Failure to Invest

    USRowing has failed to create the conditions that make it practical and appealing to train to be an Olympic champion. How bad is it? Winning any Olympic medal will be a step up and success for the biggest, richest, and greatest rowing nation on Earth.
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    The U.S. National Team rowers and coaches who will become the U.S. Olympic Team in 2024 performed relatively well at this year’s Worlds. It was more than a step up for USRowing—every decent rowing country steps up in the pre-Olympic year—it was a solid qualifying performance overall, with 10 boats earning places in the 2024 Paris Games (surpassing USRowing’s 2020 Toyko count of nine), five silvers and two bronze medals won, and nine crews in Olympic-event A finals, a favorite measure of USRowing head coach Josy Verdonkschot.

    But the drought continued. Among the 29 Olympic, Paralympic, and international events offered at the senior World Rowing Championships every year, USRowing hasn’t won a single one since 2019, including a medal-less Olympics in 2021. The men’s eight failed to qualify for the upcoming Olympics, a disastrous result for a rowing nation of eights that won five golds in nine years from 1997 to 2005 on the men’s side and every World Rowing Cup, World Rowing Championship, and Olympics entered for 11 years, 2006 to 2016, on the women’s.

    “Qualifying just six men [the pair and the four] for Paris is absolutely atrocious,” said Séan Colgan, an Olympian, gadfly, and former donor. “There should be heads rolling, but the merry blind train of USRowing trundles down the track to nowhere.”

    “Qualifying just six men [the pair and the four] for Paris is absolutely atrocious,” said Séan Colgan, an Olympian, gadfly, and former donor. “There should be heads rolling, but the merry blind train of USRowing trundles down the track to nowhere.”

    As the current iteration of USRowing, led by CEO Amanda Kraus, approaches its fourth calendar year and a complete Olympic cycle (because Covid shortened the current one), it’s too late to fix the system before the Olympic regatta begins outside Paris in July 2024. It’s also getting late to create the training infrastructure required to do better in America’s LA2028 Games.

    Asked immediately following the men’s eight final at Belgrade whether money was the problem, Verdonkschot replied, “There is a difference between spending and investing, you understand?”

    Verdonkschot is right. Although there are plans, investment in the infrastructure needed to attract, train, and develop Olympic medal-winning athletes hasn’t been made by USRowing. It’s the key difference between today’s U.S. National Team and those successful men’s and women’s eights from the glory days; those crews were full of athletes with stable training support, jobs, and sustainable living situations. As Tom Terhaar, USRowing’s most successful coach ever, said at the time, “We have everything we need to be successful.”

    Many of today’s Olympic hopefuls, particularly the men’s eight, came home from Worlds unsure of what was next, or even how the boat that has to go to the Final Olympic Qualifying Regatta in Lucerne in May will be selected, and whether it will include trials. (At the time of publication, the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee had not approved an official process.)

    Verdonkschot has a well-thought-out, scientific plan, as he always does. And the hard-working, dedicated athletes who follow it will win almost certainly at least one medal in Paris, an improvement over USRowing’s Tokyo oh-fer. But for the biggest, richest, greatest rowing nation on Earth to be regarding the winning of any medal–even a single one–as a step up and success, signals the continuing failure of USRowing.

    Excellent examples of what USRowing’s Olympic training infrastructure should include can be found on the campus and at the boathouse of just about any NCAA Division I (women) or IRA varsity (heavyweight men and lightweights) university with a rowing program–plus many of the DII, III, and club rowing schools. Full staffs of professional rowing coaches, always available physical therapists and trainers, strength- and mobility-training facilities, fully prepared healthy foods, psychological support, career-development services, dedicated work spaces, comfortable housing, and fleets of professionally maintained shells and equipment can be found at universities from Boston to Seattle, Austin to Madison, and everywhere in between—but not, once they’ve left college, for the athletes of USRowing.

    Unique among competitive Olympic nations, the United States does not provide direct government support to its Olympic teams, nor does it provide universal health care, which puts U.S. rowers at a disadvantage before they even reach the starting line.

