Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Post Worlds

I've really been wanting to just sit still and write my thoughts out about that last month or so, but I have been constantly in motion since Worlds ended last Sunday. Sometimes, I think its important to just keep moving, not reflect too much, and just continue focusing on the task at hand, but at the conclusion of a massive push to World Champs, I want to make sure I am not just letting myself get sucked into another year without understanding how and why I ended up in the position I'm in. And probably more importantly understanding what exactly that position is. I've touched on this a few times on the blog, but throughout this year and this summer it has been crucial for me to maintain an honest and strong internal dialogue and connection with my personal goals and to not get too discouraged if something went badly or overly encouraged if something went particularly well, I needed to stay even keeled and  in touch with my purpose and my process so as to not get taken off track. Over the years this blog has been the constant that has helped me to stay honest in my pursuit. In this post, I hope to recount our preparation for Worlds, our racing at Worlds, and my perspective looking ahead.

Let me start by saying that working with brother Peter and Ben on this project in the double was a blast. Obviously, having spent so much time in the quad together last year made the dynamic between the three of us feel natural and comfortable. I think Peter did an excellent job melding us together as a double and also preparing us for a very challenging set of races in an incredibly difficult event. I mentioned this in my last post, but training in this boat was very exciting for all three of us because it felt like every day we were doing something faster than we'd ever done and there was an ever-present optimism to our training and approach. We cultivated an attitude and a swagger that we not only could race with the top doubles but we could beat them. Knowing our result now, I do not look back and say that we were wrong, I just think we found out that there incredible depth in the double field right now. I will touch on that later when I get into our racing.

I think this confidence that we kindled was very important and will be very important down the road. Peter made sure that we were familiar with our speed over the full 2k distance and the times we were doing gave us ample reason to believe that we would be up there with the top boats, but making the Final would be as much about our heat draw, rep draw, and semi draw,  not to mention lane draw, as it would be about our raw speed. Before leaving for Florida, we went 6:12 in a light tail by ourselves in Princeton, so we knew that would be flirting with 6:10 with some competition. We were working on being more reserved in the first 500 and then building speed at around 1250 to the finish. There is certainly a risk, especially in the double, to being conservative early, but we had a lot of data to suggest that we were covering the distance faster when we conserved energy early. Ben and I both really like getting our boat out early and can both produce a lot of speed in the first 1k, but it is typically at a cost.  Two weeks before racing started, we did three straight days of 2k time trials on Canal 54 working on our pacing. It was brutally hot and incredibly difficult going out day after day, all alone and ripping off 2k's, but this was a really important segment of race pace work for us. Time after time, we engrained building speed to the line and it felt like we were really starting to cultivate a  lights out last 750. While this was one of the more challenging segments of training I can remember because of the heat, it was also notable and fun because of the outrageous times we were putting down. This was just a few days after Hurricane Irma passed through and as a result there was a bit of flow on the Canal. We broke 6 on consecutive days going 5:52, 5:57, and 5:55. My guess is the current was worth around 20 seconds but it was a lot of fun covering the distance that fast. After these pieces on Canal 54, our hard training was behind us and apart from a couple 500's we would be just doing 8-12k easy rows on the course, getting ready to go.

When the entries came out for Worlds, I must confess we were a little intimidated. While we were confident in our speed, these entries showed us that it was definitely not going to be a typical post olympic year field and conservatively there were three finals worth of boats that had a real claim at making the A Final. I would say that all summer in the back of my mind I was expecting a slightly smaller turnout for Worlds this year. In Korea in 2013, Ben Dann and I finished 10th, but the depth of the event was nowhere close to what it was as the quadrennial progressed, so I expected a similar trend this year. I felt like if we encountered a field like 2013, being in the final and fighting for the medals was within our reach. After looking at the entries, that fantasy disappeared and we realized that it would be very easy to find ourselves in the C Final. The M2x featured the most in tact boats from the Rio Olympics and a handful of other potent combinations. We would need to stay very internal and not get caught up in who we were racing because with this much depth in the field one  thing was certain: some very fast and established boats would be finishing in the C Final.

