BY CHIP DAVIS | PHOTOS BY LISA WORTHY
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The time has come for current college rowers to decide whether they’re all in for a bid to race at the 2024 Paris Games.
“This early-summer selection camp is like the penultimate, and then the [fall] speed order is the final entry point for people who want to be considered,” said USRowing Chief High Performance Officer Josy Verdonkschot from California, where he’s preparing non-collegiate athletes for World Rowing Cup II, which will take place in Varese, Italy, from June 16 to 18. They’ll head to Europe to train for a couple of weeks before the World Cup, stay a week afterward to continue training, and then return to Princeton and Lake Mercer for selection camp and trials July 27 to 30 on Lake Mercer in West Windsor, N.J.
The rowers from the core group training under Verdonkschot are preparing for the Paris 2024 Olympics differently than previous U.S. National Teams. Verdonkschot has been very clear about his strategy of seeing which Olympic events present the best opportunity for the U.S. to medal, and putting his best rowers in those boats to qualify the U.S. in those events for the Olympics at this year’s world championships. Boats that don’t earn Olympic spots at the 2023 World Rowing Championships must go through the last-chance qualifying regatta in May 2024.
“Anybody who would want to go to the Olympics has to make the decision to take one year off of their studies, basically, because final qualification would be in May. Selection for the final lineups would be March and at the beginning of April,” said Verdonkschot. “So you cannot do that. You cannot wait until the end of the collegiate season.”
U.S. collegiate rowers have long been the staple feedstock of medal-winning Olympic crews—and most of those have been eights. Five of the eight oarsmen in the last U.S. men’s crew to win Olympic gold learned to row in college, and practically every member of the various U.S. women’s eights that won every world championship and Olympics for 11 years rowed in an NCAA program before representing the U.S.
Verdonkschot ruffled the feathers of some coaches during Zoom calls with the U.S. college community when the new boss of the U.S. National Team arrived in America. The Dutchman’s frank and blunt style irked some on those calls, who didn’t appreciate Verdonkschot’s observation that U.S. collegiate programs do little to prepare their athletes for sculling and small-boat rowing—which are 10 of the 14 Olympic events. Of course, that’s not a college coach’s job. Their athletic departments hire and pay them to coach and prepare student-athletes to compete in their school’s collegiate events, raced almost exclusively in eights and coxed fours.
U.S. college coaches are also used to the regular communication and collaboration of Verdonkschot’s predecessors, including Mike Teti, Tom Terhaar, and Kris Korzeniowski, all of whom coached U.S. collegiate programs before becoming U.S. National Team leaders. Verdonkschot has taken a different approach. “Never heard from him,” said one coach of a program that has produced dozens of recent national team and Olympic rowers, more than a year after Verdonkschot assumed his post at USRowing.
But Verdonkschot is not in the U.S. for the benefit of U.S. collegiate rowing—the top end of which is mostly bereft of U.S. citizens eligible to represent the U.S.—even if he alienates it to his disadvantage. He’s taken on the challenge of putting U.S. crews on the podium, not “all kinds of eighth places,” as he recently put it. “I’m the CEO for high performance. Simple as that. So I’m in charge of the plan,” he said in an exclusive Rowing News interview when he first came to the U.S.
So far, Verdonkschot seems to like how the plan is progressing, and the numbers support him. Numerous rowers posted significantly improved erg times leading up to the winter speed order in Florida at Nathan Benderson Park, where they also went fast on the water in small boats. California Rowing Club is responsible for the improvement of most of the top men, and Verdonkschot has made room for them in his plans and made accommodations for their West Coast schedules in the winter training camp at Benderson. At the most recent National Selection Regatta, April 24 to 28 in Chula Vista, Calif., “I was happy with the result. I was happy with the percentages,” said Verdonkschot. “For the rest, we’ll see what comes out of it, because we need to know what our best options would be. Looking at sculling—single, double, quad—what you would want to know is how to prioritize, and that’s a white canvas.”
It’s not that prior Olympic coaches haven’t aimed for the best opportunities for U.S. crews or that the eight has always been the priority boat—the four has been, in some recent Olympics—but never have sculling events and going to Europe to test them been the focus of Olympic preparation, as Verdonkschot is now making them.
The USRowing board and staff leadership set the bar low for success in Paris 2024 by bungling preparations for the last Olympics so badly that no medals were won by the U.S., with both eights finishing fourth, each less than one percent out of the medals. Their coaches had dealt with the concurrent challenges of preparing for the Olympics and being the subject of inquires by law firm Arent Fox, which was brought in to answer complaints about how selection and training were run—a distraction that USRowing CEO Amanda Kraus told Rowing News at the time “we welcome.”
More recently, in her May letter to USRowing members, Kraus crowed about receiving a formal letter from the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) stating that USRowing has addressed all the issues found in the yearlong assessment begun during preparations for the Tokyo Games. How many professionals, not just coaches, wouldn’t be at least one percent less effective with someone looking over their shoulder—the situation faced by the prior Olympic coaches?
Now, just winning a medal of any color in any of the 14 Olympic events will be a success for Verdonkschot, who was hired by Kraus relatively late in the current Olympic cycle, which was shortened by the Covid-delayed Tokyo Games.
In multiple conversations, both on and off the record, Verdonkschot has not once mentioned the compressed schedule as an excuse. He also won’t take the bait of inquiries implying that his program is underfunded. “I do not agree,” he responded flatly to a question about not having enough money.
“USOPC has committed to the same number that they did in the past, and I have committed to a certain level of support for everybody. Not based upon the money we have, but based upon the level they perform. So there’s a group of about 50 athletes right now who receive direct athlete support based upon results at Worlds. This group—obviously there will be people who might drop out or who come in—those people get a level of support that is maybe not what you would want. But let’s say $2,000 a month for everybody who was in the finals last year or top seven or top eight last year in a smaller boat is better than it was in the past. That’s the level that we want to guarantee to the athletes. It’s performance-based and, yeah, I run into a deficit, and that’s why we work very hard to find funding.”
Verdonkschot puts the total cost of supporting an athlete this year at $50,000, half for costs like travel and equipment and half paid as direct athlete support. “That is quite a change compared to the past,” he said. “We are very happy that we’ve got the support of USOPC. We are very happy that we’ve got the support of NRF [the National Rowing Foundation] and the USRowing Foundation, which is also going to be a bigger player in how we can fund everything.
“We cannot pretend that we run a program and not have the means to provide for that program,” continued Verdonkschot. “We’ve got a spring grant from NRF, which was substantial, 400K. There might be a second part to that. Last year, I ran into a deficit with the athlete stipends. We knew that we would run into the deficit and I spoke with NRF to bridge the gap.
“I do think that there’s a lot of good people out there who understand that we just do what we need to do, and they have got this dream, and we’ve got this dream, and you just do what you need to do. If we need to get the money, we’ll get the money.
“I do not make any compromises about the program.”