    “We are light-years behind,” said Verndonkschot, of USRowing’s Olympic training infrastructure. And he would know, having coached—and won—all over Europe before taking the USRowing job two years ago.

    “They’ve got full-time athletes. They’ve got full-time staff,” said Verdonkschot about Great Britain, The Netherlands, and Italy. “They can train every day. They don’t have full-time jobs. And they’ve got scientific support. The Dutch have got three physiologists who are in contact daily with the athletes and make sure they follow the right program, which they are monitoring all the time. So yeah, the difference is (a) availability and support for the athletes and (b) scientific support.”

    “So yeah, the difference is (a) availability and support for the athletes and (b) scientific support.”

    Rather than complaining, Verdonkschot is building, with the support of USRowing and the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC). He’s cobbled together modest stipends of about $2,000 per month for a core group of Olympic hopefuls, gained trust and buy-in from a handful of high-performance clubs, including California Rowing Club, New York AC, Craftsbury’s Green Racing Project, ARION, and Penn AC. This winter, he’ll take them back to Colorado Springs for high-altitude training before setting up at Nathan Benderson Park in Sarasota for training and selection camps around a February Speed Order and April’s U.S. Olympic Trials.

    “We’re working on it, but we cannot change it in one year. We need training centers that are fully supportive for the athletes. There’s enough money in the U.S., and there are enough people who want to support [training centers], but without infrastructure, you’re just spending when you should invest,” said Verdonkschot. “Bringing people six more weeks somewhere is helpful only if the other 46 weeks are well-organized.”

    Verdonkschot is making sweet lemonade with the lemons he’s been handed by USRowing. While athletes training for Olympic victory in leading countries like Great Britain and The Netherlands have private chefs tending to their nutritional needs while they train, Verdonkschot had a refrigerator installed in the back of one of the boat bays at the Casperson Rowing Center (shared with the local junior program) so U.S. Olympic aspirants can consume protein from the milk cartons and snack-wrapped cheese stocked for that purpose. It probably provides 80 percent to 90 percent of the benefit of the squad’s having a proper kitchen and meals, as do top U.S. college programs at the universities of Washington (connected to Connibear Shellhouse) and Texas (Texas Athletic Nutrition Center). But at the Olympics, where the U.S. men’s and women’s eights each missed medals by less than one percent at the Tokyo Games, having less than 100 percent of the training resources of the top countries yields predictable results.

    Practically the entire U.S. National Team racing at this year’s Worlds in Belgrade rowed in a top U.S. collegiate rowing program. Of the 30 athletes in the men’s and women’s pairs, fours, and eights, only two-time Olympic gold medalist Meghan Musnicki didn’t row at either an IRA varsity or NCAA DI program. She rowed at Division III Ithaca College, which competes regularly at the NCAA national championship.

    None of the 4.3 million Americans who erg at least once a month, and none of the athletes posting insane workouts, including ergs, at the 5,000 CrossFit gyms in America are pursued and cultivated by USRowing. Which means it all comes down to the college rowing community, with which USRowing, under its current leadership, has a deteriorating relationship.

    This is not the first time USRowing has gotten sideways with the collegiate rowing community. In the 1980s, when the major collegiate regattas got their insurance coverage through the national governing body, USRowing’s administration at the time tried jacking up the fees, claiming it was because of rising insurance costs. The regattas happened to have insurance professionals among their volunteer corps, however, and they were able to secure better, cheaper coverage, prompting the regattas to leave USRowing.

    Current Intercollegiate Rowing Association commissioner Gary Caldwell is a veteran of all this and worked hard to bring USRowing and the top regattas he administers, including the IRA National Championships, Women’s Sprints, the men’s Eastern Sprints, and the National Invitational Rowing Championships, back together with USRowing for mutual benefit.

    The regattas got insurance, group-discount memberships for thousands of college athletes, and supported the national governing body’s growth and development in key areas like safety and governance, while USRowing got a significant amount of money at the beginning of every year to run the association and avoid cash-flow crunches.

