BY CHIP DAVIS
PHOTO BY PETER SPURRIER
Josy Verdonkschot was named chief high performance officer by USRowing in late 2021 and begins the job as the boss of Olympic rowing for the United States at its lowest point in history. Disappointed by a two-medal performance at the Rio Olympics in 2016, some members of the fractured USRowing board of directors called for staff firings, while others resigned in response to the board’s continued dysfunction.
When the dust settled, about a third of the board had resigned, several administrators and coaches had retired, resigned, or were fired, and USRowing went through three different acting CEOs, multiple lawsuits, and attracted no major sponsors. The U.S. Olympic rowing squad arrived in Tokyo for the 2020 Games (held in 2021 because of Covid) with high hopes and expectations but came home with zero medals—its worst result ever.
Verdonkschot led The Netherlands’ Olympic rowing efforts in Tokyo, winning five medals (a gold, two silvers, and two bronze) and tying New Zealand for the most. If Verdonkschot can lead the U.S. squad to Olympic gold in any of the 14 Olympic boat classes, he’ll become the first coach to do so from outside the U.S. collegiate rowing community.
Many of the best Olympic-level coaches in the world—Kris Korzeniowski, Mike Spracklen, Igor Grinko, Hartmut Buschbacher, Tim McLaren—have come to America after winning gold coaching rowers from other countries. But none of them was able to coach the U.S. to first place in an Olympic regatta.
It’s a tall order; only the U.S. competes without the benefit of direct government support, and relative to mainstream professional sports, Olympic rowing has a much lower profile in the U.S. than it does in the countries that top the medal table. Universities, schools, and junior crews dominate competitive flat-water racing in the U.S. In Australia, New Zealand, and Europe, it’s mostly well-resourced and organized club systems that develop the athletes who win Olympic medals.
In August, following selection camp for most of the crews that will race in the penultimate world rowing championships in September, a year before the all-important qualifying Worlds and two years before the Paris Olympic Games, Verdonkschot spoke with Rowing News and laid out, in an open, direct manner, his plans and expectations for U.S. Olympic rowing.
You were hired as the new chief high-performance officer. Please tell us what that means. What’s your job?
Well, I’m the CEO for high performance. Simple as that. So I’m in charge of the plan, and I think about the future and the present—I think about now and the results. I try to act more or less as a combination between a technical director and a head coach, which means that I do think that I can have an added value also when we talk about how to train, how to row.
So, it’s a combination. On one hand, it’s executive. That means lots of the things that have to do with selection procedures, discussions with the USOPC [the Olympic committee], the planning of selection camps, training camps, athlete facilities—stuff like that. So getting things organized in a good way for the athletes and then making the team work well together with the staff.
In your January and May letters to the U.S. rowing community, you mentioned “a thorough roadmap” that is “coming together.” How will you turn the great strengths of American rowing into Olympic gold?
That is a heavy question, because the U.S. has had gold. It’s not that I think that I’m now working in a Third World country or, from a rowing perspective, a developmental environment. However, the way things were organized seemed to me much more like a one-year system than a quadrennial system. So long-term planning is one aspect. And if we talk about long-term planning in general, one has to start with athlete development, because I think if you want to build a system, you have to think about your resources.
A major resource would be athletes. There are enough athletes in the United States, but retaining those athletes and finding the best athletes, that’s not something that you can rely on the system to do by itself.
The second thing is, if I go around and I see, for instance, the structures of some of our great collegiate institutions, they are no comparison to the infrastructure of the National Team. So I think we should build our own home and not just be kind of vagabonds that go from one place to another and have no real home base. So that’s the second part.
And then be as smart as one can be in applying science, because rowing is, in a way, not so complex, the rowing motion, et cetera. However, the human body is. Then also the propulsion of a boat is, and I think that we could be much more intelligent in how we train and how we monitor. So I think those would be the three major areas: athlete talent ID and development; infrastructure; and applying support science in basic areas like physiology, strength and conditioning, nutrition, technique, sports psychology.
Right now. there are many dots, but they are not connected, and connecting them means making facilities and services accessible to athletes and having the right athletes and doing it in a way that’s also economic. Not just running around the country but bringing people together for certain times and building on a common philosophy. That should be my added value.
Selection camp has just concluded. How good is this year’s squad? What can American rowers expect from their National Team?
If you look at the squad, 50 percent of the athletes more or less who competed in Tokyo are on the team, but not all of them had a straight path from Tokyo to here. Most of them have either a job or academic constraints. So on one hand, we’ve got a nice pool of athletes who are experienced. On the other hand, for this first year, I think that you should assess where your options are.
You should try also to find new people. Basically, there were 40 people in Tokyo, spares included. I think 19 more or less are still in the system. Of those 19, about 16 are selected right now. If you do the calculation, that means about one third of the team is experienced. On the other hand, two thirds of the team are new people. Can we expect some medals? I suppose so, because that’s why we do it. However, to me, the most important thing is this—that we are not pointing at one certain boat class right now. We are pointing at individuals. I want to bring this new generation in a quick march to Olympic level.
