Michelle Sechser can point to the exact moment she decided she wanted to row in the Olympics.
"I was still at (the University of Tulsa), still in college and I was watching the Beijing Olympics," she recalls. "They were the first Olympics I had watched since I started rowing, and there was a montage made of the athletes faces, of when they were on the podium, and the emotion captured was so raw with that moment of victory, it moved me almost to tears."
Immediately after graduating, Sechser began her chasing that dream by learning to scull. There are no opportunities for lightweight sweep women in the Olympics, so she was going to have to find her way into the lightweight double.
She began her US national team career on the 2011 Pan Am Team, and since has rowed on six senior national teams. When she wasn't in the women's light quad or double, she was racing the single at World Championships, or in World Cup regattas. She came the closest to the Olympics in 2015 when she and partner, Devery Karz, qualified the women's light double for spot in the 2016 Olympics.
But situations change, and being part of the crew that qualifies the US for an Olympics does not lock in the qualifying athletes as the crew. And when the Olympics came around, Sechser was not in the boat after an informal spring selection camp.
Her dream did not end there, and after rowing the single in the next two World Championships, (taking bronze in 2017, finishing fourth in 2018), Sechser reset her goals for the 2020 Olympics. She raced, and finished first, in the single in the April Speed Order, and was followed in second place by Christine Cavallo.
The ultimate point of racing in the speed order for both women was finding the right partner to challenge for the double at the upcoming US trials the next month on Mercer Lake, New Jersey. Sechser and Cavallo teamed up, and won.
This weekend, the two women compete at World Cup II, in Poznan, Poland as part of a large contingent of US athletes that will test their speed, and judge where they are with nearly 10 weeks of training left before the 2019 World Championships in Linz, Austria, and the all-important Tokyo Olympic qualifier.
As she and Cavallo go about the regime of training on the Charles River in Boston, Sechser thinks daily back to the moment she watched that Olympic final montage in 2008.
"I still think about that a lot, and what that moment felt like for those people, and I want very much to experience it."
But nudging into those thoughts, and her dreams of being an Olympian, is the reality that this cycle is her final chance. While FISA has made no official announcement that this will be the final Olympics for any lightweight boat classes, that is the reality has been openly discussed, is being planned for, and what everyone in the international rowing community sees as fact.
It is the same reality that is placing a finality on the Olympic dreams of lightweight rowers around the world, including those of Sechser and Cavallo, and also Andrew Campbell, Jr. and Nick Trojan, who won the men's lightweight double at the April trials, and also will race in Poznan for an international tune-up.
If that is not enough of a full plate, the path forward for these crews has become even more intense because of a reduction in the number of available qualification places at this World Championships.
While the top 11 finishers from the 2015 World Championships qualified for the 2016 Olympics, the number of Olympics slots available at this qualifier is seven. Those numbers have been cut down to meet a reduction in the overall size of the Olympic athlete rowing delegation for 2020, including a cut in the number of competing lightweight doubles from 20 to 18 for both men and women. This will require each crew to be at top international speed - Olympic A final speed - at Worlds to qualify their boat classes and avoid having to go to a last chance qualifier next spring in Lucerne, Switzerland.
Of the four US lightweight athletes, only Campbell has realized his dream of being an Olympian, having rowed to a fifth-place finish in Rio in the light double with then partner, Josh Konieczny. But that does not lessen his desire to row in Tokyo, or to be among the last of the US lightweight Olympians - or make the path ahead any less intense.
Here's a look at the two US crews that will hope to qualify the men's and women's lightweight doubles for the Tokyo Games at the upcoming 2019 World Rowing Championships.
Men's Lightweight Double
Nick Trojan and Andrew Campbell, Jr.
If the US rowing community is a small, tight-knit world of athletes who row as juniors, and then collegiately, and where the top athletes know each other by name from bashing heads in collegiate and domestic regattas and championships, the lightweight community is a shrinking microcosm of that world.
