In August 2004, Bryan Volpenhein stroked the U.S. men's eight to an Olympic gold medal in Athens. They led from the gun and finished over one second ahead of the Netherlands. Australia, the defending Olympic champion, was third, and Canada, the two-time defending world champion, was a distant fifth.
It was "a big deal," says Volpenhein, who adds that it was his proudest moment in rowing. For the first time in 40 years, an American eight stood atop the podium.
Four years later, Volpenhein has his eye on his third Olympics. But since the 2004 Games, rowing hasn't been the only activity on his plate. The 31-year-old from Cincinnati took time off to earn a culinary degree and only returned to rowing full-time in May 2007.
But this break from the sport hasn't hurt his chances of qualifying for a U.S. boat headed to Beijing. It's just a matter of which boat - the eight again, a four, or the pair. He'll know for sure by June 27, 2008, when U.S. Rowing's three-month-long Olympic qualifying process officially ends, and the U.S. crews will be announced.
"Bryan is probably our most talented guy," U.S. men's coach Mike Teti says. "Whatever boat he's in, he's going to make that boat better. The smaller the boat, the greater the impact he's going to have."
Volpenhein says he would prefer to row a smaller boat - the four or the pair - partly because returning to the Olympics in a boat other than the eight removes some of the expectations for a repeat performance. He also likes the challenge of rowing the smaller boats.
"The smaller the boat, the more consideration you need to have for your technique from one stroke to the next" he says.
In late April, Volpenhein and Jason Read, who rowed bow in the 2004 Olympic eight, dominated the National Selection Regatta - the first step in the Olympic qualifying process for the pair. They beat the nearest competition by 5.6 seconds - considered a huge margin of victory in rowing. Volpenhein says that winning the NSR puts him in a good position to qualify for an Olympic boat U.S.
Although this will be Volpenhein's third trip to the Games, it will be the first since he put rowing on the back burner in the fall of 2005. He rowed in the U.S. men's eight that won the World Championships in September 2005, then moved to Seattle to attend The Art Institute of Seattle's culinary school, where he focused on French cooking methods.
His interest in cooking developed during his teens when he came home from school and watched a favorite TV show called Great Chefs of the World, a program he discovered one day while flipping through the channels.
"It was pre-Food Network," he says. "They had three different chefs on each show, one preparing an appetizer, another the main course, and the third a dessert. They spoke different languages and cooked in different hotel restaurants in Europe. I was fascinated by it."
But he didn't go straight to culinary school from high school. Instead, he enrolled at Ohio State University in 1994, where he discovered his enthusiasm for rowing. After attending a summer rowing camp in 1997, he was named to the men's eight headed to the World Championships. After that, he left school to focus on rowing and didn't finish his degree - in philosophy - until 2002.
His interest in cooking was rekindled in 2004 when he started preparing Indian meals with his girlfriend. He applied to The Art Institute of Seattle and began the 21-month-long culinary arts program in the fall of 2005. His curriculum included an apprenticeship at Rover's Restaurant in Seattle and a stint at Seattle's Ponti Seafood Grill in a position called "pantry," where he prepared salads, appetizers, happy hour food and a few entrees and desserts. But he's not a chef yet. He has to run a kitchen to deserve that title.
So how did he stay in shape? "I commuted on my bike everywhere I went," he says. "My car would go weeks without being used. I ran a bit, but not as much as I should have. I probably should have been in better shape, but it didn't take long to get it back. If I could go back, I would have lifted more weights."
He graduated last May and returned to rowing. Asked if his teammates show up at his doorstep conveniently at dinnertime, he laughs and says no. But they did benefit from his culinary talents at a recent training camp at Clemson University where they shared a townhouse. "Bryan was cooking up all this salmon and other fish," Teti says. "His cooking was great."
What Volpenhein would really like to do is help his teammates and other rowers learn to prepare healthy, inexpensive meals that will fuel their training.
"I'd like to teach people how to shop and pick out vegetables and meat and whole grains," he says, "and then teach them how to prepare these ingredients in the right way."
Since February, he has provided a monthly recipe - complete with Food-Network-esque video showing Volpenhein preparing the recipes in a kitchen (and yes, wearing an apron) - for U.S. Rowing's web site. Recipes to date include marinated flank steak, quinoa bars, and roasted chicken breast with jalapeno orange butter - all quick and inexpensive to prepare, he claims.
How does he decide what recipes to include? "I go off what I have in my refrigerator," he confesses.
So does Volpenhein plan to retire after the 2008 Olympics and become a bona fide chef? No, he says, "I think I'll keep rowing. If you say you're going to retire after the Olympics, it puts far too much pressure on you."
And if he does win another gold medal, he'll celebrate with his favorite meal: a porterhouse steak, roast potatoes, and a salad or grilled vegetables.
Peggy Shinn is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.