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With Olympic Dreams On The Line, Will U.S. Rowers Survive The Regatta Of Death?

By Peggy Shinn | May 19, 2016, 4:29 p.m. (ET)

(L-R) Craftsbury Rowing Club's Ben Davison, Benjamin Dann, John Graves and Peter Graves won the men's quadruple sculls final at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Rowing at the Nathan Benderson Park on April 19, 2016 in Sarasota, Fla. 

Starting this Sunday in Lucerne, Switzerland, four U.S. rowing crews will race in the 2016 Final Qualification Regatta. The opportunity to compete in Rio at the 2016 Olympic Games hinges on a top-two finish here (top-three for the single sculls).

Some refer to it as the “regatta of death.”

Except for the Craftsbury Green Racing Project (CGRP) rowers competing in the men’s double and the quadruple sculls — two boats that require teamwork and finesse to go fast.

“That would be a little too foreboding and ominous for us to approach [training] for that every day,” said Stephen Whelpley, who is competing in the double with Willy Cowles.

The men in the quad are more irreverent.

“We only call it that so we can laugh at it every now and then,” said John Graves with a smile. Graves is rowing in the quad with older brother Peter, a 2012 Olympian, as well as Ben Dann and Ben Davison.

The trip to “death row” for these six men began over a year ago. John Graves, 28, and Dann, 25, qualified to compete for the U.S. in double sculls last season. They competed in one world cup, then finished 16th at the 2015 world championships (missing Olympic qualification by five places).

Due to injury, a brutal Vermont winter that left ice on Craftsbury’s Great Hosmer Pond until the end of April, and mishandled preparation, the CGRP quad missed qualifying to compete in a world cup or in the 2015 world championships. Instead, a quad from the California Rowing Club qualified and finished 12th at worlds (missing Olympic qualification by four places).

At 2015 worlds, the U.S. qualified boats for 10 of the 14 Olympic boat classes in Rio. In addition to the men’s double and quadruple sculls, the men’s single and eight also missed qualifying for Rio. All six women’s boats qualified at worlds.

“That regatta was really eye-opening,” said Dann, who won a bronze medal competing in the quad in a 2014 world cup, along with the Graves brothers and Whelpley. “I’d never seen competition like that in my life. A lot of people, even the veterans, were surprised at how deep the events were. I think people came there for blood.”

“It went from being three really fast boats to two finals’ worth (12 boats) of top caliber boats,” added John Graves.

Back in Craftsbury last fall, the CGRP rowers decided to select the quad then and let the boat train and gel together throughout the winter — months earlier than the quad’s oarsmen had been selected in the past. Through an athlete-run selection process, Peter and John Graves, Dann and 19-year-old Davison, who is taking a year off from the University of Washington, found their rhythm in the quad.

Although young, Davison has competed at both the junior and Under-23 world championships.

Whelpley and Cowles, who competed together in the double for 2012 U.S. Olympic Team Trials, paired in the double again.

The two crews then had several months to train, and as John Graves said, “become more than the sum of our parts.”

At the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials in mid-April, both CGRP boats won their finals and earned the chance to compete for a spot in Rio at the “regatta of death.”

In Lucerne, the double will face 11 other boats, with the stiffest competition likely from Poland, Serbia and Norway. In the first world cup in April, Poland finished second (behind world champion Croatia). Serbia’s double has rowed together for over four years. And the Norwegian double is stroked by two-time Olympic gold-medal-winning single sculler Olaf Tufte, with former doubles world champion Kjetil Borch in bow.

“Those two guys are thoroughbred rowers,” said Whelpley. “I’m excited to race them.”

“We’ve encountered a new level of focus and commitment,” added Cowles. “I feel very confident that we can put together our best performance, and I’m excited to see what that is. But you can’t be confident that anyone else is going to be slow because they’re not. Everyone knows this is the last opportunity.”

In the quad, the CGRP rowers will compete against six other crews, with the stiffest competition probably from Russia, which won the first world cup this spring. Three of these Russian rowers set a world record for the quad in 2012.

“In order to beat some of these crews, we have to be better than we ever have been and maybe be one of the best U.S. boats that’s ever been,” said John Graves. “The goal is to be something else that isn’t related to what we’ve done in the past, a speed that we’ve never had before.”

Peter added that they have seen glimpses of this faster speed in practice — “Doing that on the international stage is what we have to do.”

Dann said the boat has something rare — “the right minds” working together to make the boat fast.

“You must cherish it when you have it,” he said. “We’re lucky to have it.”

Even Davison recognizes the quality of the boat. “I’m enjoying it while it’s here because it could be awhile before I get the opportunity to be in a quad like this again,” he said.

If these two CGRP crews finish in the top two at the Lucerne qualification regatta, they will face even stiffer competition in Rio. The last time the U.S. won an Olympic medal in the double was 1984, when Brad Lewis and Paul Enquist won gold. For the quad, it’s been 20 years since U.S. rowers stood on the Olympic podium.

At the 2012 Games, the men’s quad did not advance to the semifinals. As for the double, the U.S. did not qualify a boat to compete in that event.

No matter what happens in Lucerne, these six rowers don’t think they will be defined by the result. They have worked hard at the process of making their boats go fast and believe that if they make it to Rio, they can do well there.

For now, they want to enjoy the final qualification regatta as much as they can.

“There’s no doubt that that will be the end of a chapter,” said Peter Graves. “It would be sweet if the last few pages were the Olympic final. But no matter what, it’s a huge process, and the integrity of that process is not necessarily characterized by the result.”

A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered three Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008. 

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Peter Graves