BY CHIP DAVIS
PHOTO BY STEVE HALL
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Mike Wallin wins championships. As an oarsman, the Chicago Rowing Foundation head coach rowed at Philadelphia’s St. Joseph’s Prep, winning the Scholastic Rowing Association of America’s Championship three times, and then matriculated at Cal during Steve Gladstone’s coaching reign. Wallin racked up three wins at the IRA National Championships and served as team captain, graduating in 2003. He’s been at CRF for 17 years, and this year coached the girls’ eight to their first gold at the USRowing Youth National Championship after being in the grand final the previous seven years. Just six weeks later, he followed that with another gold, coaching the U.S. junior eight at the 2022 World Rowing Under-19 Championships, setting a new world’s best time of 6:12.
What was special about this year? How did you break through for the victory at Youth Nationals?
I think the run of being there, just kind of constantly being there. It was—I don’t want to say an expectation—but something that we were extremely familiar with, and I know every crew is different and every year is different, but when you get into a situation where it’s, “Yep, we were here last year; we know what this feels like,” I think it’s a huge advantage in terms of nerves.
There are two ways to win nationals. There are the teams that kind of catch lightning in a bottle or have this one dream combination of athletes who come together at the same time—the stars align and they win.
Or it’s like a constant battering-ram approach where, “Hey, if we’re not going to win, we’re going to be right there.” We went through that, and I think that really shone through for us in the final, because even if you just look at the last two years, the three crews that were on the podium were the same three crews from the year before [Greenwich Crew, RowAmerica Rye, and Chicago Rowing Foundation], just in a different order. And the three crews that were kind of the odd man looking out were the newbies to the final. And it’s rowing—you’re not really supposed to change much of what you’re doing, whether it’s the San Diego Crew Classic or Youth Nationals, you go out, you row your race. But there’s certainly going to be an extra charge of that feeling we all get in our stomach on the starting line that’s going to be enhanced greatly when you’re in a big, big moment like that.
And if you’re a little bit more familiar with it or kind of expecting it, I just think it puts you in a little bit of a better head space as a crew to not overdo it or come off your game at all. Just go out there and be yourself. I think that really was the way we got it done. And then the other thing is, I credit the USRowing junior system. We’ve had our athletes populating these programs, not just the kids going to Worlds, but the HP, the selection development, the Olympic Development Program, the CanAmMex boats, these kids from all of our different levels, not just our varsity, go out into these programs. They get to compete and row with the better rowers from the better clubs from around the country and get coached by great coaches who aren’t just the coaches we have in CRF. They come back from the summers, no matter what level they were at, just having this extra feeling of confidence. “Hey, I went and rowed with all these kids from this team, and I did great.” Or “Hey, I got coached by this Olympian at this ODP camp, learned a few new things, and just feel better about myself.” There’s just this kind of confidence of “We’re all doing high-level stuff outside of the team. And then we all come back together feeling like we can beat anybody.”
Does travel contribute? You went to the American Youth Cup with this crew and they’d been to Sarasota before, more than for just Youth Nationals.
We live in a very cold climate that’s not conducive to getting the water time that some of the coastal programs or southern programs get. So we started taking a trip over President’s Day weekend in February [to American Youth Cup Series I, at Nathan Benderson Park, which also hosted the 2022 USRowing Youth National Championships]. We’re almost never able to row at that time in Chicago. But it’s the only three-day weekend in that period of time where, “Hey, we can go somewhere, get six practices in over three days.” And that way, when we do get back on the water in mid-March, we hit the ground running. We don’t have as much of that first week of remembering how to carry a boat and putting your oars in—the stuff that people who are off the water for four months tend to struggle with. And especially when we’re going out into that cold weather, it’s really nice to skip over that and be used to rowing a boat.
And then it was off to Under-19 Worlds in Italy, where you had the best race possible. What was that like?
Oh man, it was great. The biggest difference was last year we had a week off between Youth Nationals and [Worlds selection] camp, and we also had two extra weeks of camp to prepare for Worlds. And we won last year as well. So that went well. But this year, we flew from Sarasota to Chula [Vista, Calif.], and just kind of dove right into the camp process. That first week, we’re not really seat-racing or anything. We’re just teaching and seeing who’s coachable and evaluating the skill set of the athletes and seeing who rows well together and taking notes on each athlete. And then we jump into some selective procedures.
But from the jump we knew we had a really special collection of kids there. We had returned eight or nine women from the previous summer, and that in no way guarantees you a spot on the team, but it does guarantee starting off with some really high-level kids. The [quality of the] athletes we got in general and from the programs outside of the returners was heightened as well. You can just feel the energy, and we had a lot of confidence from how well the team did the previous summer in Plovdiv. So I was really happy with the crew that I had selected and felt really confident that if we had our piece, no one was going to touch us.
Switching to you personally, you came up through arguably two of the greatest rowing programs, The Prep and Cal. And now you’re leading a very different and new approach to junior rowing than you experienced.