By the time the Heats rolled around on Monday, Ben and I were so sick of paddling around on the course. Its definitely nice resting and feeling good as you taper before racing starts, but at the same time, practicing at World Championships is literally the worst. Its fun to go down to the boat park, see friends, and shoot the shit, but the rowing itself is utterly miserable. There are hundreds of boats out there training at the same time, waking each other, and my sense is that no one is really enjoying the rowing. It is so important to be able to keep an even keel out there because every row feels bad. The majority of the crews are coming off the water complaining about how bad the row felt, and these are the best rowers in the world! Its so easy to get discouraged by how the boat is feeling and let the bouncy water dictate how you are rowing, but I think the best athletes have a short term memory and just let it go. Ben and I definitely had rows where we were frustrated with how the boat was feeling but I feel like I did a better job than in years past of not sweating the small stuff and assuring Ben that what we were feeling was mostly due to the bounce and less to do with our actual rowing. Ben is only 21, but he has rowed in enough international races at this point to know that I was not just saying that. In our final week leading up to the Heats, we did a couple sets of pieces with the LM4x and also did our fastest flat out 500m piece. We went 1:23.1 which really made us feel like we had ticked off all of the boxes, from max speed to over distance, we were as ready as we were going to be.

Italy, Australia, GB, USA, Argentina. Top 2 to the Semi Final, rest to the Rep. Out of this group, us and GB were the biggest unknowns. GB's boat was comprised of arguably two of their best guys, Angus Groom and Graeme Thomas who were both in the GBM4x selected for Rio. Graeme came down ill before the games and was withdrawn from competition. In 2014-2016, these guys were stalwarts on the podium in the M4x but due to injury both of them were not on the GB squad throughout this year. After a long rehab, they won Holland Beker and were announced as the double for World Champs. The GB M4x was thought of as their priority boat but I knew these two guys well and that they would not want to play second fiddle to anyone. The Italians were a young combination that had beaten Lithuania early in the season to win the European Championships and then followed that up with another medal in Lucerne. Australia and Argentina had both raced the World Cups and finished in the A Final. On paper this looked like the deepest heat out of the four, and it did not disappoint. As we pulled into the starting area, I could see the light cross headwind coming across the course and noted that we would need to be careful with our steering right out of the gates. Our plan was to stick to our guns and no matter what, take it to the line. We were confident that if someone was out on us early, they will be working for it. We got off cleanly and after about 200m we began finding our base rhythm. Looking back, we probably were much too relaxed in this first 1k, but I have to say, the boat felt great. We were rowing low, 34-35, and spending a lot of time at the front end. I could feel that we were moving away from Australia and that we were only slightly down to GB. Given our level of exertion at this point, this was perfect. What I couldn't see right away was on the other side of the course, Italy was getting the hell out of there. Still, its ok, a lot of racing still to be done, and we continued to move away from Argentina and Australia. At the 1k, GB put on a clear move and walked to a length lead on us. I almost called or us to stay with them but our downhill move was at the 1250, so we stayed patient and waited. When we shifted, we began to match GB's move and I could feel that we were reeling Italy in, but the race course was running out quickly. It was awesome to feel the clear shift in energy and speed in our boat. This was exactly how we had trained it and now were on the offensive, hunting Italy. We ate into their lead and finished about a half length down to Italy and a length own to GB, finishing third and bound for the Rep. We crossed the line feeling gassed and knowing we didn't make it through but feeling very encouraged. Those guys knew that we were for real and that next time we might not spot them as much in the beginning. We had the fastest non qualifying time and hoped for a kind Rep draw.

