By Karen Price | Jan. 09, 2020, 6:04 p.m. (ET)
Zach Reider poses for a photo after winning "Milk Life presents, The Next Olympic Hopeful" in July 29, 2019 in Colorado Springs, Colo.

 

A key piece of advice Zach Reider got prior to his first time rowing in open water was to relax.

The boat naturally wants to stay upright, coaches told him, so if you relax and let the oars float on the water you’ll be OK. 

Easier said than done, he soon discovered.

“I think I flipped at least five times,” said Reider, 21, a junior at Quincy University in Illinois. “But I was laughing my butt off every single time. I started to get it more toward the end of the week.”

That Reider, a college volleyball player at Quincy, was on the water in the first place was thanks entirely to his being selected for the sport of rowing during Season 3 of “Milk Life presents, The Next Olympic Hopeful.” He went into the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee’s talent-identification competition, which was broadcast last month by NBC, just aiming to give it his best shot and see where that led, he said.

“They asked me to pick (a sport I thought I might be best at) and I said rowing maybe, because I’m tall and I’ve got the physical strength for it,” he said, “but when it started I had an open mind.”

He ended up being one of six athletes selected to train at a national team camp for their respective sport. The other sports were bobsled, cycling, rugby, skeleton and weightlifting.

Reider grew up in Dardenne Prairie, Missouri, just outside of St. Louis, and always played sports. Basketball was his first love, then when he got to high school he picked up volleyball after his coach told him it would be a good way to stay in shape during the offseason. By his sophomore year he’d dropped basketball in order to focus on volleyball.

It wasn’t something he thought would one day lead him to the Olympics, however.

“I started watching volleyball in the Olympics more once I started getting into it and thought it was so cool, but I never pictured myself being an Olympian for volleyball,” he said. “I was surprised I got a college scholarship to come play here, but I’m enjoying it so far.”

He learned about Next Olympic Hopeful after a buddy sent him a photo showing the information and told him he should sign up. He did, and when he was selected as a finalist his plan was simply to show up, do his best and have fun competing against other talented athletes from across the country. 

Arriving at the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, was, he said, “surreal.”

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“When I got there it was such a different experience, not just adapting to the altitude but being at the training center where the Olympic and Paralympic athletes train,” he said. “It was such a wild experience.”

One of the hardest tests of the competition, he said, involved a series of alternating full-out sprints and rests that left him “gassed” because of the altitude. There was also a cycling test that left him feeling less than 100 percent.

“I went to the bathroom and threw up,” he said. “Of course they wanted to interview me right after. I was like man, I just got done puking.”

As a 6-foot-7 volleyball player, however, tests such as the vertical jump came naturally to him, and then when he was selected for rowing-specific tests his focus was more on getting the technique right on the machine than ramping up to full blast like some of the other contestants. 

To that point, he said, he’d never even been on a rowing machine before, much less in a boat on the water, where he’d end up not long after the competition ended.

Hearing his name called and pulling on the U.S. jacket was awesome, he said.

“It was nice to see the work put in and get that win, in a sense,” he said.

The competition took place over the summer, and participants were limited in who they could share the results with until the television show aired in late December. Reider was allowed to call his parents after the competition, but decided he’d have some fun with it. 

“I got home about 11:30 or 11:45 p.m. and my dad was waiting for me like, ‘So, how’d it go?’” he said. “I was like, ‘Dad, I’m tired. I want to go to bed.’ He got mad, like, ‘I’m your father and you’re going to tell me if you won or not.’ I finally gave in and told him I won.”

They had a watch party with friends and family at their house when the show aired, and that was how most of them learned the news, Reider said.

He even kept it a secret from his teammates.

“I don’t think they even knew I did this over the summer,” he said.

Reider is double majoring at Quincy University in pre-physical therapy and exercise science. He first became interested in the field because he was injured a lot in high school, he said, and in addition to working as a physical therapist he’d one day like to teach at a university as well.

For now, he said, he won’t be training for both volleyball and rowing at the same time because they require such different strengths and abilities. During volleyball season, which is now, he’ll remain focused on that. Then in the summer he’ll switch over. 

Long-term, Reider said he hopes to find a graduate school program that has a rowing program as well, perhaps even in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, where he can be near the USRowing National High Performance Training Center.

Applications are now being accepted for Season 4 of “Milk Life presents, The Next Olympic Hopeful,” and anyone interested can apply at TeamUSA.org/NextOlympicHopeful.

Reider’s advice for anyone who wants to try out is to take a similar approach he did.

“Just go out and give it your best,” he said. “Know what you can do and try to push yourself to the best of your abilities and see where it goes from there. Everyone there has a great work ethic and you have to have something extra to set yourself apart. I thought my heart set me apart because a lot of people have a great work ethic, determination, hustle. You have to have something extra.”

Karen Price is a reporter from Pittsburgh who has covered Olympic and Paralympic sports for various publications. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.