Because of our results overseas and the fact that it was nearly mid-July when we returned home, Tom made his decision about who would get to race in the eight at Worlds—our lineup from the Henley Royal. From that day forward, the nine of us had exactly one month more of training to find more speed before we headed back to England for the 2006 World Championships (my second ever).
On August eleventh, following our one month more of rowing small boats and occasionally the eight, we flew to London for the main event of the year—the World Championships. When we landed there at Heathrow Airport, then made our way by bus to Eton, England, our confidence was as high as I had ever felt it. All on account of everything we had done just to get there. Our practices. Our extra races raced. The steps we had taken because we kept learning, took nothing for granted, and controlled the controllables to the best of our ability. Because of every small detail that drove us toward becoming our best, we were undoubtedly more prepared, which had helped us become undoubtedly more confident. So when I say that our 2006 eight felt like a shark every time we left the dock, I mean a literal shark. Complete with Jaws theme. That is how laser-focused and unified we were.
Ten days after our arrival in Eton, racing started.
When the nine of us met with Tom by our eight in advance of warming up for our heat, we could tell that the race was going to be an even greater challenge. A challenge already because we were a new and young lineup that had only ever raced together once before. An even greater challenge given the turbulent conditions on the racecourse that day. It was no typhoon, but the racecourse was awash with wind and waves.
Since we could not do anything about the conditions, we embraced the heightened challenge and returned our focus to what the nine of us could do—aim to find a hair more speed during our forty-five-minute warm up. Which we did.
A little under an hour after we launched for our heat, we crossed the finish line in just over six minutes. A time that turned out to be the fastest of all the women’s eights that raced through the heats—all twelve of them. Still, we took nothing for granted because our margin of victory was only a narrow two-tenths of a second, a matter of feet, faster than the time posted by Australia—the team that had won the eight in Japan the year before.
Winning our heat to advance directly to the A-Final was new for six out of the nine of us in our boat. It was a big deal. Definitely a step forward from where we had been the year before. It meant that instead of having to race through a rep (as we had in Japan), we would have six days to rest, recover, practice, and find a little more speed before racing the final.
US Women's 8+ racing in the heats at Eton
When I had sat at the start in Japan, I had only raced internationally one time. But by this 2006 Worlds, I had raced on the world’s stage five times. So, as I collected myself at the start line of this A-Final, I more confidently focused on nothing but the veteran Anna M.’s back and our coxswain Mary’s words...I was more ready than ever to give everything I had to help my team take another step forward.
Almost as immediately as I heard the announcer’s start command, we were nearly five hundred meters into the race. The wind was howling. Waves were crashing. Splashing was inevitable. But to our advantage, it was a wind that pushed us along rather than slowed us. As long as we stayed technically composed through those most horrendous of conditions, it was all but certain that this A-Final would be the fastest I had ever raced.
The first five hundred meters were gone in just 1:25.59. A blistering pace that, if we maintained it, would have us across the finish line in a speed far faster than any women had ever gone.
We all knew better than to take such a lead for granted though, so we kept pushing as if our lives depended on it.
In another five hundred meters, when we crossed over the midpoint of the race, I could feel my top lip beginning to stick to my front teeth. I grimaced with every stroke we took and push I gave...Our effort was working. We were still ahead. Now by nearly sixty feet. Almost the entire length of our boat.
Through the third quarter, the third five hundred (meters) of the race, notoriously the toughest portion, Germany began to push into our lead one stroke at a time, one inch at a time. When Mary saw them, she urged us for more. Which we gave.
As we closed in on the final 250 meters of the race, despite Germany’s push, we were still in the lead. We had been there before. Just one year earlier, we led the pack with 250 meters (less than sixty seconds) to go, when not one, not two, but three boats passed us. So with 250 meters to go, when Mary urged us for more, we found more to give and dug in to what we had earned through every step of our preparation together.
As the waves crashed and the wind blew all the fiercer, we surged all the faster toward the finish line. One. One. One. One stroke at a time. Until there were no strokes left to take.
