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The Comeback Kids’ Long Road to Lucerne

BY ED MORAN
PHOTOS BY ED MORAN AND LISA WORTHY

The mile or so between the launch dock and the start line for the final of the lightweight women’s double at the 2021 U.S. Olympic trials did not take long to cover in the boat Michelle Sechser was rowing.

But the metaphorical distance –how far and how long Sechser had been rowing to reach that point, one that would bring her as close as she’s ever been to achieving her dream of being an Olympic athlete–was almost incalculable.

Unlike her partner in bow, Molly Reckford, who was in just the second full season of chasing the same dream, Sechser had journeyed to the start line countless times since beginning her U.S. national-team career at the 2011 Pan American Games.

Sechser had gotten oh-so-close before. She had helped power the 2016 U.S. lightweight double to Olympic qualification at the preceding world championships, only to lose out in selection. She had been so near that her inability to achieve her goal had, at times, filled her with anger and fear.

That was not the case, however, on this day at Olympic Trials I at Nathan Benderson Park in Sarasota, Fla. During the first three races–from the opening time trial they had won by an astonishing 17 seconds, through the semifinal, Sechser and Reckford had established themselves as the favorites to go to Lucerne in May to qualify for the Tokyo Games.

They had partnered just before Covid postponed the 2020 trials– a 34-year-old veteran of international lightweight rowing who had seen her share of triumph and disappointment; and a 27-year-old who was once sure she’d never be good enough to make a national team and quit for two years until masters rowing kindled a desire to match her grandfather’s Olympic feats.

Once settled in, Sechser and Reckford were getting ready to execute a plan that would require a clean and quick start, one that would place them no more than a length behind a field that included Mary Jones and Emily Schmieg, the 2018 world-championship silver medalists  many observers considered unbeatable. 

“We knew that Mary and Emily were fast off the line, and we knew that they were going to want to control the field,” said Reckford. “And we had mentally prepared to be down about a boat length at the 500.

“We were sitting at the start line, and in my head I was thinking, ‘This is Olympic trials. No matter what, just get off the line clean. This is the most important race of your life. Just get off the line clean.’ And of course, because I was thinking that, I messed it up.”

“We were sitting at the start line, and in my head I was thinking, ‘This is Olympic trials. No matter what, just get off the line clean. This is the most important race of your life. Just get off the line clean.’ And of course, because I was thinking that, I messed it up.”                                                              

Molly Reckford

Six strokes in, Reckford who was keeping a loose grip on her oar to avoid over-tensing her forearms, skimmed the water with her right oar, and the handle flew out of her hand and over Sechser’s head.

Sechser and Reckford all but stopped, and the three other boats pulled away. The spectacle was livestreamed, including Sechser’s unmistakable anger and a frustrated look that seemed to cry, “Not again!”

There had been too many times when she was so close. She could not allow this chance to slip away. But in the world of rowing, losing an oar at the start of an elite final usually means the end of the journey and, for Sechser, her last shot at the Olympics.

From a Sister’s Regatta to the World Stage

Michelle Sechser was not an athletic teen in high school, and the only reason she went to a rowing event was to see her older sister, Jacquie, race for Capital Crew on Lake Natoma in Gold River, Calif.

“I was spending weekends going to her regattas as a good younger sister and thought it seemed pretty cool,” Sechser said. “But I was pretty unathletic at the time when I joined.”

She had participated in dance and dabbled in gymnastics. She liked being active but lacked the confidence to try a team sport. Rowing changed that.

“I never did a side-by-side competition sport,” she said. “But once I got to sit on a start line, I realized how empowering that was, how much confidence it gave me, which was something I struggled a lot with in high school. Finding this outlet, this really specific way that I could be confident in myself, was empowering.”

In her sophomore year, Sechser made the varsity eight in the boat her sister stroked. “She was our stroke seat and team captain. I was her six seat and rushed the hell out of the slide.”

Not as tall or strong as some of her teammates who were being recruited to row at schools such as the  University of California or the University of Washington, Sechser nevertheless drew the attention of coach Kevin Harris at the University of Tulsa and earned a place on his team.

