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‘Everyone Knows How to Win’

PHOTOS AND STORY BY ED MORAN

Seventh-year Itch 

Standing near the medal stand at the 2014 World Rowing Championships in Amsterdam while waiting to be awarded a silver medal after finishing behind Great Britain, Dani Hansen was experiencing mixed emotions— grateful to have won a silver para-rowing medal, devastated that she had not won.

“I remember I was so upset, but also understanding that it was my first time on the team, that I had never stroked a boat before, all these different things, and just being grateful,” Hansen said. “But it was hard. Losing is hard.”

It didn’t get easier the next year in Aiguebelette, France, when for the second consecutive year, her PR3 mixed coxed four battled the same British crew to the line and fell to second in the final strokes, losing by 26 tenths of a second.

“That was much more difficult and more personally impactful,” said Hansen. 

“I remember I was so upset, but also understanding that it was my first time on the team, that I had never stroked a boat before, all these different things, and just being grateful,” Hansen said. “But it was hard. Losing is hard.”

-Dani Hansen

It was also a developing trend. For the next four years, including the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio, the U.S. crew Hansen has been a part of since 2014 has finished second to Great Britain—every time. No matter who was in the boat, no matter what the situation, it was always the British and it was always silver.

Only once in her now seven-season career has the color of her medal been anything but silver. That happened in 2018 when she doubled up and rowed the para pair and won. But it did not change the result of the final she rowed in the four that regatta. Or who finished in front of her.

Still, none of that stopped her from continuing to try. She rowed the event again in 2019 and now she is getting another chance after being named to the team that will represent the U.S. in Tokyo. And it will be her final attempt, Hansen has said.

But there is a different feeling now. She is with a new crew. It’s the same one she rowed with in 2019 when they qualified the boat class for these Games, but they are all new Paralympians. Only Hansen was in the 2016 boat and part of the six-season silver streak. 

What she is feeling now are confidence and calm. She’s confident that her teammates have all come through the year-long pandemic pause in better shape than they were in 2019 and fully committed to trying to end the streak. And Hansen is also at peace. She is over the feelings of losing and coming to the line fearing it could happen again. 

“It’s hard to bounce back from losing and not to be scared of losing again. But if you can conquer that fear, it can turn into something positive. Being excited about winning and doing your best, not being fearful—that is my new attitude. There’s a real possibility we can win, and if we can grab on to that, that will be very powerful.”

This may be Hansen’s best shot at ending the streak and winning a Paralympic gold medal. After a competitive selection camp, and more than a year of no racing, this group is among the strongest U.S. Paralympians ever assembled, says Ellen Minzner, who coached most of Hansen’s crews until becoming U.S. para high-performance director before the 2019 world championships. 

“Overall, it’s about as strong a team as we have ever had, event for event,” Minzner said. “We qualified every boat via the 2019 World Championships pathway, and all the athletes who qualified those boats have been named to those boats, either by trials or selection camp. It’s really exciting to have that kind of experience coming back to the line.”

Minzner has been involved with every one of Hansen’s para-four silver medals and is well aware of the competition, especially the British, who just named their team, including the crew that won in 2019 and features James Fox, who rowed for GB in all but the 2018 championship crews.

“We can’t control what other countries have been doing,” Minzner said, “but we know there are some very fast times we’re going to have to exceed in order to win the gold medal, and we’re training toward those times.”

The big unknown: Because there has been little to no international racing, no one is sure of the speed of others teams. Nevertheless, Minzner is certain of one thing: During the lockdown, U.S. rowers committed to training and are as fit as they’ve ever been.

“When the team assembled at selection camp, despite many challenges during the year, it was already at a higher level than when I last saw them,” Minzner said, “and that is very exciting.”

The U.S. will send four crews to Tokyo: Blake Haxton in the men’s PR1 single; Hallie Smith in the women’s PR1 single; the para mixed coxed four of coxswain Karen Petrik, Charley Nordin, John Tanguay, Hansen, and Allie Reilly; and the PR2 mixed double with Russell Gernaat and Laura Goodkind.

Like Hansen, Goodkind is also a returning Paralympian. She rowed to a 10th place finish in Rio but is coming to Tokyo with Gernaat, who was with her in 2019 when they qualified the boat class, and then secured their place for the Games at U.S. trials this spring.

“We’re doing pretty well,” Goodkind said. “We’re coming together with synchronicity and feeling the boat and learning the boat and each other. We’ve made a bunch of improvements, whether it’s our rigging or fitness. We’re doing the best we can in our practices and hope that translates to our performance in Tokyo.”

“I’m really encouraged by how fit everyone is,” said Nordin. “The extra year was tricky, but everyone in the boat made the best of it.  The year off benefits us more than our competition because we’re a relatively young crew and haven’t taken that many strokes together.”

“It worked out well because we came back pretty fast,” Reilly said. “It’s a relief that all the hard work paid off. We all want to break that [silver] streak. We’re all trying to go for the gold.”

“For everyone, this was a long year,” said Hansen, “but you have to focus on how it can be good. Our team took did everything possible individually to come back strong. The foundation we are starting from this year feels different—stronger, more purposeful. Everyone knows how to win.”

* Paralympic coverage brought to you by Hydrow.

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