Approaching the finish line at Eton
In our final few strokes, Mary called for more yet again. My vision hazed over. My lips peeled back from my gums. My ears pulled rearward as my head dipped in the boat. I had nothing left. This time, not on account of food poisoning but because of the effort I poured out onto the racecourse in search of the best we could possibly be.
Because of the speed that Mary, Caryn, Caroline, Susan, Anna M., Anna G., Brett, Megan, and I created together that day, we not only crossed the line before every other boat, but we covered those two thousand meters faster than any other women in history had ever rowed them—5:55.5.
On that late August, bluish-grey, and incredibly windy day in Eton, England, the nine of us became World Champions together, in world-record time, through some of the worst racing conditions I had seen or would ever see. Challenge accepted. Challenge achieved. Another step taken.
By winning and being surprised for the better on my second trip to Worlds, we moved, in theory, one step closer to the Olympics. Worlds was only a stepping-stone. A gauge to see how we were progressing toward the big show. Our glance toward the peak that was the Olympics. Although we were well ahead of the pack when we crossed that 2006 finish line, we had to keep learning. Because, in rowing, you can never be far enough ahead.
So back to New Jersey was the plan. Back to our routine. Back to our unified pursuit. The one we were gradually stepping toward by setting new standards, then exceeding them. Repeatedly. Back to believing in what we could become together and back to taking not a single one of our steps toward that for granted. For as long as we prepared and kept learning, the uncertainty we could all but count on might surprise us for the better. Again.
Before we would take yet another step by meeting back in New Jersey to resume our preparation, Tom sent us home for a month. It was the longest break of our two years of training together up until then. Tom knew things would ramp up again, so he gave us some much-needed physical (and mental) freedom. We had to recover if we wanted to keep stepping toward even greater challenges.
During the month I spent at home after the whirlwind that winning our first World Championships and breaking a world record was, I ran a four-mile road race. The run is an annual event held in my hometown. One still held to this day.
Had you told me back when I was a freshman in college, back when I was slower at running than an elderly man walking, that I would one day voluntarily run a four-mile race, I would have cringed. But I had taken many steps since then. So I chose to run the race because it would motivate me to stay on some sort of training pattern while I was away from New Jersey and my team. Plus, because I had run the race twice with my Virginia teammates back when I was in college, I was curious to see just how much more fit I had become since then.
On the morning of September 3, 2006, I stood amid a massive crowd of more than 1,500 women and eagerly anticipated the start of the Charlottesville Women’s Four Miler. It was early but already hot. Tiny bugs were already sticking to my skin under the moist air that condensed on me in the form of sweat. I did not mind. It was the most prepared I had ever felt at the start of a running race.
Through my first two years of training in New Jersey with Tom, Laurel, and my teammates, I had vastly improved my ability to plan and set paces. So, when the pack took off, I gradually built my pace, patiently let dozens of other runners pass ahead of me and stuck to my plan. Despite being passed, I grew increasingly confident in my fitness. Then, when I began to overtake many of the early leaders before we reached even the first mile, my confidence grew a little more.
My gradual preparation over my first two years of full-time training (through both good and bad days) had built my fitness and my confidence, and it showed. By the time I crossed the finish line, I had covered that four-mile course in a speed more than two minutes faster than I had run it in college. I had my answer. I was not just more fit. I was far more fit. My run time was yet another piece of evidence that all of our preparation was paying off.
I had come a long way in just two short years. It was now the fall of 2006, and I had made two national teams. I had raced two World Championships and three World Cups and had already set a world record. Now, with two years of full-time training behind me, year three of preparation approached, and with it, our last
World Championships before it would finally be the Olympic year. When the end of my month away neared and I prepared to return to New Jersey, I anticipated a training routine complete with small boats and the occasional eight row. Plus running, weights, and erging. Perhaps the sporadic ride on the stationary bike and a training trip to ARCO. Jokes among friends and adventure runs, and likely even less time with our families. Not all that different from the past as far as training went, except for one thing—we had set a world record. Which meant we would be raising our standards yet again. