Coxswain Peter Cipollone celebrates Team USA's 2004 gold medal in the men's eights, which the 2012 edition would like to duplicate
Crossing the finish line first came as a relief.
In April, when the U.S. men’s eight rowing boat won the Final Qualification Regatta — a race that has taken on the daunting moniker “Regatta of Death” since it was a do-or-die Olympic qualifier — it successfully ended the long, unexpected journey needed to clinch the boat’s berth in the London 2012 Olympic Games.
Had the United States, which placed a disappointing eighth in the 2011 world championships, missed the Olympic Games, it would have been the first time in 100 years that the United States had not fielded a men’s eight boat in the Games.
The relief, U.S. rower Ross James said, did not last long.
When the men who row the eight boat returned home from that regatta in Lucerne, Switzerland, they wasted little time celebrating, opting instead to get back on the water.
“We had a job to do and we did it,” James said. “We were happy about that, but as soon as you put the boat away, back in the rack and you get home, the next task is we have a race on July 28, and that’s all we’re thinking about right now.”
July 28 marks the first of eight days of rowing competition in London. Men’s eight coach Mike Teti said he would use the time leading up to that date to deduce the optimal configuration of athletes in the boat.
Needing a win at the Final Qualification Regatta forced Teti to select his final team earlier in the year than he normally would. Typically, the team would have already qualified at world championships and the final selection would be announced sometime in June.
This year, U.S. rowing announced the roster on April 30. While Teti knows who will be rowing, he said he has not yet decided where they will be sitting. He might not make the call for several more weeks.
“It’s all trial and error,” Teti said. “Hopefully (I’ll know) sooner than later, but we’ve come up where I’ve switched guys, literally, the last week before the race. I don’t have a timetable.”
In Teti’s words, rowing “is not an exact science.” The coach likened managing a lineup in a boat to managing the batting order of a baseball team, a task requiring persistent tweaks motivated by individual performance or simply a coach’s intuition.
Although content with the result produced in Switzerland, Teti said if the boat mirrors its performance from Lucerne in London, the United States will not get what it wants — an Olympic medal.
Team USA placed third in the men’s eight in Beijing in 2008 and claimed the gold medal in Athens in 2004, ending a 40-year gold-medal drought in that event.
“If we’re at the same speed that we were over there, I don’t think that that’s a medal,” Teti said. “But I think there is time to make improvements. I think we’re doing that right now.”
Less than three weeks after earning a spot at the Olympic Games, the men’s eight boat was working on distance and endurance training. The rowers will ramp up the pace gradually to competition grade as July 28 approaches. According to Teti, the team has to be cautious about returning to speed without wearing out the athletes.
Part of ensuring the team trains properly involves the coach handing over the reins. Teti, who is also the coach for the University of California, Berkeley rowing team, previously had been in charge of the entire U.S. men’s rowing team. However, on June 1-2, Teti took the Golden Bears to the Intercollegiate Rowing Association National Championships in Camden, N.J., and entrusted the U.S. men’s rowing team to Men’s Open Weight Head Coach Tim McClaren in San Diego.
However, McClaren, who remains coach of the men’s program, first invited Teti to return as coach of the men’s eight for London. U.S. Rowing Director of Coaching Education Kris Korzeniowski also adds to a coaching unit Teti praised as a collaborative effort.
All three men have experienced the high of coaching Olympic champions. Where the men’s eight is concerned, Teti said he has a cerebral team he can see improving by the day.
The coach said dutiful training and technical improvements can help the team make the medal stand, but another factor has to be mastered. Three of the rowers have Olympic experience, but the rest will get a blunt introduction to a platform unlike any other.
“We’re used to racing in the early morning in front of nobody,” Teti said. “Now you’re going to be in front of 50,000 people and you’re going to be on worldwide television, so it’s a bigger stage. They’re just going to have to step up to the plate.”