After completing her undergraduate education, Sechser enrolled in Tulsa’s graduate school and earned an MBA. During that time, Sechser, who was sculling and working to stay fit, was encouraged by Harris to try out for the U23 lightweight double. Harris arranged for the coach to invite her to camp.

“It terrified me,” Sechser said. “I didn’t think I was good enough. The coach invited me out, explained the process, and gave me the information. But I got the yips and didn’t go.”

 Sechser, who liked to erg and train, kept at it until her scores improved so much she decided to go the C.R.A.S.H.-B Sprints in Boston. There, she performed so well that she was approached by Cameron Kiosoglous, a long-time U.S. national-team and Olympic coach who at the time was working at USRowing’s National High Performance Center in Oklahoma City.

“Cam came up to me after the race and asked me about my rowing accolades and if I knew how to scull, which I didn’t really,” Sechser recalled. “He said I should come to OKC in the spring and he would get me in a single and teach me a few things. After I finished my MBA program, I moved to OKC and trained there.”

Sechser developed the speed necessary to make a national team, and in 2011, she won bronze medals in the lightweight double and quad at the Pan American Games. The following year, she made her first senior team and raced in the quad, finishing fourth at the senior world championships in 2012.

In 2013, she rowed the single to a seventh-place world-championship finish in Chungju, South Korea, and then began chasing an Olympic berth in the lightweight double, eventually partnering with Devery Karz.

Karz and Sechser rowed the double at the next two world championships, finishing 10th in 2014 and 11th in 2015, high enough to qualify for the 2016 Games.

The next season is not a good memory. Sechser lost her seat in a months-long selection process to Kate Bertko, an experienced U.S. national-team sculler who rowed on the U.S. open-weight team for three seasons before switching to lightweight. Bertko had won silver in the lightweight double in 2013 and a bronze in the single in both 2014 and 2015.

“We started selection camp, and the cream rose to the top. I did not make the boat. It was a hard camp. It started the day after Christmas and it went until we drove to Sarasota for trials on April 7.

There, Karz and Bertko, who were partnered during selection camp, won and were named to the 2016 Olympic team.

After trials, Sechser was invited to train with Bertko and Karz as an unofficial spare, and she traveled to Lucerne, Switzerland, to race in World Rowing Cup II, Bertko and Karz in the double, Sechser in the single.

“I was grateful they chose to keep us a three-person team,” Sechser said. “Our plan was to keep training together in Princeton, and they would go off to Rio, and I would go to the non-Olympic Worlds trials and race the single. But once they flew off to Rio, and the coach was gone, and the training partners were gone, that was when it finally hit me how devastated I was.

“They were all gone, and I was on Lake Carnegie by myself. There was such pomp and circumstance and ticker-tape-like celebration for everyone going off to Rio, and the next few mornings it was just me out there.

“It hit me like a train, and I realized I did not feel emotionally invested in non-Olympic Worlds. I didn’t feel any motivation to go to the race or trials, so I didn’t.”

Instead, Sechser went home to visit family, took time to reflect, and then decided to enter the championship single at the Royal Canadian Henley to see whether she still loved racing. Canadian Henley is a regatta where Sechser had raced before and that she’d always enjoyed. So she went–and won–and decided to try again for the Olympics in 2020. 

Trials Final: Crab, Recover, Go

If Mary Jones and Emily Schmieg had been on the other side of Sechser and Reckford, Sechser might never have seen the oar fly over her head, hit the end of the oarlock, and bounce back toward her face.

“I saw it coming because Mary and Emily were off to port side. You learn to race with peripheral attention, and I was monitoring the other crews off the line.”

As the oar came toward her head, Sechser saw it and ducked, and the oar flew back into Reckford’s hand.

“If the field had been on starboard side, and the crab to port, I would not have ducked,” Sechser said.

Reckford is still not sure what happened.

“I had a loose grip. We were moving very quickly, and I think my blade hit the water and got knocked out of my hand. From the slow-motion video, it looks like I just throw it at Michelle.

“It was the longest two seconds of my life. They talk about life flashing before your eyes and time slowing down. Well, that’s what happened: My life flashed before my eyes and time slowed down. I had this moment when I thought, ‘I just lost us Olympic trials on stroke six.’

Reckford didn’t see the look on Sechser’s face until later, but those watching the live feed did.

