Team USA made history in rowing World Cup III in Lucerne, Switzerland, in mid-July. On the lovely, calm waters of the Rotsee, eight U.S. crews won medals — three golds, three silvers and two bronzes. And the U.S. tallied enough points to win the entire regatta as a country.
One of those crews was a women’s lightweight double scull powered by Kristin Hedstrom and Kate Bertko. The two only began rowing together in May. For Bertko, the silver medal around her neck was confirmation that her decision to change from a heavyweight rower to lightweight was the right one.
The 29-year-old from Oakland, Calif. made the decision a few months after not making the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team — “a pretty formative experience,” she said. The boat she was striving to make — the women’s quad — won an Olympic bronze medal in London. She spent the summer and fall pondering her strengths and weaknesses and questioning what she could change.
Part of the problem was her size. At 5’9”, she is short for a heavyweight rower (who are typically over 6’ tall). And she struggled to maintain weight. Most female heavyweight rowers weigh between 160-180 pounds.
“When I really was working hard at it, I could get a little over 155,” Bertko said.
Maybe she should try rowing lightweight, she thought. But that would mean dropping 20-25 pounds. A lightweight crew must average 125.67 pounds (57 kilos), and an individual rower cannot weigh more than 130 pounds (59 kg).
For most people, losing that much weight can be a struggle. For Bertko, she simply stopped trying to gain weight. She also began to consider her diet as part of her training.
“Thinking about food as part of my performance and part of my recovery, it really helped me early on make very healthy choices,” she said. “I would try to optimize my performance through nutrition.”
By this spring, she had to buy new pants in a smaller size.
As she neared lightweight status, she had no idea how her rowing speed would compare to other lightweights. On the ergometer, she was rowing 10-15 seconds slower over 2,000 meters than in her heavyweight days. But she had no idea how this would translate out on the water. She called Hedstrom to let her know that she had shifted her focus to lightweight, and the two chatted about possibly rowing in the double — the only lightweight event for women on the Olympic program.
Hedstrom, 27, had rowed the lightweight double with Julie Nichols in the London 2012 Olympic Games, finishing 11th. After the Games, she went home to Oakland, took time off and wondered if the rowing bug, which first bit in 2000 when she was a high school freshman in suburban Boston, would bite again.
In late April, both women entered the first National Selection Regatta (NSR) in single sculls. Bertko wanted to practice an official weigh-in without “messing it up” for anyone else in the boat. (Lightweights must weigh-in before their events. If they do not meet the weight limits, they are not allowed to race.) Then she went out and won the lightweight single sculls final, beating Hedstrom by a whopping 13.29 seconds.
“That solidified our decision to try the double together,” said Hedstrom.
In NSR #2 in May, Hedstrom and Bertko won the lightweight double sculls final and qualified to compete in a world cup.
Asked what makes the boat go fast, the two women credit each other.
“Kristin makes it easy to row the boat,” said Bertko. “There’re not a lot of complications in matching up. She knows really well how to match a stroke. That’s almost 90 percent of the issues you can have in a double.”
“Kate is super strong, and she’s a really hard worker,” countered Hedstrom. “She’s someone who is going to put her head down and do the work no matter what. I take a similar approach, but she is inspiring that way.”
They also constantly think about what changes they can make together as a team to make the boat go faster. But as they rowed this summer, they never knew exactly how fast. Training on the Oakland Estuary, they were either rowing with the tide or against it.
“It’s not like we could look at our times and go, ‘Oh yeah, we’re going to be competitive,’” said Hedstrom.
They headed to World Cup III in mid-July knowing that they had to finish in the top four to qualify for the 2013 World Championships, scheduled for Aug. 25-Sept. 4 in Korea. It was their first international race together, and there were 13 other crews vying for a world championship berth.
After winning their heat and the semifinal, Hedstrom and Bertko quickly changed their goal to “let’s go win this thing.”
And they almost did. They led for half the 2,000-meter final. Then the Italians matched their stroke rate and moved through them to take the win.
They now know what to improve and will head to worlds as medal contenders. But neither Bertko nor Hedstrom is thinking that far. Hedstrom’s best finish at worlds was a silver in the lightweight quad (a non-Olympic event) in 2010. Her best finish in the lightweight double is fourth in 2011. Bertko has a silver medal from 2009 worlds in the women’s quad (a heavyweight boat).
“Everyone brings a fast race to the world championships,” said Bertko. “You can’t discount anyone. But I feel really confident in what we’re able to do. I’m really excited to race again, and that’s the most important part.”
If they do win a medal at worlds, it bodes well for the next three years leading to the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. Other U.S. results from World Cup III also bode well for the upcoming world championship races and on to Rio.
The men’s eight won gold for the first time at a world cup since 2008. The women’s eight, powered by several women in their first international competition, set a world record en route to a gold medal. In fact, nine of the 31 U.S. athletes who stood on the podium were rowing in their first international regatta, including men in the four that also won gold.
“The team right now has a really positive vibe — the men and the women,” said Eleanor Logan moments before accepting her silver medal in the women’s single sculls, her fourth medal in the world cup series this year. Logan won two Olympic gold medals in the women’s eight (in 2008 and 2012) and began competing in the single this season.
“The future looks really good right now,” Logan added. “We all know it’s 2013 and Rio is a ways away, but this is a good base layer.”
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.