Like I mentioned before, when all things are even, luck is quite an important factor. In order to get into the A final, we were going to need a few things to go our way, but it just didn't happen. Our Rep looked like a Semifinal. We had the four fastest 1500m times from the Heats in the same Rep. The lineup was Australia, Belarus, Germany, Canada, and Netherlands. Top 2 would progress to the AB semi, the remainder to the CD Semi. All the sudden, we are looking at elimination from contention for the A Final. With just a minor slip up, we could find ourselves in the C Final. There's no doubt about it, Ben and I were nervous for this one. Ben was also racing against two other Washington rowers, Olympic silver medalist Conlin McCabe from Canada and his current teammate Bram Schwarz, so there was a little extra on the line. We were definitely pleased with the way we were rowing in the heat and so we didn't want to change much, we just wanted to be a little more aggressive in the second 500 and assert ourselves. Even though it was just a rep, we really wanted to send a message to these crews and everyone else that we were for real and that we know how to win races. Given the cross headwind coming from the East, we had a decent lane in the middle of the course from which to work. We blasted off and got right to work. At 500 down, we were sitting up on the field and were rowing a couple beats higher, 36-37, compared to the heat. This extra cadence was clearly giving us more speed so we pinned it there and focused on rhythm. As we crossed the 1k and began to anticipate our downhill call, we could see the field in a line about a length back to us, but Netherlands and Canada were only about a three quarters of a boat down to us. Australia, Belarus, and Germany were dead even trying to push up into qualifying position. When we shifted, our boat surged and we were moving away from the field. As we crossed 500 to go, we had broken open water with Netherlands and Canada and it felt like we could win this race by open water. But faced with elimination, Canada and Netherlands ignited a massive charge in the last 500 that we were forced to respond to. With twenty strokes to go we were clinging on to only a half boat or less lead and they continued to charge. All three boats crossed the line at their limit and we were fortunate enough to come away with a very narrow win over Netherlands who got the qualifying spot over Canada. Canada who won the petite final in Lucerne, would be heading to C Final along with World Cup A Finalists Australia, Argentina and European Champs Best Time Holder, Belarus. It was tough not to feel a big sense of relief after this race. I wish we had the luxury of just focusing on the Semi, but the truth is that if we had taken this race lightly, I would be here writing about racing in the C Final. But still, we were happy with how we executed the race, happy to come out on the good end of a tight finish, and excited to have a earned a chance to make the A Final on Friday.

The Semi was really the opportunity that we had been working to earn. We had visualized it time after time and we felt ready to go make the top 6. Our mindset after the Rep was that we had just been in a battle and that the crews in the Semi would not want to deal with us. Unfortunately, when we saw our draw and the weather forecast, I particularly was not too encouraged. Peter did a good job of downplaying it as much as he could, but the fact of the matter is that being in Lane 1 or 0 when there is an easterly wind is not a place you want to be. Typically this is the scenario in which they would reseed the lanes and lane 1 would be the unfavored lane. For our next two races, the Semi and the B Final, we would be stuck out in lane zero. There are definitely examples of crews that made it work for them, Robbie Manson is a good example, however, I would also say that the current world record holder had to claw his way tooth and nail from that lane just to make the Final. In our Semi, we were giving it full throttle from stroke one and it just felt like we weren't going anywhere for the amount of energy we were putting in. After 1k, we had given it a massive effort to stay in qualifying position and it felt like we were getting dropped. The top 4 crews were engaged in a huge fight that we lost contact with and we fell out of contention in the second thousand. It was a terrible feeling to feel so disconnected from the fight at the top of the field. We limped in across the line finishing last and having our hopes of making the final dashed. Meanwhile, on the other side of the course in lane 6, Romania missed qualifying by 1 second. In the other Rep in Lane 6, Norway, who we had posted faster times then in both previous rounds, cruised through their Semi to the Final.  I know how this sounds and I don't want to put too much stock in questions of fairness, but I guess all I am trying to point out is that with a little luck we might have been singing a different tune. Obviously Olaf and Kjetil are the Olympic bronze medalists and people expect them to make the Final, but I honestly think that they were struggling during this regatta and that being in lane 6 during that Semi was a significant advantage. But like I said, we would have needed some luck to make the Final and we just didn't get it. The clear goal for the future is to become so robustly fast that we don't need everything to go our way to make the Final or to Medal. I really don't think we are that far off of that speed. Its obtainable and it comes with focused effort together over time. See: Meg and Ellen.