“Kate Bertko texted me and said the look on your face when she caught that crab was like you were going to kill her. I was channeling some of the emotion of 2016, some of the camp emotion of 2020. I was thinking, ‘I am not going to let anything stop us from achieving this goal.’”

Behind Sechser, Reckford was having similar thoughts as the oar hit her hand and she pushed it back into place.

“In the video, Michelle looks at me like, ‘I’m going to kill you!’ I was thinking, ‘I cannot let Michelle’s dream die because of my mistake. My own dreams, I wasn’t even thinking about it. Michelle has worked too hard, has been at this too long, for me to have ruined this.

“I caught the oar handle again and thought, ‘OK, it doesn’t matter. Just go. Make it up. You can do this. Just go. I cannot take this away from her.’

“I was going as hard as I could, trying to get us even again and doing everything I could to match her and row well. Power up, and get us even. The devastation would be unreal if I had lost her the chance at achieving her dream.”

Happy Masters Rower

Molly Reckford has wanted to be an Olympian from the time she was four years old and traveled with her family to the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta. Her grandfather, William Spencer, was a two-time Olympic biathlete, a five-time Olympic coach, and was participating in the torch relay. Reckford’s family gathered in Atlanta to watch.

“That was the coolest experience, and I didn’t fully understood how cool it was and what an opportunity it was because when you’re four everything is new.”

But it made a lasting impression and began a love affair with the Olympic Games. She and her family watched every Games together, and in 2002, her grandfather participated in the torch relay again, helping carry the flame off the plane from Athens when it landed in the U.S.

Both torches hang in the entryway of Reckford’s grandparents’ home in Utah, along with other Olympic memorabilia from Spencer’s Olympic career, and every time she visited, the souvenirs fueled Reckford’s Olympic yearning. “I always wanted to be good enough at something to go to the Olympics,” she said.

When she began attending Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, Reckford began rowing and dreaming of making the national team. She carried the dream to Dartmouth College but did not excel and began thinking it would never happen.

“I wasn’t good enough, especially in college. I had a super slow erg. I was always in the second boat or lower. I just didn’t have what it takes. I saw my teammates pulling sub-seven erg scores and going to U23- development camps. I was more than 30 seconds slower. I just knew I had no shot.

“I let the dream rest a little bit. I still fantasized about it and always wanted to be the best of the best, but I figured I was just not made for this, I’m just wrong. Post college, I gave up on rowing. I needed to go live life, and I stopped rowing for about two and a half years.”

Reckford moved to Menlo Park, Calif., and began her career with Aetos Alternatives Management. Just for fun, and because she liked sculling (something she had done summers during her college years), she joined Bair Island Aquatic Center and started rowing again. “I was thinking, ‘I love this, but I forgot how hard it is.’”

 Bair Island had a masters team, and Reckford was invited to join the racing group. “That was great because the masters were all like, ‘You’re so young and strong, Join the comp team.’ I felt like a celebrity–wanted and desired. In college, I never felt like that; I felt very disposable. Very quickly, I went from paddling around for an hour before work to wanting a real training program and wanting to be on the water more times a day.”

Along the way, Reckford got fitter, hit erg scores she’d never seen at Dartmouth, and began training before and after work.

A training partner saw her erg scores and told her she was close to the standards of some high-performance lightweight teams. So she pushed to get to, or below, those marks.

“And that’s when I started training super seriously,” Reckford said. “I thought, ‘I might be good at this lightweight thing. I might actually be good enough to make the national team. So I dusted off that dream and pulled it out of the back of the closet.”

She set goals that became decision points, including entering six events at the 2018 masters national championships in Oakland, Calif.

“I told myself, if I do well, I will take that as a sign that I should keep doing this. And if I don’t do well, I tried. I’m not good enough. But I can still be a masters rower and have fun.”

Reckford won all six races and began looking for more challenges. That led her to a national-team identification camp, where she hit a personal best on the erg. “I preformed pretty well, and that was another sign,” she said. “That fall was when I started really putting in the work.” To test herself again, Reckford entered the April 2019 USRowing Spring Speed Order in Sarasota, Fla.

“I had no clue at the time how much that was going to change my life,” she said. “No. Clue.”

