While most of the rowing world's attention was on the Head Of The Charles two weeks ago, twenty-one intrepid US athletes were busy scooping up 10 medals, 5 of them golds, at the Pan Am Games in Chile--the best US performance in rowing at a Pan Am Games since 1999.
Two of the athletes who added to that haul--Jacob Plihal with gold and silver and Veronica Nicacio with two golds and a silver--decided to end their week of racing with a go at the Lotman Challenge at the Gold Cup Regatta, and row2k caught up with them there last week about Pan Ams and some of the unique aspects of the Santiago 2023 Games.
This year's Pan Am Regatta included the debut of a senior-level Mixed eight event--which the US won on the final day with Plihal's help--and the first ever Women's eight race at the Pan Am Games, where the US and Nicacio pipped Chile for the silver behind Canada.
That expansion of the big boat events was made possible in part by the format of the athlete quota, which encouraged doing multiple events. Nations were limited to 10 athletes per gender, plus a coxswain, but the US fielded 15 crews, so doubling athletes--plus a few who were tripling and four athletes who 'quadrupled'--filled the quads and fours for the US as well as the eights on the program.
Plihal's doubling up included winning silver in the single in the men's single and then he picked up his gold in the mixed eight, while Nicacio 'tripled up' to earn gold in both her double with Madeleine Focht and the women's quad, as well as a silver in the women's eight.
Nicacio at the Pan Am Trials last November
You can read about the full team and their accomplishments in USRowing's recap of the Pan Am racing or head straight to the results summaries here.
When we spotted Plihal and Nicacio at the Gold Cup, we asked them about their Pan Am experience, what it was like to be a part of the historic Pan Am firsts in the Mixed Eight and Women's Eight, and how they managed the doubling up that featured in this year's event.
"I hope the US keeps putting a little more emphasis on Pan Ams," said Plihal, who has raced at Worlds on the senior team in the quad and took full advantage of being the Pan Am single sculler--a berth he won at the Pan Am Trials last fall--to gain international racing experience in the single this year. At both the Pan Ams themselves and the Qualifier last April where he won the gold, Plihal raced his way through the progression and onto the podium.
"Racing the Pan Am Qualifier really helped me before World Cup 2 this summer," he said. "I didn't do quite as well as I would have hoped there, but being able to have a progression in the single in an international field is really good. There's something about wearing the Stars and Stripes, there's a little added pressure."
For Nicacio, Pan Ams offered a first chance to race internationally for the US, and to experience the top level of racing she has been training towards with the high performance group at ARION.
"I learned a lot and I was put more in the leadership positions of the boat in the quad and the double," said Nicacio. "That forced me to really study and think about how can I help us all come together more, and what words resonate better with everybody. I was very grateful for the experience."
"For a handful of us, it was our first time repping the US National Team, which is really special," she said, adding that a big part of that for her was being surrounded by athletes from the other Pan Am countries.
"Because I am Latina and all my grandparents moved from Mexico, it was really cool to see other people in the sport from my culture and similar cultures at a big race."
Pan Am Firsts: Mix8+ and W8+
The mixed eight is an event that we have not seen at a senior level international regatta before, and Plihal said the crew knew they were part of a bit of history even before they won.
"We were all pretty conscious that the mixed eight has never really ever been contested at an official regatta," he said, noting that the USA's winning time in this first running of the event might well be a record.
"I don't know if it counts or if FISA will verify it, but I know we were all pretty excited about the first time win for the USA in the Pan Am mixed eight and potentially the world record."
Plihal in the Lotman final last weekend
The crew only practiced once before their heat, so the crew's path through the reps after Chile narrowly edged them in the heat turned out to be a good thing, said Plihal.
"I honesty think we needed to go to the rep. We got an extra practice, an extra race. In Tokyo, Canada and New Zealand both went through the rep [in the eights], so sometimes getting that extra race together is a good thing. We figured out our start and a little bit of our base pace. We felt a little disconnected on both of those things in the first race but we just kept pushing and improving."
