You have a decision to make. You’re in fourth place. There’s three feet of open water between your bow and the stern of the lead boat in your race. The wind is turning the course you’re on into a choppy mess. There are only 250 meters to go to the finish line, so if you’re going to make a move, you’ve got to make it now. Oh, and it’s the world championships.
Your question is not, “Is it possible to win this race, to make up an entire boat length–and then some–in 250 meters?” Your question is, “Is it possible for you to win this race?”
Steve Peterson, the head coach of the Indiana University women’s crew, is trim and clean-shaven. He speaks easily, with a rhythm that brings a sense of steadiness to the conversation. In 1990, in Australia, he found himself in that boat, in fourth place at the worlds with 250 meters to go. He was rowing the men’s lightweight double with Bob Dreher, representing the United States.
The two men bounced between fourth and fifth place for the first 1,750 meters of the race. Crews from West Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands were ahead of them as they approached the finish line. Then, in front of a roaring grandstand, Peterson and Dreher seemed to teleport themselves and their boat through the three lead boats and, in the last stroke of the race, edged out Germany for the gold medal. “We just had to stay clean through the water,” Peterson said, demurely, after the race, his brown hair being tossed by the wind that had made the race course so challenging.
Now, 26 years later, Peterson has the same smile, the same easy-going voice as the younger version had in the 1990 race recap, but his focus is on the Indiana Hoosiers, and bringing them to the decisions they have to make during the races they seek to win.
“Success is really just a matter of choices,” he says. “Yes, in practice, for two or three hours you have to give 110 percent, but it’s during the other hours of the day when the choices you make can have a big impact on your success. Can you eat better? Can you hydrate better? Can you get better rest? To be the best in the country, you always have to do more.”
When Peterson took the helm of Indiana women’s crew in 2003, being the best in the country wasn’t yet on the horizon. “I was hired to come develop the women’s program,” he explains. Peterson rowed as an undergrad at the University of Rhode Island, then, as he was training for—and making—the men’s national team, he coached at his alma mater, then at Rutgers University and George Washington University. He was on the national team seven times, culminating in the 1996 Olympics in Athens, where he took ninth in the men’s lightweight double sculls.
“The first four or five years I was at Indiana I probably made some mistakes,” he says. “All the nuts and bolts were in place. We have amazing support from the athletic department. We have a near-perfect body of water to row on. We have a fleet of Empachers and a new boathouse. But to successfully compete at the Division I level, you have to find the right student-athletes for your program.”
Peterson grew up in Rhode Island and spent the first part of his life on the East Coast. “I was using my East Coast contacts for recruiting and it wasn’t the best thing for the program. Then I talked to one of the IU [Indiana University] soccer coaches. ‘You’ve got to own your backyard.’ he said.” Peterson pauses, remembering. “I learned that I had to focus on the kids in my backyard—those within a four to five hour drive of campus—to really be successful here.”
The women’s crew at Indiana started as part of the co-ed club team in 1983, along with the men’s club team, but was converted to a varsity sport in 2000. In 2003, when Peterson took the helm, they hadn’t yet gained the momentum of a major varsity powerhouse. “I had to understand the Midwest, the Big-10, and Indiana in general,” he said, as we talked about what has made the program steadily grow in the Big-10 conference standings. In his first season as head coach, the crew had as many wins as they had had in their first three seasons as a varsity team, combined.
“When recruiting experienced rowers, we focus a lot on small boat race experience and don’t rely just on erg scores. Don’t get me wrong, erg scores are important. But we can train people to be fast on the erg.
“I learned that I had to focus on the kids in my backyard—those within a four to five hour drive of campus—to really be successful here.” – Steve Peterson
What we can’t train is successful race experience.” He pauses here, and I wonder if he ever thinks back to that gold medal race he had in Australia, nearly half his life ago.
“Most importantly, whether we’re recruiting experienced rowers or novice walk-ons, it’s really about finding good athletes—finding the right athletes—the athletes with the right attitude and work ethic. The training program is here, what we look for is a motivated, dedicated student.” He smiles. “Most people in this sport are willing to work hard in practice. But the races are won and lost when no one’s looking, when the athlete is struggling, getting knocked down and nothing seems to be going their way. When things go wrong, that’s when they have to decide if they’re going to let everything derail them. It’s about identifying the kids that take ownership over their successes and their failures and are willing to learn from them.”
Peterson’s approach to coaching seems to mimic his approach to the last 250 meters from the world championship race all those years ago. “I don’t want to make it sound like my job is some deep thing,” he laughs softly, “I’m just a rowing coach.” After a long pause, he adds, “Hard work wins.”
I ask Peterson about the difference between coaching East Coast schools and coaching at Indiana. “The Midwest is very different. The people just get so fired up and excited about IU. Everybody is very invested in each other. We have a motto here, ‘The Spirit of Indiana: Twenty-four sports, one team. Indiana Athletics.’” He weighs his words. “There’s a real sense of family here. So much is done on campus to get the athletes—from all of the teams—interacting together. Football, track, rowing. On the East Coast, I felt we were a little more in a bubble.”
Peterson tells a story from his time coaching at George Washington. “When I was in D.C., I’d stop for coffee and be in and out of the coffee shop in two seconds. Here, in Bloomington, I have to plan 20 minutes. The people in the store want to know how the team is doing.” There’s a fondness in his voice, for the present. “It’s actually really wonderful. You have to get used to it, but I love it.”