So, it is no surprise that Nick Trojan and Andrew Campbell, Jr. have known each other, and been friends, since they competed against each other in high school, and shared podium appearances; their first being the 2009 Youth National Championships when Campbell was second in the lightweight double and Trojan was third.
Their paths continued to cross throughout their international careers. They have trained together, and raced against each other at selection events. Campbell rowed the lightweight double in 2015, while Trojan was in the single. This year, they participated in a small, unofficial lightweight selection group to decide which of the limited numbers of men's candidate would row together at the April US trials.
It was not long before Campbell and Trojan decided they would row together, and after a winter of training, went to trials, and up against six other doubles. Given Campbell's history as the top lightweight sculler in the country, and his Olympic experience, they were favored to win. And they did, but the final was far tougher, and harder, than they expected.
Trojan and Campbell at trials
They won, but not by a lot, and their speed was not where it would have to be to compete internationally, or as Trojan put it just before a recent Boston training session, no faster than C final fast.
Both Campbell and Trojan have taken a long-term view to that result, and see it as an early wake-up. Trojan said he believes an over reliance on racing and speed workouts, as opposed to volume, in the weeks before trials led to a lack of base fitness throughout the weekend regatta.
"Trials was definitely a bit of a wake-up call in a sense," Trojan said. "But it was also a good one, because we learned a little bit about where we are in terms of speed, and also what we can do when we might be a little bit mentally down."
"For instance, before the final we were pretty on edge about the other doubles we were racing, and we knew we had to come for that race with more grit and more grind than we did. We knew it was going to be a much harder race than we expected, so kind of overcoming that mental doubt was a big deal.
"Going forward, we're going to do probably a lot more steady state, and maybe delay the piece stuff until we get closer to racing later in the summer. For now, it's going to be a little bit more time on task. We're going to have to find 10 more seconds of speed if we're going to get this boat to the Olympics, maybe even more speed than that. But it will come, now that we know what to do," Trojan said.
"I'm very happy to be through trials," said Campbell. "We now have 14 weeks to get ready for the world championships, which is a full season's worth of training. So, I think that we're at a good starting place now. I think we were both a little bit underwhelmed with our trials performance," he said.
"We were expecting to be a little bit closer to the pace that the international field shows. That being said, we have a ton of time and we have all the right building blocks in place to make it happen."
Andrew Campbell, Jt.
Having successfully raced through a qualifying World Champs before - and having missed at a last chance qualifying regatta in 2012 - Campbell is well aware what is at stake. And it's a strength he and Trojan can count on.
"I have a good benchmark to compare against," Campbell said. "I know how fast we were going at this time a year from now, this coming summer, during the last quadrennial, so I feel like I can put where we are now into context a little bit better. I am more familiar with the level we need to be to crack that top group.
"But honestly, each go has been pretty different, and it's hard to say that what worked last time will work this time. I still feel like I'm learning a ton and not necessarily rerunning the playbook, but kind of switching things up and seeing what's working this go around."
Trojan knows from experience what Campbell means about each summer campaign being different, and he has his own experiences to rely on.
"It's definitely kind of a follow the leader thing with him because he knows what it took to get there," Trojan said. "Having said that, I've had plenty of experience in the double too, and I think we're trying to meet in the middle in terms of both of our experiences through the year. It's been a very slow process, but we're seeing progress."
Both are aware of what they are facing in terms of the added pressure of a qualification year - and a tighter one at that - and the coming end of the lightweight boat class.
Trojan and Campbell
"Qualification this year is way harder," Campbell said. "There's a big difference between top seven and top 11, so the level of excellence that we have to be able to show in August is on par with what you would want to show in an Olympic final. This has to be the year.
"You have to effectively make the A final if you want to get a seat in the Olympics. So that definitely raises the sense of urgency and puts some pressure on us to get it right a little bit earlier so we can fine tune the details, things like being able to start with that top group, and then finish really, really hard.
