BY CHIP DAVIS
PHOTO BY LISA WORTHY
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More than 20 rowers in the current pool of athletes training to win medals for the U.S. at the 2024 Paris Olympics are on track, according to recent test results and USRowing’s Chief High Performance Officer Josy Verdonkschot.
“Our best pairs are solid,” but the group “still needs to improve on small-boat skills,” Verdonkschot said. “We’re making improvements. People came back in better shape than they were before.”
Verdonkschot presented a schedule of benchmarks at the USRowing convention in February, including—but not limited to—representative 6,000-meter and 2,000-meter erg times for stages of development determined by years from an Olympic-podium performance. November, December, and January erg times posted online showed more than 12 men and women on track for Olympic medals in Paris 2024 and Los Angeles 2028.
A heavyweight male, eight years of preparation away from the Olympic podium, would be expected to pull a 6:23 2,000-meter erg on his way to 5:45 the year he wins an Olympic medal. For a lightweight woman, it’s 7:47 eight years before a 7:00. Open women, 7:19 to 6:35; lightweight men, 6:44 to 6:04.
Published erg-time standards for athletes are “not to cut them but to have goals. You need to have a ladder, steps to take,” said Verdonkschot.
“Right now, we are looking at the top” part of the training group “to determine who are our top people, who could make our fastest boats.”
Following three weeks of “productive training” in Colorado Springs at a high-altitude camp that did not include actual rowing, Verdonkschot took the group to Florida’s Nathan Benderson Park for on-the-water training. When reached by Rowing News in late February, he noted that “tomorrow” would be the first day off for the athletes and that the group’s best 2,000-meter erg scores showed significant improvement across the squad, from the lightweight women (7:00) to heavyweight men (5:43).
The USRowing Winter Speed Order, at the same location from March 2 to 5, serves as the first step in a journey to the Paris Games that will be nonstop for the top rowers, occurring fewer than 16 months before the first races of the Olympic regatta in July 2024. Erg times and performance at the speed order and selection camp will determine who gets put in the boats that go to Europe this summer for training and racing.
“You have to look at how to build a team with the greatest chances for medals,” Verdonkschot said. “Can we build a straight four, men’s and women’s, that is fast enough for the podium”—as well as a women’s quad and men’s double.
“We have to be realistic,” in the pursuit of Olympic medals, the veteran coach added. “A medal is a medal.”
USRowing will make selections for six of the 14 Olympic events through open trials (men’s and women’s singles, doubles, and pairs). The trial winners still will need to qualify for spots at the Games at the World Rowing Championships in Belgrade, Serbia, in September or at a last-chance qualifying regatta in Europe next summer.
The Olympic Events National Selection Regatta, to be held April 25 to 30 in Chula Vista, Calif., offers winners in the six events the chance to race in World Rowing Cups this summer. Crews that succeed there can go to the Worlds and qualify for an Olympic spot.
Selection for the remaining eight Olympic events will begin at a camp in Chula Vista after the NSR, followed by training and racing in Europe this summer. The men’s and women’s eights are the most likely landing spots for any current college rowers good enough, in the eyes of USRowing selectors, to represent the U.S. in Paris next year.
USRowing hasn’t won a senior world-championship race since 2019 and didn’t harvest a single medal from the 2021 Tokyo Games, although both eights finished fourth, each less than two percent off the medal pace, following active inquiries into coaching methods while the crews and coaches prepared for the Olympics.
USRowing hired Verdonkschot at the end of December 2021, which is late in an Olympic cycle shortened a year by Covid. U.S. elite rowers were in limbo for half a year, forced to train at clubs and assembled only for camps and selection events. Have they been able to adapt to such a system? Rowing News asked Verdonkschot.
“In all honesty, yes. Everybody is open to following this and working together.”
In some ways, this year is a trial run for next year’s Olympic preparations. Verdonkschot calls himself a creature of habit who tries out everything to make sure it works and then repeats the process if it does. “It’s not one-size-fits-all,” he said. “That’s why we test it.”
For now, it’s going well. But there’s still not enough money. Some of the high-performance clubs have resorted to renting shells. It’s hard to hold down a job when you’re away so often, and training schedules have to give way sometimes to remote-work schedules.
A group of 52 aspiring Olympic rowers receives monthly stipends of $1,000 or $2,000, depending on recent achievements. Six Para rowers have been allocated $750 per month under a similar—but not equal—funding scheme. It’s not enough to cover just the rent where most of these rowers train, places like the Bay Area, Boston, Philadelphia, New York, and Austin—when they’re not traveling, at a training camp, or selection event. The time away from the home clubs they’ve chosen is significant.
Verdonkschot tries to reduce costs for the athletes and clubs by picking up the tab for hotels and meals. He’s also tailored this year’s schedule and competition locations to cut down on travel expenses.
“Last year, I was a stupid Dutchman,” he said, staging selection events in Florida and New Jersey, to which athletes had to travel and move boats after having traveled and moved boats for training camps for the speed-order and selection regattas. This year, the training camps are paired with the selection events, and “we pick up the bill” for the invited Olympic-event athletes, Verdonkschot said.
Training and doing pieces together give athletes a more realistic sense of where they are in terms of speed, as opposed to doing just a single speed order and NSR, during which a particularly bad (or good) day can create an impression that’s inaccurate.
“The athletes have the feeling of training together,” said Verdonkschot. The sight of a couple dozen singles and pairs on the water at once, doing 3x2Ks in flights on the Nathan Benderson Park course, “was fun to see.”
Now comes the first of many hard parts: figuring out which rowers or scullers should go in which boats to yield the greatest chances of winning the most Olympic medals possible.
“That’s true,” Verdonkschot said. “Lots of choices to be made.”