As you might imagine, the Semi was a big let down for us. We took the evening to see our families and let our guard down a little bit. We missed achieving our primary goal of making the Final and I think we both needed to take a moment to be a little sad and then come back and attack the B Final. Peter reminded us that we need to practice qualifying for the Olympics and having to do that at World Championships from the B Final is a likely scenario. This would be the perfect opportunity to rehearse making the top 11. The lineup for the B Final was Netherlands, USA, Romania, Switzerland,  GB, and Bulgaria. This the type of race where you just have no idea where you might end up. We could conceivably get first or last depending on the day. Again the wind was from the northeast and again we were over in Lane zero. We knew we needed to get ourselves up into the fight to defend against getting dropped like we did in the semi. I felt like right away we were being very assertive with our entries and it was allowing us to get a really solid lock off the front. We jumped out to a lead over GB and Switzerland and I think that caught them off guard. At 1250, Romania was actually leading, we were in second, and GB and Swiss were charging hard. We made our move and broke Romania, but as we crossed into the last 500, it was clear that the Swiss and GB had more left in the tank. They shifted gears and left us solidly in third. My sense was that was burned way more fuel in the first 1250 then they did to be where we were, but thats just what we had to do given our situation. We crossed the line in third, finishing 9th overall. I would have liked to have been closer to the top two but all in all, I was proud of the way we attacked the race and I thought we put together a ballsy race to finish out the Regatta.

We got off the water derigged quickly and then headed over to the Budweiser truck to enjoy the A Finals. As the Finals started, the wind shifted around into a pretty nice cross tail and they ended up reseeding the lanes. I didn't quite understand that decision considering the wind was the most tail it had been all week. New Zealand came through at the end to win the M2x in a time of 6:10.1 with Italy and Poland getting silver and bronze. Yes, we didn't make the final, but if we had raced in those conditions theres no way we go much more than 2-3 seconds slower than that. It just shows how many quality doubles there are. As it stands now, Ben and I don't have a whole lot of people telling us to continue in the 2x. It seems like most would rather see us give it up and row in a sweep boat, especially given the M8+'s success.  I received an email a couple days ago saying that given our finish at Worlds I did not meet the criteria to get Elite Athlete Health Insurance. So there is not a whole lot of incentive to continue on rowing in one of the hardest events without much support. My heart tells me that we have something special in the double are close to doing something very cool, but my head tells me that its just stupid to continue going against the grain. Its only been a couple weeks since Worlds and I am definitely still digesting things but its also already mid October and 2018 will be here before I know it.  For now, I am just getting ready for the Charles and HOSR and hopefully afterwards will have a better sense of what I want my year to look like. I will be starting first in the Champ 1x and then rowing in the Scullers Great 8 on Sunday. Its a pretty different group of scullers compare to 2014 but its still going to be a blast to row with those guys. I'll be arriving Wednesday evening and then meeting up with the guys for our first row in the 8+ on Thursday morning. Luckily, this year Robbie Manson is organizing everything so I hopefully won't be doing nearly as much busy work before the singles race as I did in 2014. That being said, these guys like to have a good time and while I am eager to lay down a great piece in the single, peer pressure is a powerful force!

Thanks to everyone that was following us during Worlds, we really appreciated all the support.





4 comments:

  1. John, thoughtful and honest, as always. Congratulations on Worlds and keep following your passion. Doing so is its own reward.

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  2. Keep rowing the 2x. Only one life to live. Do it big.

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