BY ED MORAN
PHOTO BY PETER SPURRIER
VIDEO BY ADAM REIST
Sitting on the Lake Bled finish line moments after finishing his first race in a senior World Championship, Andrew Campbell, Jr. looked up from his boat to the results board to see that he had just edged Italy’s Pietro Ruta by a heartbeat, and had advanced directly into the lightweight single semifinal.
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After the win was confirmed on the big screen, the look on Campbell’s face went from what appeared to be a complete surprise, to one of complete satisfaction. “I looked up and I saw the results and I thought, hey, I beat that guy,” Campbell said after the race.
Later that week, Campbell crossed second in the semifinal to Denmark’s Henrik Stephansen and then wrapped his 2011 campaign finishing fourth in the final. At that time, Campbell was a bit of an unknown in the world of senior lightweight rowing, and everything he was doing was still new to him.
He had by then already marked his name as a competent racer on the world circuit, winning a bronze medal in the junior single in 2010, and another bronze just before that 2011 World Championship at the Under 23 Worlds. But his career on the senior level was just getting started, and Campbell was enjoying every moment of it.
“I’m having fun,” Campbell said that week. “And a lot of this is that I’m young, and I’m not putting limits on myself. I think people who spend too long in the boat, who race for a long time in the boat, can start to put limits on who they can beat, and what they can do, where I’m coming into these races not knowing anyone, and no one knows me. And essentially, I’m operating without limits.”
That week was the beginning of an eight-year career as a senior lightweight rower in which he would go from being a young and relatively unknown 19-year-old from New Canaan, Conn., to someone easily recognizable in the world rowing community.
During that time, Campbell would have success and disappointment, including missing qualification for the 2012 Olympics at the last chance qualifier, to earning a place in the lightweight double final with partner Josh Konieczny at the 2016 Olympics.
Through all those moments – which included flipping his single in the quarterfinal of the 2014 World Championships in Amsterdam – Campbell held onto that youthful hope and spirit and saw every race as a chance to learn something new about rowing, about himself.
This summer, at the 2019 World Rowing Championships in Linz, Austria, Campbell’s run came to a crashing end when he and partner Nich Trojan finished 15th overall in the lightweight men’s double, and did not qualify the boat for the 2020 Olympics.
Sitting in the shade of the grandstands on the venue in Linz, Campbell, now 27, began thinking he did not want to go forward with his career.
Qualifying next spring would mean another 10 months of hard training, possibly with a new partner, and certainly, a very slim chance that the boat could be successful enough at the Final Olympic Qualification Regatta to row in Tokyo with only two spots open. “I just didn’t know if I wanted to go through that,” Campbell said. “I’m wasn’t sure what I could gain if I would find some new level of enlightenment.”
Campbell left Austria and went back home to Chicago, where he has been building a career as an algorithmic trading researcher in Citadel’s quantitative strategies business, a career he is enjoying. He had plans to row the champ single at the Head of the Charles and defend the course record he set in 2014, a record that still stands, and a race that he counts as one of his most memorable competition experiences, right up there with making the A final in Rio.
But the night before he was supposed to race in Boston this fall, Campbell tweeted to the world that he was not coming, he said he needed a break, and would be back next year.
He still intends to row the Charles next season, but the doubts that were haunting him in the boatyard in Linz could not be shaken. Last week, Campbell looked back on that day and talked about his decision to end his international career – and the years he had spent happily rowing without limits.
“That was a rough one, there was a lot of stuff kind of coming to a head,” Campbell said in an interview that covered his time as an international athlete, his plans for the future, and how he has found closure.
“Last year was a long one, and this past year more than ever, I’ve had real forces kind of pulling me in all different directions, namely the career thing. I was coming back in the lightweight double and had a new partner. It was like a really hard-fought year, and I could see the writing on the wall at points.
“Our odds were so slim with all the spots (in the lightweight double Olympic program) being cut, I just felt a lot of things pushing against me, and to have it finally be over was this huge relief in some sense or a really momentous reckoning.”
What it really amounted to was the end of a long career.
“I came back and contemplated getting back in the boat (for the Head of the Charles) and it just wasn’t happening. I feel a sense of closure now, the sense of closure I needed. I had lost the will to keep fighting at that level.”
When Campbell left Rio after the Olympic final in 2016, he wasn’t completely sure that he would make another run or not. But after some time, he felt that he needed to find out.
As he has done in past cycles, he went back to the single to begin training, and in 2018, he raced the single at the World Rowing Championships in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, and won his second senior bronze medal. The result was enough to move him forward towards another Olympic run, and back to Boston, where he had rowed as a Harvard lightweight, to find a new partner and begin training.
After a brief, informal camp in Boston with some of the other top lightweights in the country, Campbell decided on Trojan as his partner. They won trials, a place on the 2019 US team, and a chance to qualify the boat for Tokyo. But nothing about the spring racing was pointing to an easy qualification.
They were significantly challenged at trials, and at World Cup II in Poznan, Poland they finished third in the C final. They went back to Boston and tried to find their speed, but it just never really came together.
“The coming back part was hard,” he said. “I had a great performance at age 24 (in Rio). Athletes are supposed to peak in their late 20s, and it felt like my story was not done yet. There was definitely some room left to grow. I felt I should come back and give it a shot to kind of test out and see where my real limits lie. I finally kind of figured it out.
“I trained super hard for two years, and I sort of know I didn’t make the kind of progress I thought was possible, and that maybe I did peak in my mid-twenties.
“And that’s OK,” he said. “In some sense, I could control that, and to some extent, I couldn’t. And so, I found a real sense of closure, knowing I had played everything out to its logical conclusion, and knowing that as it stood, my odds for making it to the next Olympics were slim to none.”
And so, with his decision made, and this difficult year behind him, Campbell, is looking forward to building his career, and maybe finding some other sport to stay fit for, and then rowing in “fun races.”
But he has no regrets about leaving international competition.
“I am 100 percent satisfied,” Campbell said. “It was awesome. I enjoyed every minute of it and looking back, I don’t know really know how it all happened. I don’t know how I, of all people, ended up rising into this leadership position in the American rowing scene because I feel like I was just this random kid who was only the fifth-best in learn to row.
“It’s hard to point to towards any specific point in time when I turned a corner, it just seems so surprising that this kid, who was like the fifth best guy in the learn to row, wasn’t making the A quad, and who had to row the single by himself because he was the fifth guy. I honestly can’t even tell you how it happened, but I am glad it did. It took me to a lot of cool places, I met a lot of awesome people I would have never come across had it not been for rowing.
“I just feel so fortunate that I was given this shot to compete at that level.”