row2k Features
USA Men's Rowing Squad 2017
Putting the Pieces Together In Princeton
July 19, 2017
Ed Moran,

Training center athletes going out in an eight

The twenty-four athletes gathering around Bryan Volpenhein and Mike Teti just after dawn in Princeton on a recent July morning are mostly young and new to the United States men's training center in Princeton.

Only four of the group have ever been on a senior team, only three of whom have been on an Olympic team: Tom Peszek rowed the pair in London, and Alex Karwoski rowed in the 2016 eight while Anders Weiss rowed in the pair.

Some of the others have Under23 experience, some are recent college graduates, and others are still collegiate athletes. But experience aside, they all have three things in common:

They are in the mix to row on the 2017 World Rowing Championships in Sarasota, Fla., in either the men's eight or four; they are all entering a training center that is beginning a new Olympic quadrennial; and they are all part of a men's team coming out on the other end of months of uncertainty and turmoil at USRowing, the governing body for United States rowing.

To recap in detail what has happened at USRowing in the months since the close of the Rio Games would take some doing.

But to sum up quickly - the men's team failed to medal in any of the camp boats, missed the final in the priority men's four and lightweight men's four, a study task force was convened to determine what happened, and in the wake of those findings four members of the association's board of directors resigned.

CEO Glenn Merry and men's eight coach Luke McGee also left the organization. Feelings and egos were bruised and in the ensuing turmoil the association's staff was decimated. The search for a new CEO continues and a contract for a vendor that will outfit the national team crews for this coming world championships in September is still not done.

The board has been reconfigured and members replaced, and a new high performance committee was named. And most recently, the biggest news was the hiring of Teti, the most successful men's coach in USRowing history, who is now adding a third stint as a senior national team coach to his resume.

Huge distractions, for sure. And all behind them now, at least the parts that directly impact the training and preparation of the athletes that will compete in Sarasota.

Of the men's team staff that remained, Volpenhein was ultimately left to hold together the eight to ten men who were still part of the training center group during the fall and winter.

Doing that for Volpenhein that was a matter of putting aside everything - every bump and every challenge - and focusing on what he knows best as a former U.S. athlete and coach. With that done, it is time to move forward.

Which, for everyone at the center, means putting the last Olympic cycle behind them and starting a new one. Volpenhein and Teti have done this before, Volpenhein six times. And he knows that first years are always the most fun. What happened in Rio already happened and has no bearing on the possibilities of success for Tokyo.

Keeping things clean and light post practice

"The vibe now is awesome," Volpenhein said. "The guys are having fun. They show up every day and they go out and row. First years are always the same. And this is when it's the most fun. Guys are relaxed. They come and train and do what they have to do, and it's all pretty good.

"We have everything we here need right now. The boat house is still here. The equipment is still here. We have athletes. We have boats. We have water. We have everything we need right now."

Volpenhein doesn't really want to go over what has happened since Rio. But neither does he dismiss that it was not a lot of fun.

What he wants is to focus on right now - the moments like this one unfolding in front of him, where he has a group of fresh and eager faces waiting for him and Teti to name the boats for this particular workout, and layout the plan for the next 90 minutes.

That's it.

"Yes, it has been uncertain, and not a lot of fun," Volpenhein said. "But it feels good to get through it and have Mike here. It feels like home to me. It's what I am used to. I know it. I know the system. I know the training, and hopefully we can just make it fun again. It's only rowing. All we have to do right now is train hard so we can race hard."

These are all familiar to Volpenhein.

"Call Me Mike"

Mike Teti watching the practice from his launch with guest coach Dave Reischman of Syracuse

Mike Teti has also been through a lot of this before. He has experienced new beginnings as an athlete and as a coach. He's experienced coming into a training center in the midst of a restart before, which he did in 1997 in his first year as the head men's coach. And he has pulled together a string of big successes including multiple world championships and two Olympic medals in the men's eight - gold in 2004 and bronze in 2008.

He has also been called into pick up the pieces before following high-profile failures, like in 2011 when the men's eight missed qualifying for the 2012 Olympics at the World Championships on Lake Bled. He had to hold a camp outside the normal senior team schedule, and while he was still coaching the men's team at the University of California. Then he had to select and qualify the crew at the final Olympic qualifier. He did that and then the eight finished fourth in London. Which was followed in 2013 by a new approach that included new head coaches with increased training center focus.

Those were all high profiles moments for sure. And, like it or not, Teti is in the spotlight again.