She got permission to work remotely, packed up her oars, and flew to Florida, where she assessed the situation and began mapping another goal.

“The two fastest people were going to be the double. The third-fastest person was going to be the single. The next four slots were going to be in the quad. My goal was to make the lightweight quad, to finish in the top eight. If I am not in the top 10, this is over, this is done. I have tried, I put in a lot of effort, but this is taking away from my career, and I can still have fun and be a masters rower.”

Reckford won the B final, top seven. “It was awesome.”

She began looking for a doubles partner for the 2019 world-championship trials and emailed Peter Mansfield, the coach at Vesper Boat Club, hoping she could come to Philadelphia and partner with Sechser. But he suggested she ask Sarasota Crew coach Casey Galvanek whether she could join a lightweight-women’s-double camp he was running in Sarasota.

Galvanek invited her, and Reckford remembers thinking, ‘This is it. This is my break.’”

Before camp, Sechser had partnered with Christine Cavallo and begun training for the 2019 trials. Reckford was partnered with Rosa Kemp, who had finished third in the April speed order. Later that year, at the world- championship trials, Sechser and Cavallo won. Reckford and Kemp finished second. Both landed in the lightweight quad, and Reckford had made her first national team.

“That was really cool. In one calendar year, I went from masters nationals to an ID camp, to seventh at speed order, to second at trials, to Worlds. World championships happened in August, and I had a Facebook thing that came up that said a year ago you were drinking beer out of a trophy at masters nationals. And now I was at Worlds.

“After that, I decided, This is it. I am going for it. I wanted to make Tokyo. I have a shot at the Olympic team. I’ve got to try.”

Trials: Second 500, Taking the Lead

Sechser never stopped rowing when Reckford lost her oar, and the boat didn’t lose as much distance as it could have. A millisecond after Sechser saw the oar go over her head, she heard Reckford get it back into the oarlock.

Sechser and Reckford had talked about what they needed to do if something happened–if they clipped a buoy, bobbled a stroke, caught a boat-stopping crab–and the plan was to get right back to racing.

“I was keeping that raw attitude of ‘Nothing is going to stop me from winning this race and achieving this goal,’” Sechser said. “When she caught the oar, she knew exactly what I was thinking, and my first thought once I heard her sleeve pushing back into the oarlock was, ‘Just go!’ 

“I was keeping that raw attitude of ‘Nothing is going to stop me from winning this race and achieving this goal.’ When she caught the oar, she knew exactly what I was thinking, and my first thought once I heard her sleeve pushing back into the oarlock was, ‘Just go!’”

 –Michelle Sechser

“She would catch me in a stroke or two. As soon as we took five strokes to build, I could feel that she was rowing really hard to make up for what she had caused.”

The original plan was to trail Jones and Schmieg by no more than a boat length at 500 meters, but the adrenaline from the mangled start pushed them into another gear, and they were even when they reached that point. At the venue in Sarasota, there’s a small white building that’s an indicator that crews are in the second 500 meters.

“I saw we pulled even right around that white building,” Reckford said. “I thought, ‘This is good. We made up for it. We can do this. Breathe, just keep breathing.’ At about 750 meters, Michelle called, ‘Ready.’ She is much more experienced at racing, and that is her saying, ‘I’m ready for you to call us into a move now.’”

It was not a move Sechser planned for any specific point but one she was looking to make based on what she felt other racers were doing.

“You can sense when the field is sort of lulling or hesitating, and that’s the moment to move. So as soon as we drew even, I said, ‘Ready for the move.’ It was the open-door moment when the field was hesitating.”

Recalled Reckford: “She said, ‘Ready,’ and I said, ‘Ready up,’ and we brought up the rate a little bit, and we were able to move far enough ahead to control the field.”

Worlds 2019, Selection Camp 2020

For Reckford, the 2019 World Rowing Championships were a wish come true. She had made a national team and was embarking on the Olympic dream she had begun hatching at the Atlanta Summer Games and in the hallway of her grandparents’ home in Utah. Next would come more training, lightweight camp in Sarasota, and then Olympic trials–with Kemp, she hoped.

For Sechser, it was another bad memory. She and Cavallo had failed to place high enough at the world championships, and the women’s lightweight double would have to go through the Final Olympic Qualification Regatta in Lucerne if it were to race in Tokyo.

