BY CHIP DAVIS | VIDEO BY ADAM REIST
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As final selection camp for the 2023 U.S. National Team gets under way in Princeton and Lake Mercer, N.J., from June 26 to July 16, the Olympic future looks bright for Team USA. The U.S. won eight medals—seven in Olympic events—at World Rowing Cup II in Varese, Italy, in June.
Returning to Princeton from Varese, Josy Verdonkschot, USRowing’s chief high performance officer, allowed that he’s “pretty satisfied” with the results.
“If this is the direction we are taking, I cannot complain.”
Verdonkschot has good reason to be pleased. The eight-medal haul is the best showing for the U.S. at a World Rowing Cup event since 2013, during the 11-year undefeated streak of the women’s eight.
It’s remarkable also for what it didn’t include: eights. The U.S. didn’t enter a big boat for either the weak men’s event or the even weaker women’s—which featured only three crews. Five world best times were set at Varese, but the winning times of the eights were furthest from the gold-standard times of any of the 14 Olympic events. Great Britain ruled the men’s sweep events, winning the pair, four, and eight. The best women’s eights—Romania and The Netherlands—took a pass on Varese, with the Dutch sending only a development squad.
“I got a positive feeling about where we are, especially if you look at the events we competed in,” said Verdonkschot. “So I think we can look at our targets now about qualifications and about medals. Eight would be a nice target, nine would be great.”
In accordance with published selection procedures (necessitated by lawsuits against USRowing whenever the national governing body names the Olympic rowing team), the women’s pair of Alie Rusher and Megan Musnicki, the men’s double of Sorin Koszyk and Ben Davison, and single sculler Kara Kohler all earned spots on the U.S. National Team for September’s World Rowing Championships by virtue of having won April’s national-selection regatta and performing well (basically by making the grand final) at the Varese World Rowing Cup. All seven athletes went to the California Rowing Club after Varese to continue preparing for Worlds and, ultimately, the Olympics.
For Kohler, who has won sculling medals in both the Olympics (quad, 2012) and world championships (single, 2019), it’s a return to form after a 13th-place finish at last year’s worlds.
“I’m very happy for her,” said Verdonkschot of Kohler’s renewed success and training with California Rowing Club. “She’s happy in the environment where she is right now at this moment, she prefers this road. So I support it.”
While the three boats that have earned their places on the team already have gone back to the California Rowing Club, many of those who will make up the rest of the squad will be from CRC. The men’s four that won a bronze at Varese is three-quarters CRC oarsmen. Verdonkschot will select a final lineup that might be the same four oarsmen or might feature a change or two. The two athletes not selected for the four will join the group of about 16 being considered by Steve Gladstone for the men’s eight in the first week of final selection camp.
All six of the CRC oarsmen in last year’s fourth-place U.S. eight were invited to the final selection camp, as were CRC’s Justin Best and Michael Grady, who won the petite final as the U.S. at last year’s worlds. The top 11 pairs and five eights at this year’s worlds will qualify for the Olympics. In total, 12 of 32 male invitees to the selection camp are officially from the California Rowing Club, while others like Yale’s Nick Rusher and Brown/Cal oarsman Gus Rodriguez have trained there.
CRC operates out of the Ebright Boathouse at the T. Gary Rogers Rowing Center, home of the University of California, Berkeley crew. Former U.S. Olympic coaches Mike Teti and Tim McLaren, along with Skip Kielt, coach a small group of aspiring rowers at what became, after the Tokyo Games, the de facto men’s Olympic training center when USRowing neither retained Teti nor announced a clear plan for elite rowers until Verdonkschot came to the U.S.
“You really got to credit the Rogers family, because after everything kind of shut down, they said, ‘Hey, let’s keep it going,’ and these guys all wanted to come and they stayed, so it was good,” said Teti.
“We’re trying to help these guys achieve their dreams. That was Gary Rogers’ whole reason for starting the club. As he always used to say to me, ‘What I’m supporting is the dream.’”
The late Gary Rogers was a Cal oarsman who tried to represent the U.S. in the 1964 Olympics in the four.
“They were having a hard time. They couldn’t get a coach. They didn’t have a place to row and they didn’t have a boat,” said Mike Teti. “Gary swore that if at some point he became a person of means he would support anyone who wanted to try out for the team.”
Although Rogers, a successful entrepreneur and philanthropist, died in 2017, his family continues to support the California Rowing Club.
Among those not selected for the eight could be enough oarsmen who can scull to put together a competitive quad to be coached by Kris Korzeniowski. Only the top seven quads at this year’s worlds qualify for the Paris Games, with two more Olympic spots up for grabs at next summer’s aptly named Final Olympic Qualification Regatta. The men’s pair and single will be determined at the trials at the conclusion of the camp.
On the women’s side, Sophia Vitas and Kristi Wagner have been selected already to be the double on the strength of their World Rowing Cup performance, when they missed victory by only seven one-hundredths of a second, but they still must go through the trial since they didn’t win the April NSR. They also finished seventh in the quad in Varese, doubling up with the other U.S. women’s double of Emily Kallfelz and Lauren O’Connor, who were fifth and join the pool of athletes at final selection camp, where the quad will be selected by Guenter Beutter.
The lightweight women’s double of Molly Reckford and Michelle Sechser also won silver in a fast and tight World Rowing Cup final, but aren’t necessarily the U.S. crew for worlds because they didn’t race as a double at the April NSR. Mary Jones Nabel, who has the unfortunate distinction of being one of three world-class lightweight scullers when there are only two Olympic seats, is believed to still be in the mix for selection. For the men, there are four good lightweight scullers who have yet to put together a medal-winning double.
The women’s four of Molly Bruggeman, Kelsey Reelick, Madeleine Wanamaker, and Claire Collins set a World Rowing Cup best time in winning the Varese World Rowing Cup and won’t face further selection, Verdonkschot said. “Well, I mean, they’re the best in the world.”
Verdonkschot wanted Princeton coach Lori Dauphiny or Washington coach Yaz Farooq to coach the women’s eight, but neither was available this summer, so Jesse Foglia, head coach of the USRowing Training Center–Princeton, will handle the duty.
Since being hired by USRowing in December 2021, Verdonkschot has done it his way, developing world-class sculling and small boats from the remains of the U.S. National Teams of the last two years, which failed to win a single medal at the last Olympics or achieve victory at worlds. It’s a stark departure from the eights-first approach not just to the Olympics but practically all rowing in the U.S.
“A medal is a medal,” Verdonkschot has said repeatedly. “My job is to put the best athletes in the best positions to succeed.”
Verdonkschot’s lowest-hanging-fruit approach to winning Olympic medals by putting the top U.S. rowers in the weakest events now coincides with a slow period in international eights. With the exception of Great Britain’s continuing dominance of men’s sweep rowing and fast women’s eights from The Netherlands and Romania, the eights fields have little speed and no depth. Defending Olympic women’s-eight champion Canada has been adrift since inexplicably not retaining the services of coach Michelle Darville (now with The Netherlands), and the Canadian men’s eight is also relatively slow so far this year.
Verdonkschot’s strategy, California Rowing Club’s continuing development of elite rowers, and weak eights fields have come together at the right time for the U.S. to qualify at least eight boats and win medals at the 2024 Paris Olympics.
“We cannot presume that everybody stands still,” warned Verdonkschot, “but we also have to presume that we will get better in the final preparation.”