row2k caught up with Josy Verdonkschot, USRowing's High Performance Director, in the Belgrade boatyard Friday morning. At the time, the US had qualified seven boats for the Paris Olympics and one for the Paralympics, with both eights still in the running for places as well as the PR3 Mix 2x.
Just before posting this story, the PR3 Mix 2x also qualified for Paris.
row2k: From where you sit as High Performance director, how how is this World Championships going for the US?
Verdonkschot: I've got only one important statistic. We've got nine Olympic boats in the A finals. We don't have them all qualified [yet], but we're on the right track. We still have to wait for the eights and for the Para double.
I think both the PR3 Four and the PR2 double might be in contention for a medal. We've got three or four central lanes, so maybe I hit my medals target this year.
PR3 Mixed Four
row2k: If we had had this conversation a week ago, before any of the racing started, how would you have defined a successful regatta?
Verdonkschot: Well, definition of success is difficult. I just have objectives and my prime objective was qualifying boats. But then to qualify boats, in order to be able to prioritize, you have to be realistic. So I was assuming three medals, six A final, and nine qualified boats for the Olympics. We're quite close now, because both eights still have to race, but we are quite close to that one. And that's a big one.
When you get to a number like that, you always hit one that you didn't [expect]. I thought that the men's pair might have been possible, but then the double I was not really doubting. So you win one, you lose one. I feel terribly sorry for the guys [in the double], but it is what it is.
For now we're set up well. I think it worked well bringing everybody together this year. Last year for the sweep rowers, we prioritized the pair, giving room for young people to be in the eight. This year, we stepped up. We had early selection and then collegiate people coming in. That made it obvious to first select the four out of the group that is available [in the spring] and then do the eight later, which gives another opportunity for people to come into the team.
If we qualify both eights, then we've got all the sweep boats, which is great. We've got three decent sculling boats...I am not complaining.
row2k: This year, after a similar process of a Speed Order and then a Selection Regatta, the top men's pair opted to be in the four, correct?
Verdonkschot: It was set up. I spoke to them, and what you need is buy-in into the system. I was convinced that we could do better in a four, then select your eight and see if there's any [other boats]. Billy Bender is very able pairs rower, he showed that at camp and then Evan Olson popped up and they've got the speed, so great.
To me it's about building a system because, on the one hand, we have to look at qualification. On the other hand, we also have to look at medals in Paris and beyond. Just medaling in Paris and then calling it a day is not going to work, so we have to keep on fighting for a new system.
row2k: What are some ways that you're keeping the system open to new athletes?
Verdonkschot: Here, we see a few challenges in the United States. First of all, we've got a pretty good talent ID system for U19s, however, there's kind of a gap because for Under 23s because the priority for them, which I totally understand, is their college season which basically is from September till end of May or beginning of June.
Knowing that, we have to create entry points for the young people and we have to find a way to detect them. That's just one part of the game. We also have to create space for them. We cannot have an overload of people just aiming for one boat. We have to focus on reinforcing clubs, and also reinforcing our own structure, because we need really need an extension at Mercer, we need a presence at Benderson, and we need a presence on the West Coast.
row2k: How do the clubs in the US fit into that?
Verdonkschot: I totally encourage the club part, but basically, I need to be able to make calls like I did with the pair and the four. We sat down, I talked to the guys, and they bought it. I don't think that was a bad decision. [ed. note, the M4- won its heat and semis, en route to an A Final on Saturday]
It is the opposite with Megan and Allie in the women's pair. [Their club set-up] is perfect, because with Megan coming back, it's the perfect way that she could stay at home, do her job, etc., and Allie, she would go to the end of the world to have that opportunity. So that's natural and does not disturb the process.
That's the symbiosis that you would want between clubs and the national team, because it has to be that one person is in charge of the national team. It has to be, I'm sorry for that, but it's not a democracy. I'm very respectful for all the achievements of different clubs, and individual coaches, but my function is to mold them together, not to make them opponents, and also to mold the athletes together in a certain way.
That's why we spent much more time in camps this year. We had camps in January, we had preparation for the World Cup, we had a good selection camp after the Trials to go to Varese. This year I was able to bring the people together, somewhere around the end of March. Next year, we have to move to a little bit forward to January, because the season is earlier and the Olympics are earlier. There's no room to start in June, so we have to start in January, February, and in March finalize boats in order to make the next step. Because if we would restart from scratch, and say all seats are open, we lose time. There's nothing wrong with that system, except that in an ideal world you would have limitless time. We don't have that.
row2k: So you would potentially try to keep some of this year's lineups together?
Verdonkschot: Yes, because look at it: Why stir the pot? We've got two things. One is an open system where people get a chance to get to the Olympics and then it's my obligation to protect the best athletes in the best groups.
row2k: Can you talk more about this symbiosis that you want between clubs and the national team?
Verdonkschot: It only works if I've got the means and the cooperation [of the clubs] to do it that way. Because then I can rely on athletes being at home for some periods. It's an Olympic cycle. You step up every year. Last year, so many days together, next year, more. But 2025 should be much more at home, because everybody's got a social, economic, academic career to pursue and you want to have a little bit more time for that. Then we need to bring people in more or less together and then it doesn't matter to me whether it's a woman and an open weight man or a sculler and a sweeper. Training together, having the motivation and knowing why you're doing it, and not being in isolation is really helpful.
But there's still a long way to go, and it's still a big puzzle for me to solve.