitimate possibilities to help qualify a sculling boat in the Final Olympic Qualification Regatta next spring, but their intentions for Tokyo are currently centered on making either the eight or four.

“For now, the goal is Tokyo in a sweep boat–an eight, four or pair, however that works,” said Davison.

For Dean, the year is more complicated. He took off time  from Harvard University after his freshman year to join the men’s training center and try for a seat in one of the sweep crews. He rowed in the four and helped qualify that boat in 2019 and was on track to make the Tokyo team before the Games were postponed to next year. With the possibility the pandemic could impact the collegiate season again next year, Dean is unsure exactly what 2021 will bring. But he continues to train in Oakland and will again likely be in the mix for a seat in Tokyo.

“I obviously love rowing the single, and I love rowing team boats. Before all this stuff happened with Covid, I went to camp and was in the team boat for 2019, and that was my best shot at going to Tokyo,” Dean said. 

“Now with the postponement, and so many things up in the air, I’ve no idea what making a boat, team or individual, would even look like for 2021. There is nothing set in stone. I’m just trying to do everything that I can to stay in shape, and keep in touch with all possible avenues that I’m going to have to follow as things fall into place and some variables get sorted out.”

One certainty is that as long as social-distancing guidelines are in effect in cities where national-team athletes are training, all rowing will be in singles. National-team training centers will also be guided by recommendations issued in April that include considering the rate of Covid-19 transmission, and if the risk of infection is low enough, to allow group training.

That can be complicated for rowers training in team boats where there is a constant risk of respiratory transmission, Imes said. “They classify it as moderate, but it’s a pretty direct contact opportunity for the virus. You have to absolutely minimize the risk to train in team boats. How does that happen? You would have to hold down a full quarantine of your training group.

“And if testing is widespread, they would all have to be tested negative, and then you would have to quarantine them where they would have no contact with anyone else, food service, cleaning service, nothing. Everyone that is in there is tested, so you know no one is bringing in anything from their training location to their living location.

“We can do that, but that’s incredibility expensive. We can only do that for a small period of time here or there. Other clubs can’t do that. So that gets down to, we can row singles. And we are prepared for the next couple of months to row a lot of singles.”

Immediate Impact vs. Future Impact

With all but one of the available sculling crews already qualified, the impact of being in singles for U.S. women will not change much. U.S. women athletes have performed well in sculling crews over the last two Olympic quadrennials, and produced world-championship and Olympic medals. The success of the women stems in part from the achievements of the training-center crews, including three straight Olympic championships in the eight.

That has not been the case for the U.S. men in the last two cycles. Under Teti, the U.S. program has improved and is well positioned to contend for medals in the eight and four in Tokyo. Teti has long-term plans and hopes that he can continue to improve the training center and make it a place where athletes can work, train and stay in the system longer.

Over the next two Olympic campaigns, Teti wants to develop enough athletes to fill up to six crews that can contend for medals in 2028 in Los Angeles, and that, he has said, could include sculling crews.

For these coming Games in Tokyo, crews that hope to go to the Final Qualification Regatta will come from club programs that can win at trials. And having athletes in singles for the next several months could help if athletes who come out of collegiate sweep programs discover they can be fast in sculling boats.

National Rowing Foundation co-chair Jamie Koven, the last U.S. athlete to win a world championship in the men’s single, said that’s what happened with his training group in 1996 under Mike Spracklen, who was preparing the U.S. men’s sweep team for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.

Spracklen had arranged for the team to train at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, California, where he was also coaching Silken Laumann, the Canadian Olympic women’s single sculler.

“Mike wanted us in singles, but there were no boats around,” said Koven. “So what he did was he had us row six by 2K every Monday morning at seven. And then had us come back down at 10 to do six by 2K again.

“If you didn’t have a single, you had to row in pairs,” said Koven, who did have a single. Spracklen made the pairs row on opposite sides during each of the practices. “You had to row on one side at 7 o’clock and then go back down at 10 o’clock and go back in pairs on the opposite side. Nobody wanted to switch sides and do 2,000-meter pieces, so everybody got a single.

