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Counting Down the Days Till Racing: U.S. Men's Eight
Wednesday, September 6, 2017
Ed Moran,
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In June, just after Mike Teti was hired to head the United States men's training group, there was plenty of time to find the right group of available athletes to fill the men's eight for the 2017 World Rowing Championships.

In July, as the training camp roster grew and solidified, the thoughts were about how to pick the top performers. Toward the end of August, when Teti and men's coach Bryan Volpenhein officially named the two men's crews that would compete in the eight and the four, the days until that first heat in Sarasota, FL - the first World Championship of the four-year Tokyo Olympic Cycle - had shrunk from months to days.

And today, there are exactly 19 days to the start of competition at Nathan Benderson Park, and exactly 21 until the men's eight goes to the line. In that crew will be a mix of five first-time senior team athletes, two senior team veterans rowing in the eight for the first time, and two Olympians.

Some of them may be part of the full Tokyo cycle, while for others, 2017 could be the only shot at a world rowing championship in the men's eight. But what they all share at this very moment is the distinction of being part of the U.S. men's top priority crew, something that has not happened in the eight since the beginning of the 2012 cycle, and a distinction Teti does not actually like to acknowledge.

"I've said this before," Teti said. "I don’t like to use the word priority."

From 23-year-old coxswain Julian Venonsky to bow seat Dariush "Tim" Aghai - the newly named men's eight is a mix of experienced veterans and new blood. The youngest is Tim Mead at 22. The oldest is 36-year-old new dad Yohann Rigogne, who is competing in an eight for the first time in the 22 years he has been rowing.

It's a true mix of guys that have seen the inside of an Olympic cycle and those who are seeing their first senior world championship. But no matter where they are in their careers, they are all eager to put the finishing touches to their preparation and get to racing.

"It's exciting," said Aghai. "It's a new start to a new cycle. We have new guys and everyone is working pretty hard. This is my first time in the eight since U23 and it feels great, it's fun. Everyone is super excited and everyone is bringing a lot of intensity and looking ahead and looking for the best.

"We're just going to bring it," he said. "We don’t feel any pressure, we're just going to bring it and make it happen."

The group has been together for the most part since early July when Patrick Eble joined in after finishing up at Cambridge University and participating in the 2017 Boat Race. The crew was not officially named until Aug. 28, but by the time senior trials started Aug. 6th the crew was mostly set.

"I think they are similar types of guys, all kind of cerebral, kind of geeky, but pretty tuned into what we are and, I think, to where we are trying to get," said Teti. "Our whole MO all year has been trying to get a little better every day and not sweat the stuff that's not important.

"They are better at this point than I thought they would be," he said. "Is that enough to win? No, probably not. But they're improving and I think now we go from the training and selection phase to really coming up with a race plan that works for us."

For Teti, that means simulating race situations for a crew that has not seen a single competitive piece outside of what they do in training.

While U.S. crews in the process of selection normally get to experience racing on the international level at one or more World Cup events, the nature of the camp coming together as late as it did meant there was no chance to do that this year.

The crew seems to have bought into this and the fact that when race time comes, they all know what that feels like.

"The last cycle, I got to go to the World Cups in 2015, and then the qualifier in 2016, plus the World Cup. As great as those races are to go down the track and to be around all these other boats, it doesn’t change anything. And it didn’t change what we needed to do at the World Championship," said Alex Karwoski, who rowed in the 2016 Olympic eight.

"I'm not sure the experience we gained from going over there, going to those races, put us at an advantage at the World Championships or a disadvantage, it was simply another race. So, going to Sarasota means that, yea, we haven't raced, but it doesn’t matter that we haven’t raced. It's still the World Championships, so it will come down to a heat, a rep, a semi and a final. The light turns green and you have to go."

As far as the importance of the first World Championship of a new cycle goes, the first year is the least pressure. With the Olympics behind, teams get to just think about where they are, what kind of group they are building and where that can take them.

The result doesn't mean a lot in terms of where they will be four years later. In 2013 - the year Nathan Benderson Park and Sarasota-Bradenton won the bid for this Worlds – the US men's eight won a silver medal. It was the only podium medal finish for the eight the rest of the way at the World Championships or Olympics.

"This World Championship is one step along the way," Eble said. "Of course we want to do well, that doesn’t diminish the importance of it. But we're taking the long-term approach of we're trying to get better.

"We have a good mixture. We have some new guys, like myself and Nick (Mead), that have just come into the group, and then we have guys that have been to the Olympics like Alex and Tom (Peszek), so there is a lot of experience to draw on there. But it truly is a new group of guys.

"I've never raced with these guys, but it doesn’t feel like we are new or inexperienced. There are a lot of level headed guys and veterans with experience to lean on," he said.

New first time senior team coxswain Julian Venonsky sees things the same way. "The main thing about this group is, it's just a great group of guys. Everyone works extremely hard, we all have the same goal, and we all have fun with it. There is definitely that sense of what we are expected to do and what we need to do, but we come into it in such a mindset that allows us to achieve that."

Does the experience level or pressure of expectations change any of that when the racing starts?

"Yes and no. Just with these eight rowers and me, this group of nine, we just inherently have that same mindset. We all come from great programs and we all came together from day one and really just melded together as the same boat," Venonsky said.

For Teti, the bottom line motivation for this crew is "it's a unique opportunity and this is what they asked for. This is want they wanted. They wanted to be in this boat and make it happen.

"It's their shot and I think a lot of them look at it that way. A lot of them also feel that they are pretty young and will be around for a while," he said. "And that's the approach we have been taking."

As far as expectations for the crew go, Teti said he is just looking for the kind of incremental improvement he has seen since June continue to the start of Worlds.

"It wasn't very good when we started and now I think we benefited from having a long summer because the Worlds are late, and this crew particularly has benefited from that. If the Worlds were a few weeks ago, I don't how they would have done," he said.

"But, I think, from month to month, June to July, there was a big improvement. July to August was a big improvement," he said. "And now we are approaching September and if we keep going in the same trajectory, we'll be in good shape."


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