"We need to get the basic base speed down in the next four weeks so we can sharpen for the rest of the summer," he said.
As for the end of the Olympic run for lightweights - Campbell has one in the books, and said he will keep rowing the lightweight single in World Championship competition for as long as he can, and as long as he is enjoying it.
"The lightweight single is kind of always been where my heart is, and I just love that event so much that, for me, it's not a step down. And it's something I can happily continue doing off into the sunset. So even if the lightweight double is leaving the Olympics, it doesn't impact me too much because I think there will always be a lightweight single in the program."
For Trojan, 2020 is the last shot.
"Yea, it's a little sad to see it go," said Trojan. "And I guess I sort of understand why it's going away. I know it's for the equality purposes. But at the same time, for the sport itself, the lightweights were always the closer races and, in my opinion, more entertaining to watch, not just because I am a lightweight, but just for the sake of entertainment. They're much closer races most of the time.
"That's not really a motivation, I guess, in terms of my goals this year," he said. "I know it might be the last time it's ever around, but I still have to make it."
Women's Lightweight Double
Cavallo and Sechser
In some ways, Sechser and Cavallo are similar to Campbell and Trojan in that Sechser has been through the World Championship qualification process, while this is Cavallo's first time attempting to qualify a boat for the Olympics.
Cavallo has raced internationally and can draw from those experiences. She raced in the finals and won silver in the pair at Junior World Championships in 2012, finished fifth in the event the next season, and has raced in the lightweight U23 quad in 2014 and 2017, and in the senior lightweight quad last summer.
She has been building toward this experience from junior through rowing at Stanford, and into these past two seasons. One important factor she points to was finally committing - at least publicly - that she had the Olympics in mind.
"I worked to never bite off more than I could chew, and I took it one day at a time," she said. "College was a pretty intense four years, making weight while going to school. It was a pretty taxing environment, and I was not in the head space to continue training," she said.
Her day-to-day, season-to-season approach, she explained, was to take things "in small concerted bursts, so I could give my full effort, so I could go again. After I graduated in 2017, I kind of just kept tricking myself until suddenly I was at senior national team trials in the lightweight single, my first ever 2000-meter piece in a single.
"I got second, so that was cool. But then, it was sort of a trial by fire that year. I was doing my master's degree and training for the Olympics and learning how to acknowledge that I was training for the Olympics, and learning how to say it out loud. I think that was a really, really important thing, learning how much you really need to state your goals to manifest them," she said.
"I learned a lot last year," she said. "I was all over the place, all over the world, really just bringing myself up to speed on how the senior national team worked, and learning the system. And then, this year I showed up ready to maximize those things that I learned, how to make each of them better, and I came with the intention of being fast enough to control my own journey."
If anyone knows about attempting to control a journey, and how that can change from year to year, it is Sechser. She was in the qualifying crew in 2015 at Aiguebelette, France, but not in the boat that ultimately raced in Rio.
"There are a lot of fond memories in my mind about Aiguebelette, 2015," she said. "Qualifying that boat with Devery (Karz) and what a wild, wild west style of racing goes on at that regatta. I'm really excited to show up at the start line with Christine because I know she know she is a cut-throat racer, and she is born to compete in a regatta like that.
"I remember that year, every women's boat qualified, that was huge for the US, we were the only country to do that. We didn't miss a single boat class, and that was a really exhilarating moment. I am hoping we can go back and repeat that."
Sechser said that realizing this is the last cycle she will have to reach the Olympic dream she began 11-years ago, makes the next 14 months the most important of her career so far.
"I think it's really helped sharpen my focus in the way that there is absolutely no second chance, no next cycle, no next world championships," she said. "It's sort of like coming into the last 500 meters of the race, or hitting the last 250 meter red buoys of the race. It's now or never, and your blade work sharpens, and your mindset sharpens, and you go faster than you have ever gone in that race.
"That's a lot of what is staring down the barrel of these next 14 months, it feels like," she said. "It's got to be the best piece of the journey."