“Silken Laumann was training with us, and we got to row with her. At first she was the same speed as us. Then we started getting better and we would have 12 competitive singles across Lower Otay Reservoir.”

Koven made the U.S. men’s eight that finished eighth in Atlanta. Laumann took the silver in the Canadian women’s single, and the U.S. men’s quad that was training at a different location under the late Igor Grinko won a silver medal. The next year, Koven won the men’s single at the world championships.

The result, Koven said, was that single sales rose in the U.S., and other athletes began sculling. “I was working with Hudson because they were supplying boats, and the next year they had a 140-person waiting list in the U.S. Everybody thought if Jamie can win the world championship, anybody can. I’m serious; that’s what people were saying. And a lot of people rowed the single.

“We had all these really good singles in the U.S., all the elite athletes got their own singles. That really helped. A bunch of people had easy access to high-quality equipment, and that made a difference.”

Penn AC head coach and U.S. Olympian Sean Hall is hoping there will be a similar impact on the U.S. men as a result of being forced into singles all summer. Hall’s crews, which are part of a sculling collaborative among the boat clubs in Philadelphia, raced in the quad and double at last year’s world championships. But they did not qualify for Tokyo, and he is hoping to pull together crews that can qualify in the spring.

“This is a good opportunity to get more talent into sculling, and I would love to see that, for the sake of the discipline, and athlete development,” Hall said. He is hoping that some of the athletes training with Teti in Oakland who are not in the mix to make sweep crews for Tokyo are encouraged to move to a high-performance sculling camp.

“If we are ever going to see international results in sculling–results we are absolutely capable of–USRowing needs to take a more active role in directing and managing our athlete resource. If we as a nation can effectively take advantage of key resources currently available, including athletes, coaching, equipment, venues, we will begin to paint a much brighter rowing future.

“I am excited because [the pandemic] may force more people into sculling, and that is going to be a big benefit for the athletes, and the system as well. The athletes should come out of this better rowers, regardless. That’s good for the athletes, that’s good for sculling, and it will be good for sweep also.” 

The reality, however, is that most of the top athletes in the senior U.S. men’s scene are taking their chances in Oakland and hoping to develop under Teti to make a sweep crew, if not for this cycle then the coming cycles, and they are not easily convinced to leave Oakland. So qualifying sculling crews for Tokyo remains a significant uncertainty.

That doesn’t mean there won’t be chances for U.S. sculling medals in the 2024 and 2028 Games.

“We know we have some very good scullers,” Imes said of the athletes training in Oakland now. “But we know their potential impact on the sweep side. That’s where they have a better opportunity to medal now. 

“Those guys, like Clark and Ben, are going to go do this for this cycle, and then you are going to see those guys possibly sculling in Paris. And that success will drive other athletes down that pathway.” 

Both Dean and Davison agree.

“I do think this opportunity, this time we have, is getting a lot of people to row the single,” Davison said. “I know there are guys on our team who through their rowing careers haven’t had a massive amount of time to row singles and scull, so those guys on the team now are spending more time in singles, which is great to see.

“After [Tokyo], I will reassess, see how I am feeling, and I think I’ll be quite interested in trying a single. I haven’t given the single the respect it deserves since the junior level. But that  depends on a lot of things and what Mike Teti’s vision is, where the team is headed.”

“The idea is exciting,” said Dean, “and I’m not ruling out rowing in the single, or racing and following through with a campaign at the senior level.

“In 2020, I knew I was going to be at school, and I wasn’t going to be able go to any of the initial trials and races in the single for the senior team, and talking to Mike, talking to [Harvard coach Charlie Butt], it just made the most sense to me to follow through the 2020 cycle in a team boat in the camp system. 

“That’s not to say that in 2024 or 2028 I’m going to stick to sweeping. I’m always keeping in touch with the single, trying to stay well rounded in what boats I’m rowing, keeping my options open, because the idea of rowing the single at the highest level and being successful at the highest level is definitely an exciting thing to think about.”

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