At 61, with all his years of experience, as first the man in charge of both world championships and Olympic teams, and as the head coach at California - one of the largest and most storied men's college programs in the country (a title he still holds and is looking forward to continuing with), Teti knows where the traps exist in the bright lights.

But he also is pretty good at steering through, and away, from them.

His basic instructions to this group of newbie men's team athletes, as well as the veterans, are to focus on what you can control, work to get better every day, and leave it at that.

"Look, we all want to win medals," Teti said. 'We don’t need to say it. Everyone knows we want to win. But we're not in a position to do that right now. A lot of the guys are new and I think everyone has a realistic assessment of where we are. They know we're probably not at the level to win medals right now.

"But everyone here has real potential and is working hard to get better. We have some guys that have high level skills that are working on their fitness. And we have guys that need to improve on their skills. They are all really good guys, and they are starting to gel as a team

"I'm trying to make it more like a college type atmosphere, have some fun while we're training and just get a little better each day. We all know where we are, and the encouraging thing is just in three weeks' time, everybody here has improved a little bit, some more than others. If we can continue to do that over the summer, we'll be in good shape for the world championships."

For Teti, this new effort is about this group right now. He wants to "build a platform" that the U.S. can stand firmly on as the cycle moves forward to the next Olympics.

The training center had planned on racing crews at Henley Royal Regatta. Teti said he met with the team and then canceled the trip. His reason; four guys racing in his first weeks of arriving back to Princeton was not a good use of his or the athletes time.

"If they are at Henley racing, no one is really coaching them. I just felt that the time spent here would be more productive.'

Like it is for Volpenhein, for Teti this is about right now - and deflecting the distractions.

And the noise can be deafening.

Photo Gallery

Rowing is a relatively small community in the U.S. and when something goes wrong, the drums beat loudly. Opinions about what took place and who is best to lead the faithful back to the promised land are plentiful.

In agreeing to take on his new back to the future role as the returning as the U.S. men's coach, Teti has returned to one of the most important tactics of his first go-round at the helm. While the search for a new coach was going on, all the obvious candidates - international and domestic - were talked about, and they included all of the best collegiate coaches in the country.

Get Yale coach Steve Gladstone. Get Washington coach Mike Callahan. Bring in Wyatt Allen from Dartmouth. Call Chris Clark, Kris Kerber, Charlie Butt, Greg Hughes.

Just name a top collegiate coach, and someone, somewhere in the U.S. rowing world put a name into the "best guy to get the job done," hat.

USRowing called Teti. And as he did in the 1990s, Teti called the college coaches.

Since being brought on, Teti has asked a cadre of the best coaches in the country to come to Princeton to lend experience and expertise to the effort. He doesn’t talk about it as a move to quell the voices of dissent and suspicion, but instead a group effort to take ownership of the U.S. men's team rebuild such that future success becomes a shared experience.

"When I was here before, I felt like the collegiate coaches produced the medals for us," Teti said. "For all of these guys, their first coaches were college coaches. These coaches coming in, they all have something to contribute."

Still, Teti says, there are bigger, more personal reasons to have this big of a support network of other coaches.

"I want to help. If I were rich and never needed to work again, I would still do this. I would just come in and help. And, look, I have selfish reasons. This is a chance for me to recharge, having all these coaches come in. You get stale after a while. It's great having them all here and teaching.

"And it's the guys. And it's having the chance to help Bryan. I coached him. I've seen him grow and become a husband and father. I saw him grow as an athlete and as a coach. He did some good things over the last quadrennial. And he made some mistakes. But he learned from them and I just want to help."

Teti is a big personality. He loves to tell stories. He fits nicely in the limelight. But, he said he wants nothing to do with more attention.

"The last thing I want is for this to be about me. I don't want to called head coach. Just call me Mike. My mother calls me Michael. But you can just call me Mike."

Just Mutts

Bryan Volpenhein making suggestions to new athletes

If Teti is just Mike, what does everyone else want to be called? Hopefuls? Newbies? Older veterans?

All of the above.

Most of the athletes that are in Princeton training right now are new to the senior team, and are either just fresh out of school or are still undergraduates and have some way to go before selection to a world championship crew.

The plan this year is to select the men's eight first and then select a four. The eight "is a more natural boat," to select first, Teti said, adding that he wants to stay away from saying any boat is a priority boat. The reason for that is both the size and talent level of the group and to, again, keep as much of the pressure off as possible. And so, while men's eight first is the plan right now, if a four is the best possible boat for a medal in Sarasota, Teti said he will not ignore that fact.