It’s a near-impossible regatta. To gain a place in the Olympics, the crew has to place in the top three. Every country with a fast combination that has not yet qualified sends a boat. In rowing, it’s known as “the regatta of death,” the place where dreams are buried.

She and Cavallo were not a bad crew, Sechser says. They just had not gotten it right.

“The best way to describe it is there are a lot of pieces to this puzzle to get right. They don’t all have to be 100 percent perfect, but they all need to be at least good. Nothing was egregiously wrong, but we struggled to keep all the pieces together.

“It was so disappointing to come up short. The year 2019 was hard. It was a lot of trying to just put some duct tape on problems and make it work, and it’s not how preparing for a proper qualification should go.”

After Worlds, Sechser took time to recover and then began training again. So did Cavallo and Mary Jones and Emily Schmieg. After winning silver at the 2018 World Rowing Championships, Jones and Schmieg finished third at the 2019 trials. Jones was dealing with an injury, but Schmieg won the lightweight-singles trial and raced in Austria at the world championships.

All four women went to Austin just after Christmas and began another selection camp. Again, as in 2016, Sechser did not emerge with a partner.

So she called Galvanek, who was also running a selection camp that Reckford was part of. She was hoping Kemp would be rowing with her, but Kemp had retired, and Reckford was rowing with Jess Hyne-Dolan, who was also in the 2019 lightweight quad.

Galvanek told Sechser he would not break up the double, but she was welcome to call them both and ask if they would open the boat to selection again. Reckford  and Hyne-Dolan both were excited by the prospect of having Sechser join them but also scared of losing to her and not having a partner.

“That was really exciting, and really scary, because you never want to have to seat-race Michelle. She is so fast. We had a double that could move and felt safe, and if we let her come in and seat-race against us, there was a chance she would kick one of us out of the boat. We both had this interesting calculus that I am going to be the one left without a seat, versus I get to row with Michelle.”

But Cavallo, who also had lost out in Austin, called and said she wanted in. Problem solved. Four women in camp meant two crews for trials.

The camp lasted two weeks and resulted in the partnering of Sechser and Reckford.

“For me, it was another dream come true,” Reckford said. “She was willing to take a risk on me when I was a fairly unproven, very inexperienced athlete.

“We had three weeks before trials to correct 7,000 problems, and then we were going to race a boat that’s been together for two years. Good luck.”

Covid-19, Crushing Disappointment, and Uncertainty 

Sechser and Reckford were set to go. Some of the crews that would race in that February 2020 event were already in Sarasota. The double from Austin was in the airport in Charlotte, N.C., in transit to the regatta.

Then the pandemic invaded. Trials were postponed, then canceled. The qualification regatta was canceled. The Olympics were postponed.

“I was trying to take a nap when I got that email,” Reckford said. “Talk about getting punched in the gut. I was just devastated. I was trying to talk myself into believing it would be OK. ‘In 30 days, they are going to hold it. We’re going to lock down for two weeks, and then Covid will go away and we’ll be fine. They’ll just move the lightweights to Trials II.’ I was just trying to tell myself it will be fine.

“Then when they canceled the qualification regatta, we knew if there is no qualification regatta, we don’t have a chance because this boat is not qualified. Losing the chance at trials, and then thinking that America might not even get a boat, it was dark, it was a dark time.”

Reckford and Sechser stayed in Florida and trained until June. Then both moved north to Boston and made different plans. Reckford found a host family in Boston and was training under the guidance of Harvard assistant coach Jessie Foglia.

She participated in a sort of secret regatta run in late summer that involved all the people who were also training on the Charles River, including the Cambridge Boat Club group run by Gregg Stone, the father of 2016 Olympic silver medalist Gevvie Stone.

It was called the Social Distancing Regatta. Reckford finished sixth in a field of mostly heavyweights.

Sechser, however, had decided she needed time off.

“I feel like a bad person saying this, but yes, Covid was a good thing for me,” Sechser said. “It forced me to reevaluate a lot of things.

“I didn’t know it at the time, but I had a lot of heavy emotional processing to do, and my body needed rest. The bulk of that summer was bike riding, cross-training, PT, and rehab. If I was going to go for one more time, I knew I needed to be healthy and ready.