I spent my career rowing mostly in eights, and these are team boats, so it’s hard to talk about your own personal impact in a boat like that. I just feel like I was very fortunate to be in two programs at a time where they were in the middle of putting up dynasty runs, winning championship after championship. And that was a big part of why I was so engaged in the sport. Winning races and winning them at the top level of high school or college, you just feel extremely satisfied with the work you’ve done, and then more motivated to do it again the next year. And with the grind that we all know rowing can be, I wouldn’t say it makes it easier, it just makes it a lot more satisfactory, a lot more enjoyable, a lot more energy toward repeating it again. And I think it certainly builds self-confidence, not just in rowing, but myself. The guys I rowed with, both at The Prep and at Cal, you talk to these guys, pretty much every one, to a man, thinks he can do whatever he sets his mind to. And if you look at the spectrum of different careers that we all have, we’ve backed that up for the most part.
And then in terms of coaching, that gives me nothing but an array of examples and drills and situations to, I don’t want to say replicate, but draw from in a way that I know what to do based off of where we were and the way we approached the season. Most rowing coaches start off, and oftentimes stay with till they’re done, trying to do what their coach taught them. I don’t think trying to be a carbon copy of your coach is a very good plan, but it’s certainly helpful to have a long list of things that I can go back to and say, “Well, this worked, and here’s why.” I’ve talked to a lot of coaches who’ve come up through CRF and other places and just had the conversation where they’re driving home a point from their past rowing experience. And they’re trying to say, “Hey, did this work when you were rowing?” And if the answer is no, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s wrong, but it’s certainly worth maybe thinking outside the box a little bit and being open to something else.
What’s your take on junior rowing today? It’s the CRFs, the Marins, the Greenwich Crews, the Sarasota Crews that are really putting out the fastest and best crews, whereas 20, 30 years ago, it was individual, typically private, schools putting out those top junior crews.
There’s been a shift for sure. There are more clubs than there were, and the clubs are centered around the rowing team. When you have a well-organized club that’s a solid business, has hired great people, and everyone who comes to the club is choosing to come there, it’s not like you’re just at school and this is your option. You are actively pursuing and looking for this. I think that sets you up in an environment that, if it’s handled and led well, is very conducive to producing results.
There are plenty of schools out there that can compete with the clubs, or in some situations, have advantages over clubs. I never felt at St. Joseph’s Prep that we were disadvantaged because we were a high school. There are other high schools with over 5,000 kids that care about their sports teams across the board and are very supportive of the student-athletes.
At schools with a big population and great athletes, a lot of the kids are there not only to be good students but also for athletic purposes. So it’s totally doable. The schools just need an administration that wants to hire and staff a great group of people to teach these kids and make it a priority to put them in a position where the effort they put in is going to translate to the result they deserve.
What do you see for your future?
I’m hoping to keep doing what I’m doing. I love leading the rowing team. I love the confidence that we’re building in these kids and the life lessons we’re teaching them through the work and through the pursuit of lofty goals. I remember being at that age, and it’s kind of the first time when the “everybody wins, everybody gets a trophy” stuff starts to fade away. It’s still high school, it’s not the Olympics or anything, but you start to get these real results of, “I didn’t do my best work today, and that’s why I’m not having what I want here at the end,” or, “Wow, I can really see how I put in the time and how I really prepared myself for this situation and that’s why it worked out.” Or even a situation where you did the work and someone else was a little bit better than you and understanding how to process that and move forward.
I really feel great about helping kids understand these scenarios and navigate them in a positive way, whether the result is exactly what you want or not. And I feel like that’s something life has taught me, and certainly sports and rowing taught me. I feel like that’s a strength that I have in my life not just in professionally coaching or certainly playing sports but in dealing with situations or going after new challenges. I feel like that same mindset allows you to have a really good shot to be successful. And we see it in the way the kids train and in the way they perform on the race course. And ultimately we see it in how successful our alumni are becoming as people.
Where do you see junior rowing going?
I hope it continues to grow. I’d like to see the top athletes getting more individual attention. That’s something the sport is lacking compared to other sports. It’s something that at the junior level can help grow the sport in terms of getting not just more people rowing but also better athletes addicted to the sport and wanting to be rowers instead of volleyball players or basketball players. That will matriculate up to the Olympic level, if we can do that. It seems kind of foreign in the rowing community to have these standouts, because it is such a team sport. And certainly that’s not going to change. But I remember being a high-school basketball player and people knew my name because I played. People knew my name because I had a big game.
Junior rowers are so off the beaten path, and there are so many special kids rowing. They’re doing great things and breaking records and winning championships and they’re extremely athletic and smart and on their way to great things. I don’t know what the hesitation is or where the hardship is with it, but I would like to see people, not just in rowing, but outside of rowing, beginning to know who these top junior rowers are. That would have a big impact on the sport’s popularity. It would have a big impact on the type of rower we’re attracting.