As of the first of July, the total number of athletes at the training center is somewhere around 28. It could grow if one or more of the Rio athletes chooses to come back in, or if guys now rowing at the Under23 Worlds join in when they come back from Plovdiv, Bulgaria.

That remains an unknown at the moment. With the senior World Championships being held in September this year, there are pluses and minuses to the schedule. A late Worlds gives U23 athletes time to join the group.

But it also becomes a problem for undergraduates who have to be in class in September. They might be able to work it out to be in Florida in the last week of September, and they might not.

For Teti and Volpenhein, the idea is to look at this group as if they are the top recruits from a freshman class in a collegiate program - talented, but in need of development.

So the theme for this summer is row to have fun, row to get better, do the best you can and let the chips fall where they fall.

"I wasn't very good at a lot of sports," he said. "I ended up being good at rowing, but I was a JV baseball player in high school. I didn't make the varsity. But I played baseball because I loved playing baseball. I didn’t care. Guys should come and row because they love rowing, not because they want their stipend, because they are going to become famous, or their life is going to be set after that.

"We're all just mutts. That's what Mike has always said. And we forget that. We forget where we come from. I was a novice rower when I started. I learned how to row in a club. I didn’t need a lot of extra stuff to be a good rower. I just needed to show up and do the work and get as good as I could.

"So I think we just need to get back to the basis and the fundamentals of that, and then the guys will start to have more fun, and then when you get to a certain level, you start to add stuff in that might make them faster," he said.

"It's not life and death. Everything always is the end of the world if you don’t make it. But it's not. If you don’t make it, whatever. We have to remember that it's just rowing and it's supposed to be fun and all we have to do is go out and row every day. It's supposed to be a game," he said. "It's not supposed to be do or die every day."

That's an easy sell, especially for the younger guys that are just coming in.

Four practices with three vets and a rookie

A few weeks ago, Nick Mead was a senior at Princeton University focused on the collegiate season and his coming graduation. He has had time on the U23 team and junior national teams, and he has always had his eye on competing for a spot on the senior team.

And he wants to eventually row at the Olympics.

"I always knew I wanted to be here," Mead said. "And it's definitely a step up in terms of intensity and the quality of the rowing. I'm getting used to that, but I think I am learning quickly rowing next to these more experienced guys."

"I think with the U.S men's eight, the expectations are always high, no matter what the results were the year before. And I think with Coach Teti, he also has high expectations, so we're just trying to live up to those," Mead said.

"We know it's early in the cycle. But we have guys here that are really competitive and want to be in the top boat, and the expectations are to win. Right now, we’re just looking for the world championships in September. Obviously, the long-term goal is the Olympics."

While most of the younger guys are just getting a taste of what it takes to be in contention for a world championship team, they don't know exactly what the older, veteran athletes know. They haven't yet experienced getting close, but not close enough.

Some of the veterans in the camp have made the Olympic team and left without a medal. Others never got the chance; maybe they lost at trials. or were cut after years of trying. But even they are buying in to the idea that it's supposed to be hard, but fun. And they are back for more.

"I knew I wanted to come back and I'm pumped to come back," said Alex Karwoski, who rowed in the men's Rio eight that finished fourth and then took time away from training to coach at Cornell University.

"Going to the Olympics is an honor, and it's a privilege to make the team and go. To come up in fourth was disappointing, but also kind of where we were at that time.

"It's tough not to be disappointed with that, and now it's just exciting to be back with a new group of guys. I go from being one of the younger guys, to surprisingly, at 26, one of the older guys, which is kind of fun.

"I wasn't around after fall 2016 to Spring 2017, so I can't really speak on the vibe then. But it's exciting now; there are a lot of guys, almost 30 of us here now. Everyone is positive and happy. It's eight in the morning and we've done a 20K row in the straight four and it's a good time."

Tom Peszek has experienced both making the Olympic team and then missing for Rio.

"Every year is its own year," Peszek said. "What happened last year doesn't make a difference. What happened ten years ago doesn’t make a difference. It's just kind of the same thing. You show up. You attack with some enthusiasm, you have a little bit of fun, and you make the boat get faster.

"It's a little bit of a younger group for the start of the quad. But it's a good group and it's kind of fun to show up and get faster. There is always pressure. We're always trying to win. We're always trying to get better, but that happens every year. It always works the same way," he said.

"All I have to do is pull on the stick and try to make the boat go faster, but all the other crap doesn’t matter."

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