“My emotional levels were just through the roof. I was existing on rage and fear. It’s not the way good rowing happens. It’s not the way healthy doubles relationships happen.”

She was angry, Sechser says, with herself–for trying so hard for so many years and not being able to close the deal.

“I was angry at not being good enough, not being skillful enough. A lot of times, doubles or crews or countries will have an athlete who’s just a head above the rest, a standout. I couldn’t quite get myself there, and it felt like the harder I worked, the farther away it got.

“I was scared of putting so much into it and still not being good enough. There was a sense that there was still more that I couldn’t get right, whether it was peaking right, or staying injury-free, or gelling with my partner. I just felt like there was more to show, and I hadn’t timed it well enough to be able to show that to everyone, and to myself, to prove what was really there.

“If I ended without that, it would have been very unsatisfying.”

So Sechser took the summer off for the first time in years. She visited her family, spent time with friends, concentrated on work, helped start a company, and was promoted. She found peace.

By fall, she was ready to go again.

“Recommitting to it, having a rejuvenated sense of purpose, I was able to take a deep breath, a step back, so I wouldn’t be competing from a place of panic or fear of failure.

“If I don’t make the Olympics again, fine. I was coming back to it just wanting to see how fast I can go, how high we can get, domestically, internationally.

“I was just living life and being reassured that everything was still going to be OK. It took away a little of the emotion that I have given everything and missed all this time with my family, my boyfriend, and my friends. They’ll still be there.”

Trials final: The last meters to the line

As Sechser and Reckford commenced the final 500 meters, they were in control and holding a lead that kept the field in view. If there was going to be a challenge in any of the other lanes, they would see it coming.

But they were not thinking sprint. What had happened at the start was front of mind.

“My heart rate must have been up 195 beats a minute after that adrenaline shock at the start,” said Reckford. “We pulled harder coming into the finish, but it felt too risky to sprint, and if there was damage to the oar, if I messed up again, if we got overexcited, clipped a buoy, it was better to just control our boat, make it across the line.”

In stroke seat, Sechser was thinking the same thing.

“I kept the rate pretty low going forward,” she said. “We definitely didn’t sprint. I didn’t want any more crabs or diggers, anything. I didn’t know if there was any sort of damage to the oar.

“I just was thinking, ‘Dear God, get us across this line safely.’ So we kept the rate pretty low and controlled. I communicated to Molly to keep it clean and tight. The field was in our view. Should someone sprint, take the rate up and go.”

But there was no matching sprint. Sechser and Reckford crossed the line and claimed the right to go to Lucerne and race to qualify for Tokyo. 

Lucerne Next

For Reckford, whatever happens in Lucerne is unlikely to end her rowing career, though she’s not thinking past the qualification regatta.

“I couldn’t believe we pulled off trials,” she said. “Until 250 meters to go, every third stroke I was still looking at the boat next to us, thinking they are about to go, they are going to sprint through us.

“I was mentally prepared to have to sprint. They are all elite athletes. They’ve done this so many times. They all have good sprints. They’re going to whip out something terrifying.

“And when we crossed the finish line, there was a certain amount of embarrassment about the start but there was mostly excitement and joy–that we had managed to do it, and that we had closed a very strange year and made it to the next step.

“I think of Tokyo in a very daydream sense. I really want to go, but this Lucerne regatta is going to be the hardest regatta of our lives. This is going to be so competitive.

“There are a number of things that could go wrong, and we need to have everything go right in order to pull this off. I want it so much, but I can’t think about it seriously yet, because I don’t know how fast these other boats are.”

For Sechser, of course, it will be different. She is aiming for her last Olympics. After that, it’s career, family, friends, and life beyond the grind of lightweight rowing. Getting the opportunity to race for Tokyo is an accomplishment she will always remember.

“There is still a little bit more to go to close the loop, but I can say without a doubt, should anything happen, whether Covid-related or anything else, I feel so much more at peace with how it’s gone, and with the kind of speed I’ve been able to produce in a double.

“It’s been fun, and it’s the closest I’ve ever been with a doubles partner. It’s just been a really special experience. The loop isn’t quite closed, but I’ve certainly enjoyed this final phase a lot more.”

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