That means that we’ve got quite a large group. I count on the fact that we will get some medals. I would be totally satisfied if we got four medals in Olympic boat classes. I would be happy with three medals in Olympic boat classes. I look in silos, so we’ve got men’s sweep, women’s sweep, men’s sculling, women’s sculling, and that includes the lightweights. I think our best shot would be, right now, for the next Olympics, one medal in women’s sweep, one medal in women’s sculling, and then maybe a second medal in either or in one of those two, and then one for the men’s sweep. Sculling—I would be happy with some results that can be compared to what one would say would be Olympic qualifications, so that would mean top-eight spots.
That’s the ambition right now. I would be happy with 10 crews in semifinals, top 10. I would be happy with eight crews, top eight, which in an Olympic year would be qualification. Then, down the line, three or four medals. That would be very nice and that would be, more or less, a reflection of where we are. And I do not right now see the superiority of being sure that you can get a gold somewhere. However, I think we still have got some weeks to finalize preparation. For now, in my mind, there’s three levels. Medal candidates, I think we would have maybe five boats that could get onto the podium. And then you’ve got the 50-percent rule. Some will, some won’t. That’s why I get to three or four medals. And then we’ve got what I would call “competitors”—people who will qualify for the Olympics but in order to be a competitor for the medals would have to improve. That would be another four crews. Four plus four. And then, finally, four crews within range of qualification. So that would be, out of 14 Olympic boat classes, 12. That would be a maximum result, because the U.S. didn’t qualify 12 boats for the Olympics.
For now, the silos that should already be competitive for medals would be women’s sculling, women’s sweep, and men’s sweep. And then men’s sculling, I want to use the start of this cycle to bring enough young guys and experienced guys together to have at least two boats of men’s sculling in semifinals.
There’s always two ways of explaining stuff like this. I do not mind if the results are better. So if I say that somebody is top-eight, I do not mind if they win. However, from a longer perspective, I’m looking right now at what international developments are, where people are focusing and where they’re not focusing, where our strengths are, and then trying to find the best solution for next year’s [Olympic] qualification. I’m not spreading my chips all over the table but focusing. In order to assess what our options will be next year, we have to have a feel for where we are. That means we should compete and that we should not be competing in C or D finals, because while that is good experience for the individual athlete, our ambition is a medal-winning result at the Olympics in at least two or three silos.
You’ve got different boats and boat classes in those silos, and I want to support all four of them. I always look at lightweights as part of the heavyweights because in a way it doesn’t really matter—sculling is sculling. But looking at those four, in men’s sculling, we definitely need to qualify at least one boat, hopefully two, for the Olympics. So you have to assess where we are this year. For the other silos, we have to prioritize, but now is too early.
If we have a brilliant singles sculler or a brilliant pair, that I don’t mind. Right now we’ve got two solid singles scullers with Ben [Davison] and with Kara [Kohler], but looking at the system, for me, the most interesting is the choice between straight four and eight, the choice between quad or double. Those are the interesting choices that we have to make later on. That’s why we have a broad team that we have selected, and in the selection, there has been a priority. So that means that women’s eight is selected before the straight four. Men’s eight is selected before the straight four. The men’s double didn’t qualify, so the quad for the men is selected out as the best people, and then, at the trials, we get, hopefully, the numbers five and six.
For women’s sculling, it’s a little bit more complex, but I think that we’ve got a very solid double now with Christie and Sophia, and with Kara and the single. I’m interested in the distance of the younger girls in the quad with the international field. It’s not playing chess. It is just a way of making sure that you’re competitive, and then at the end of this year, be able to make a choice and strategy for Olympic qualification.
Your successes in Tokyo coaching The Netherlands were mostly sculling boats, and the U.S. is traditionally a nation where everyone rows in eights. So how will you succeed here?
It might be that there has only been success in the eight and there hasn’t been success in the other events, if you exclude single people like Gevvie [Stone], or Michelle Guerrette [Olympic silver-medal winners in the single in 2016 and 2008, respectively]. So there is something solid in the system, and one should not think that everything has to be different.
It’s not a sin to get a gold medal in the women’s eight or the men’s eight. However, if your ambition is higher, in number of medals, it is too simple to say, “If I take those eight people and I put four of them in a straight four, two in a pair, and two in the double, I’ve got more chances for medals.” That’s not true, because average level in the single is higher than the average level in the double, just because of the fact that the average of one top person is higher. If you put Number 1 and 2 together, your average goes down. If you put Numbers 1, 2, 3, and 4 together, your average goes down.
So there are two things: We should not disregard the eight, and we should focus on individual development. Look at the Germans. To make the eight, they put in their fastest pairs. What you can tell there is that development of individual skills and small boats can go together with rowing the big boats. And it’s like we did in Poznan [World Rowing Cup I] and Henley [Royal Regatta], we rowed the small boats. So two pairs and one four rowed together in the eight. That meant that they had a lot of time learning new skills, and/or individually developing in the small boat and then put it together in the eight.
It’s not that I’m the guy who knows it all. I think that my assets or my added value should be that I’m experienced enough to recognize the good sides of U. S. rowing, and what I want to apply is an integration of building on the base but also building on individuals and not just building on the big boat as a kind of a presupposition.
Look at the last four Olympic golds—women’s eight, women’s eight, women’s eight, men’s eight. So there’s a lot of experience in that area. I should be aware of that and involve those people and make sure that we do not disregard the quality that we know the American system has.