The women's eight was also a Pan Am first: while the men's eight has been a fixture at past games, the Pan Am program never offered a women's eight until this year and, like the mixed eight, the crew brought together the scullers and sweepers on the squad--four of each--to fill the seats.
As a straight six boat final, though, the event gave Nicacio and the rest of the US women even less time to dial in the crew's rhythm than the mixed eight had with its heat and rep, but they still came away with a silver medal.
"We practiced the boat once before the final," said Nicacio, "and I hadn't swept in a long time. So I just kept thinking make sure I don't catch a crab and make sure the boat comes together."
"The eight has a different energy and it's a lot of hype," added the sculler, who had not raced in an eight since graduating from the University of Portland in 2019. "I was excited to jump in and help pull it down the course."
Nicacio said the crew's focus beforehand was on the race itself, not the history-making fact that they were in the first Pan Am women's eight final ever.
"We talked about it more so after," she said. "We realized it when our coxswain Colette (Lucas-Conwell) pulled up the results."
"There was a really cool moment during the eights awards ceremony that some people may have seen on the internet, where Canada won and they played a song by Shania Twain and we all just started dancing. It was just such a beautiful moment. I just thought, this is so special, to be able to celebrate with all these women from all around the world."
On Racing Again, and Again
Nicacio, as one of the athletes who tackled three events had a busy week, even before hopping the plane back to the States to row the Lotman Challenge in the single--her fourth boat class in six days.
That women's eight race came in the middle of Nicacio's run of three A Finals: she and her doubles partner Madeleine Focht teamed up with Katherine Horvat and single sculler Grace Joyce to win the quad on Monday, raced that first ever Pan Am Women's eight race on Tuesday for a silver, and then ended the regatta taking gold again with Focht in the double on Wednesday.
"Something that Josy Verdonkschot said, before the first day of A finals, was to pack the uniform for the medal stand, but don't get too caught up in it, because there's another [A Final] tomorrow," she said.
"Yes, be happy and celebrate, but check it off. Think about the next thing. Don't go hours without eating. You should refuel afterwards so you're not unprepared for the next day because the next day is also really important and we want to do it again. And again."
Nicacio after hopping in the single to end her week at the Lotman
"The logistics of it all was a challenge," she admitted about being ready to race for a medal in each boat class, especially making the practice schedules work for each crew.
"You have to collaborate a lot with everyone else. And everyone has certain technical focuses, so you have to try to meet up that way, too. The coaches did a good job but it was a lot of putting the pieces of a puzzle together every day. A lot of 'you practice this day, so that we can practice this day' and then when a practice got canceled, we had to shake things up again."
Like Nicacio, Plihal had to go from sculling to sweep, and he was going from the smallest boat--the single--all the way up to the eight.
"It was a little tough," he said, "but the way the schedule worked out, it was probably the best events for me to double in. It was two heats on the first day. I had the single, then I raced the eight and I progressed out of the single so I didn't have to do that repechage. We had the eights rep the next day, and then from there on out, it was all singles practice, until an hour and change after the single final, when I hopped back in the eight.
"It worked pretty well, scheduling-wise, and being able to focus on the single in the middle chunk of the week was good, because the rhythms are so different between the eight and the single. I felt that a couple times in the practices right after racing the eights rep."
"There's little nuances in each event, and you have to be attuned to all that," said Plihal, "but I had done a little of that recently. I tried to make the eight at the selection camp, and then went back into single for trials, and that all helped to facilitate being able to manage it."
In all, eight US athletes doubled, eight raced three events, and there were four iron athletes of the regatta racing four events apiece: Casey Fuller, who won one medal, Mark Couwenhoven, who won two, and Isa Darvin and Hannah Paynter, who earned medals in all four of their finals, winning the pair and mixed eight, along with their silvers in the women's eight and four.
Plihal in the Lotman time trial