I ask the inevitable question about his experience rowing as a lightweight rower, and how that has translated into his coaching. “It has definitely shaped the way that I coach,” he says. “I talk all the time about efficiency. Efficiency in the rowing stroke, efficiency in their training, efficiency in the way they juggle classes, practice, everything. Whoever does it better is going to win. My experience as a lightweight really influences what I do here. We look for efficiency in training, in the schedule, and in trying to maximize everything the rowers are doing.”
But the real work Peterson has done has been to evolve what was once a college rowing club into a varsity crew that is now a force within the Big-10 Conference. Indiana has been a member of the Big-10 Conference since 1899, competing against Michigan, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Penn State, and Nebraska, to name a few of the other conference member schools. He talks about the evolution of the team this way, “That was one of the things maybe I underestimated. I knew it was a young team, I knew it had just gone varsity, but it was far from being what the program has become.”
Peterson’s crews have, in the last two years, placed 15th and 11th in the NCAA championships. The tide is rising. I ask him about his future at Indiana. “I came here to build a successful collegiate program for the long-term. I think we’re getting there. The boathouse has three phases of development; two are complete. The new erg room and offices will be completed in the next couple of years, and there’s an additional $1.7 million renovation underway [for the athletic facilities]. The school is really supportive of what we’re doing. I think the sky’s the limit for us. And we still have a lot of work to do.”
Peterson has earned awards for his own coaching and for the work of his entire coaching staff (in 2014, he earned the Division I National Head Coach award and his entire staff won the Staff of the Year award). “Four years ago, our top boats broke into the top 15 [of the national rankings] and that’s when the success really started. My staff has always done a phenomenal job. But as we got faster we started to get all of those awards. I’ve had a bit of turnover since then, but I’m very excited with the staff we have now.”
His coaching staff has indeed changed since then, but, with a look at his current roster, one can see how his athletes have taken to his style: this year, three of his former rowers (Olivia Gagliemotto, Samantha Clifford, and Madison Treser) are volunteer assistant coaches for a statement of loyalty.
“Is there one specific rival you think about in your preparation?” I ask.
“That’s a hard one,” he answers. “There are a bunch of different rivals. Wisconsin is a great program—similar to ours—with a lot of really hard-working women there.
“The biggest thing for us as a team, and for me as a coach, is that if you want to go faster, you have to work hard.” – Steve Peterson
Michigan and Ohio State, they’re on top right now. We’ve closed the gap a lot, but I think we look at everyone in the Big-10 as a rival.”
The Hoosiers received their first invitation to the NCAA championships in 2014 and raced to a 10th place finish. In 2015, they again were invited back, and again, they placed 10th.
Whether or not his rowers know about his come-from-behind gold medal finish all those years ago, he seems to coach them as if they do. “It’s all about the base work,” he says. “It’s all about the preparation, the ‘building up.’ If you automatically just win, you’re missing out on something. Bobby Knight once said, ‘Everyone has the will to win, it’s the will to prepare to win that’s most important.’” Somehow, I’m not surprised that this East Coast transplant who has sunk down roots in Indiana inserted a quote from Bobby Knight into the interview.
“Every stop along the way has been important to my development,” he continues. “Each year, we sit down with the athletic department and talk about the good and the bad, and each year we’ve made progress. It was the same way with my rowing. It took me four years after college to make my first national team. Here, if they’re seeing improvements, they’re very, very supportive.” He slows a bit. “I knew it was going to take some time. We’re going to get there. It just may not happen overnight.”
Peterson has coached club teams, varsity teams, and national teams for both men and women. He took the conversation down a new path when I asked him about the next speed factor for his crew.
“Having the attitude of an elite athlete,” he starts. “Having the attitude that no matter how much you do, there’s always something more. So many people want to know, ‘Have I done enough to get into the varsity eight? Have I done enough to win the Big-10?’ Our athletes train really, really hard. I am so proud of everyone on this team and I wouldn’t trade any of them. They do a lot of work, but the next idea to mature is, ‘What else can I do?’” And it’s here that this man who so closely resembles his younger self with the gold medal around his neck in Australia comes back to his starting point. “Success is really just a matter of choice.” He makes it sound so simple, even when he spends every day seeking that next level for his program.
“Athletes, especially the younger ones, think all they have to do is work hard in practice. They say, ‘What do I have to do? OK, then I should win.’ I don’t think there’s that exact list.” He spins it another way. “The biggest thing for us as a team, and for me as a coach, is that if you want to go faster, you have to work hard. You’re going to have failure, and that’s the best teacher—if you treat it that way. The one common denominator is you’ve got to do the work.
“Martina Navratilova was once asked why she was so successful. She said, ‘I know how to lose.’ You lose, you learn from it. You move on, you get better.”
Peterson’s career has stretched across four decades. I ask him if he’d change anything along the way. “I don’t have any regrets,” he says. “I look at all the years of experience I’ve had the chance to get—the national team, the coaching, being a part of the high-performance program with USRowing.” His words stay light, but there’s a depth behind them. “Maybe I would have made decisions to get here a little faster, but then maybe I wouldn’t have learned some things.”
Peterson’s laugh surfaces again, as it has before, and he chuckles at himself. “I don’t know if it’s the East Coast-Midwest difference, or if it’s just that I’m getting older and have more experience. As a younger coach I yelled. A lot. I yelled, ‘We’re going to win.’” He stops and lets a long beat pass. “Now I say, ‘Let’s make sure we have a good plan, work hard, and then let’s see how fast we can go.’”