In part II of this week's row2k Interview, Tom Paradiso talks about returning to chase a spot in London, the task of qualifying US lightweight boats for the Olympics, and what motivates him this time around -- plus some thoughts on his most instructive races.
Read Part I here.
row2k: Stepping away for a few years has made you something of an outsider at the moment, but you are also a very senior guy in the lightweight ranks now that you are back: what kind of perspective does that give you on the pretty dire straits the US light men are in right now, with no boats qualified for London?
Tom Paradiso: I guess that's a tough one to answer. The group of guys that are training now [is] not really different from when I was in the group last Quadrennial. If anything, I'd say there are more guys of a higher level, just that the Training Center [in OKC] can support having more guys here [now]. The core group in 2008 [was] smaller and that was just we just didn't have that much equipment last Quadrennial.
The guys in the training center group have plenty of international racing experience, but there is inexperience in training for next step up, the next level of competition. The Olympics is another step, it's another level. It's different in that you need to prepare a little differently but not freak out. I distinctly remember in the fall of 2007, just kind of putting my head down and going with the group and, right now, there is not one guy in the group who was at the Training Center in the fall of 2007. I do think that makes a difference where, in other countries, there are guys who have done that before. [The Olympics] isn't a new experience for them: it is just the fourth year in the cycle, again, for the second or third or fourth time or, for a guy like Eskild [Ebbesen], his fifth time.
row2k: How difficult is qualifying going to be, in your view, especially in this rather unique situation, where neither the double or the four has a guaranteed Olympic spot?
Tom Paradiso: I think there are positives and negatives to it, and I think that depending on how it's handled, it could actually work out pretty well. Looking at [some] boats that went through the qualification process and did qualify in the past they have done pretty well. The Kiwi LM2x last time around had to go through qualification and they wound up winning the B Final. The same thing with the German light four: even though they had the illness and had to scratch from Beijing, the German light four went through the qualification, and they were a very fast crew that year. So I think if this is approached and handled correctly, it essentially moves everything up and that could be a good thing.
row2k: Do you think it is possible to produce two fast qualifying boats, to get both the double and the four through to London?
Tom Paradiso: I think we can do two. I'm trying not to be ignorantly optimistic: it'll be a challenge, but I do think there is the personnel and whatever else we need--the coaching, the equipment, the support--to do that, but it's not going to happen if it gets pushed [back] in terms of time frame.
row2k: This is your third Olympiad with the national team; can you talk about the differences in your runs at the Olympics?
Tom Paradiso: The first two years I was on the national team, while I was still in school, the light eight was the way to race internationally, just because there was no way to prepare the smaller boat while still racing collegiately and also racing as a heavyweight in college, but by 03-04, I was in a double through the NSRs and then, in 04, through doubles trials. Looking for similarities, I guess where I am, in terms of the group, this cycle is closer to my first cycle, in terms of a lot of training outside of the training center. As part of the training center in the [Beijing] cycle, it was much more of a "make the boat and then I'm going," knowing that I just needed to beat the guys who were in the training center every day. So, with the experience of going through that, I'm in the position I was in the first quadrennial, with the knowledge from 05-08.
The important thing I am taking from my previous 10 years of rowing at the elite level is the knowledge of that last year, the 07-08 year, is probably the most important knowledge for me to have already, in terms of approaching this [next] year.
row2k: What, would you say, is the biggest difference this time around?
Tom Paradiso: In 07-08, I very much went into that Olympic year, having stroked the boat for two years, very confident that all I had to do was to keep doing what I was doing: obviously working harder, but I was on the right track. Right now, I'm training for the same goal, but it is very much up in the air, and I could find myself not in a boat come next year.
[This] It puts a lot of the burden on me, to be not just following what the group and the coach are doing, but now every practice, every recovery day, I am constantly asking myself: am I putting myself in a good position to recover, am I doing the drills we need to, are we doing the right workout...because it's going to be on me and my partner. It comes down to what we put into it and that's good and bad, but the good side is that, ultimately, we're responsible.
row2k: All in all, it was a long road for you ahead of your first Olympics--in the eight, the double, the four--so what was your motivation to keep going and grinding away in all of those different events, towards Beijing?
Tom Paradiso: I had not expected to make the team that quickly [in 2001] and my long term plan had been to gain as much experience as could through graduation, in 2002, and then the following two years and, while there was plenty of upside to making the team [in those years] either in an Olympic or non-Olympic event, but not really considering myself of the caliber to be ready for the Olympics yet.
After 04, without making it but going through all that, I actually took some time away, and really evaluated what I wanted from rowing, what my expectations were, what my weaknesses were and planning out my approach for the next four years, for Beijing. While it was disheartening not to make it in 04, I didn't see that like, "Well, I'm never going to make it." I saw it as "Well, maybe I wasn't ready for it; what do I need to do to get ready?" I basically wrote down my goals and my expectations and my weaknesses and where I wanted to be in two years and where I wanted to be in four. In 06, I evaluated where I was, which was stroking the four. We'd just come in ninth place [at Worlds], which wasn't the goal, but we were in a good position, we had a good group, we had a coach--John Parker was coaching us--and I saw myself in a good position to go on through 08. I can tell you, it worked out exactly as I wanted, with the exception being the result in Beijing, which is a pretty good motivator four years later to be still doing it.
row2k: Which race in your past is the most memorable and why?
Tom Paradiso: How about flipping the single in the final at Stotesbury? When I was a junior, I flipped the single about 500 meters in. It was really bad conditions: the races were postponed, and then I guess they had a window where they ran the small boats, and I made it about 500 meters in. A wave took my oar out of my hand and I went right over, but I actually got right back in the boat. Then, to get home, I had to row down the course, but I wasn't going to just "paddle" down the course. I wasn't really racing it, but as far as a lot of people were concerned, I was racing it, so I heard about that from a number of coaches for many years to follow, that I had been "sticking to it" enough to get back in the boat and finish the race.
row2k: Which race stands out as the one you learned the most from and why?
Tom Paradiso: There two: one would be the Lightweight 8 in the 2004 Worlds, where we came in fifth, out of five. That was a boat where, at some point we counted all the worlds medals that were in that boat and it was over twenty international medals. All things considered, it should have been a very fast and competitive boat, and we ended up coming in last. What I took from that is that every race is different and no matter how good you are, when you get to the line on race day, anything can really happen, so you have to be ready for anything.
The other race would be the final of the lightweight four, the B Final, in Japan a year later. It was my first time in an Olympic event final at Worlds and I think we were in every different place at some point in the race: at one point in the race we were in the middle of the pack, then in the back of the pack. Halfway through, we were winning, and at the end of the race we were third. That was eye-opening for me in terms of the level of competition, all the way into boats seven through twelve, just how close everything was. We weren't third by a mile; we were third by a fraction of a second.
There was one point in that race where we had the lead, and I remember thinking to myself, "We have to go now" and we did, but so did everyone else. For me that was the first time I had realized that in a race, because we do so much racing in big boats, where you're not doing the thinking, in terms of strategy, and you're just listening to what you're being told to do. Even in a "bigger" boat, the four-person boat, I had the thought, "We need to go now" [because] I realized that there was an opportunity at that point. There are those opportunities in races: they don't happen often and it's not a huge window, but if you don't take the opportunity, you going to find yourself coming up short.
That was one thing I tried to stress when coaching and to other rowers, when I'm in boats with guys: that there is going to come a point, in this piece or in this race, where it's time to go, where we have an opportunity, and we have to take it. We have to realize it first, and then we have to take it.