    Caldwell was duly elected to USRowing’s board of directors and served as its treasurer during the period when the association’s paid membership doubled (and included a subscription to this magazine). Before current CEO Amanda Kraus was hired the IRA paid USRowing a lump sum for basic membership for all its athletes so that the association could qualify for USRowing insurance coverage. This was approved by the IRA stewards despite there being no parallel program in existence for any other college sport.

    But when it came time to extend the relationship, newly empowered CEO Kraus insisted on full-rate payment for all 7,000 college athletes, which the IRA stewards rejected, instead directing Caldwell and staff to seek alternatives in the open market, which they subsequently did. As a result of the same my-way-or-the-highway style Kraus demonstrated in breaking up with the National Rowing Foundation, USRowing now has no formal relationship, official connection, or required membership with any of the collegiate rowing bodies, IRA, NCAA, or ACRA.

    Building infrastructure requires money, and a huge part of the job of USRowing’s chief executive is bringing it in. That means building a different kind of infrastructure—relationships—and tending them wisely so they aren’t scuttled by a single conflict. In this realm of competence, Kraus’s report card reads: “Needs improvement.”

    Her leadership has left behind lasting damage and embittered members of the rowing establishment who will continue to wield power long after she’s gone.

    “There are oarsmen out there,” said Steve Gladstone, the winningest coach in college rowing history who coached the men’s eight last summer. “There have to be people in USRowing that do what Mike Teti did for years, which is visit the university rowing programs and sell the [Olympic] program.

    “Kris Korzeniowski did the exact same thing for years, and we haven’t had that of late. This means not only the Division I programs, but look at the content of the Olympic eight that won the gold medal [in 2004]. It was [club athletes from] Oregon State, Ohio State, Virginia.

    “There has to be a concentrated effort to recruit these people. You can’t just assume they’ll come to us. There has to be some warmth, there has to be outreach, and that’s what the Brits, the Aussies and New Zealanders do; they’re visiting. One guy, two guys, three guys make a huge difference in the outcome of races.

    “I find it hard to believe that in this country, they’re not there. They are there. They know there’s a National Team, but there’s no face to the National Team.

    “There’s no individual who says, ‘This is who we are, this is what we do, this is what you can expect.’”

    “There’s no individual who says, ‘This is who we are, this is what we do, this is what you can expect.’”

    After her quarrel and split with the National Rowing Foundation, Kraus founded the USRowing Foundation, which meant the rowing community had two competing charitable foundations, though still no major sponsors. The donors to eachhave been incredibly generous, and every dollar given to rowing makes the sport stronger and eventually better.

    How much the top donors have ponied up and for whom is telling. While they showered tens and even hundreds of thousands of dollars on USRowing and its directed funds, the biggest donors, such as the Rogers Family Foundation, Bill McNabb, and the McLane Family, gave millions—10 million in one case—to the universities they support. In other words, orders of magnitude more than what they gave USRowing.

    Most of the rowers winning Olympic medals in the 21st century have been training at the top level for years, often across multiple four-year cycles. U.S. college athletes, on the other hand, often take an “I’ll do this for a couple of years after college and then get on with my life” approach. Following disappointing but respectable fourth-place finishes at the Tokyo Games, about half the rowers in the U.S. men’s and women’s eights left elite rowing. The men’s eight in particular was young, and the athletes of both crews had plenty of remaining potential.

    “If all those guys continued [training at the Olympic level], if you’re able to keep these guys in the sport, they could row three more Olympics,” said Mike Teti, who coached the 2004, 2008, 2012, and 2020 U.S. men’s eights. “Anyone who has a smidgeon of talent, you want to keep them in the sport as long as possible. People give up on things like sculling too soon.”

    But getting rowers who are accustomed to the amenities and stability of collegiate rowing to stick with the uncertainty and lack of professional-level support of Olympic rowing in the U.S., especially while their peers from Ivy and other top-tier schools are going on to grad school, careers, and families, is a tough sell. Not winning makes it even harder. Their coaches’ impressions of how USRowing runs the national teams doesn’t help, either.

