The last time significant prize money was on the line on the Schuylkill River, Thomas Eakins was likely holding classes on Cherry and Broad and Max Schmitt was still rowing Josie out of Pennsylvania Barge Club.
But this weekend at the Head Of The Schuylkill, the three-stage Herb Lotman United States Rowing Challenge came to a conclusion with prize money totaling $28,000 going to the top finishers in the series, which in addition to the Gold Cup event at HOSR also include the Club Nationals and Head Of The Charles single scull contests.
The prize winners:
- 1st place, $9000 each: Felice Mueller and John Graves
- 2nd place, $3500 each: Kara Kohler and Thomas Graves
- 3rd place, $1500 each: Meghan O'Leary and Wes Vear
For rowers in the United States, these are significant checks, and they could be forgiven if they had their minds on the money during the racing – although it wasn't entirely the case, as the pure-hearted habits of most rowers are hard to break, the race for the prize wasn't just for glory.
"When I read about the Lotman Challenge back in the spring, I immediately put it on my racing calendar and shifted things around so I could attend," men's winner John Graves said. "As an athlete going for a sculling event in the US, you kind of need to take a small business approach and be very creative about how you are going to support your goals, so any chance to win prize money takes precedent over any other plans."
Early in the year, women's winner Felice Mueller was just starting to row the single after racing the pair in Rio, and wasn't thinking about winning anything at all; in fact, her first impression of the Challenge was to encourage Graves to race it.
"John and I were in Ann Arbor, and I was rowing in a single just to try to stay fit," she said. "He told me about this challenge, and I said 'Oh my gosh, that's incredible, I can't believe they're supporting US scullers; obviously you have to do it.'"
Then the 2017 campaign kicked in, and Mueller found herself at the front of the singles pack, headed for the World Championships in Sarasota as the US women's single sculler.
"I wasn't really planning on being really competitive this year, and then now this has happened," she said, holding a giant check for $9,000 on the banks of the Schuylkill River. Coming into the HOSR, Mueller definitely gave a moment's thought to the prize money.
"At Nationals and at the Charles I was not really thinking about it, but when I knew I was coming in here in first position I felt a little bit more pressure to try and finish well," she said. "Especially with the choppy conditions, I was thinking just don't flip, just finish and do it. Yeah, today I was definitely thinking a little bit more about it."
While Graves did arrange his year around the Challenge events, he wasn't really thinking about it as much out on the course.
I wouldn't say I ever really thought about the money while racing," he said. "All of these races were unique in their own right and I had enough other stuff going on that I didn't spend much time thinking about the implications. At Nationals, I was coming off a very hard emotional loss at Henley and had to really rally mentally to get myself out to Cincinnati. But I just knew I had to get there, participate, and just compete as well as I could to give myself a chance later in the year to win. It would have been easy to miss one of these races due to other circumstances but I'm really proud to have shown up, competed, and finished it off with a solid row in Philly."
Mueller had to wait a bit to find out the results after her row.
"My phone wouldn't load the results," she said; "It was cool starting first because you can see the other top women and where you are, and I felt like I had moved away but you never know, someone in the back of the pack could have had a great race - so it was very exciting when I finally saw the results."
Mueller has had considerable success in the pair over the years at both the U23 and senior levels, and shared her thoughts on the similarities and differences between these two smallest of small boats.
"I'd say they are pretty similar, but even more than the pair I think sculling required a little bit more focus, especially coming from sweep and then going into sculling with two oars. Having this one hand that doesn't really know what to do was interesting, and I think I had to focus a lot more on the technical aspect than I have in the past. That's been really exciting for me, focusing on some new things." Both winners have fairly thrifty plans for the prize money, befitting a single sculler's often austere lifestyle.
Mueller plans to use the prize money for training trips to Florida to train with coach Francisco Viacava, and otherwise will "save it and use it when I need it," she said (despite her teammates ribbing her to spend it on cake to celebrate).
"I can't overstate how good it feels to be going into the new year knowing that I can afford to train as hard as I need to and not worry about if I can buy all the food I need or pay rent," Graves said. "It sounds like simple stuff but it makes a huge difference."
Graves sees the Lotman Challenge as critical to the larger goal of encouraging and improving sculling in the United States.
"I think one of the most important things with the Lotman Challenge is showing juniors and college athletes in our country that there are those of us trying as hard as we can to make fast US sculling boats, and that pursuing sculling after college is a viable path," he said. "The Gold Cup folks are doing everything they can to make training for sculling in the US possible. The best thing we can all do is just participate and gradually I think the standard will just rise and rise. I can't thank the people at the Gold Cup enough for this opportunity."