    “It just seems so slapdash. I don’t even know who the National Team coaches are,” said one Division I women’s head coach.

    “It just seems so slapdash. I don’t even know who the National Team coaches are,” said one Division I women’s head coach.

    The U.S. Olympic squad led by Josy Verdonkschot will almost certainly win one medal at the Paris Games. But to win the kind of medals a host country should at LA2028, he’s going to need more and even better athletes. Plenty of athletes with Olympic potential row in the United States today, but USRowing has yet to create the infrastructure and appeal for enough of them to make and keep the commitment required to be a medal-winning Olympian.

    “Rowing is not a sport where one can create a success during summer break,” Verdonkschot has written. “In order to be successful we need to accept that it is a long process. From identifying athletes, building those athletes, and retaining them within a professional training environment for six to 10 or more years, with the necessary medical and scientific support as other nations have.”

    A less direct but also harmful split between USRowing and the college rowing community involves the summer rowing- camp industry. At many colleges, summer camps are a way for coaches, especially assistant coaches, to earn the money they don’t get paid by their employers by using college facilities to run lucrative camps. The camps serve the further purpose of giving junior rowers a taste of the collegiate rowing experience while coaches get a look at potential recruits.

    Stealing a page from U.S. soccer’s playbook, USRowing started “Olympic Development Camps,” using the Olympic name to convey the false impression that they had a connection to the Olympic team. The ODP camps were, and continue to be, a tremendously popular and profitable venture for USRowing, with one director bragging, “We make more than $1,100 off of each kid!”

    But not a single camper has made the Olympic team, nor is there a reasonable likelihood one ever will. The youth summer camps USRowing operates generate much of the $4,491,081 and $4,745,062 in “Programs” revenue listed for each of the past two years in the USRowing annual report. The USRowing Youth National Championship regatta, with its $70-per-seat fee generating an estimated $280,000 from juniors at just that one regatta, plus admission tickets—and six USRowing-owned regional qualifier regattas, are not only terrific regattas, they’re pretty good business, too.

    All well and good, except that USRowing seems to be feeding on rather than nurturing junior rowing. Meanwhile, there are no wins and declining membership, yet money for more staff.

    According to CEO Amanda Kraus in her regular podcast, “The Swing of Things” (featuring, mostly, Amanda Kraus), the budget for the entire National Team is $4.5 million a year, with $1.9 million of that coming directly from the USOPC. The annual report boasts of a $1 million gift for the National Team and more than $2 million in additional gifts.

    So where does all the association’s money go? The annual report lists only seven line items for the $14.3 million in total expenses for 2022. Insurance gets $1.7 million, and personnel accounts for $4 million. “Travel & Meetings” is $3.2 million, “Programs & Events” is $4.3 million, with the rest categorized as “Professional Fees (non-program)” and “Facility & Equipment.”

    The budget is roughly break-even, which is an accomplishment for a nonprofit close to financial collapse even before Covid, when furloughs reduced the staff to only five. Today, USRowing’s website lists 41 names and positions in its staff directory.

    While membership in the non-profit, member-owned association now numbers “more than 75,000,” per USRowing’s website, it was 85,000 as recently as 2017. Add to that the medal draught, and the organization’s recent performance doesn’t stack up well against a previous board’s “members and medals” mantra.

    And why should it? It’s not the current priority. That would be “Experience, Inclusion, and Performance,” as announced in August when USRowing unveiled its strategic plan, which came with three PDF slide decks comprising 97 pages.

    There’s no debate that the sport of rowing in the United States has plenty of room for more participants from different backgrounds. How to attract them, on the other hand, can be debated endlessly. Some things that work include direct-outreach programs like Community Rowing, Inc.’s “Let’s Row” and Great Britain’s Performance Development Academies, which require no prior rowing experience.

    Winning, of course, is the ultimate attraction in sports. Tiger Woods and Simone Biles became the faces of their sports by doing just that. But USRowing—our sport’s national governing body with sole control of the Olympic rowing team—is doing none of it.

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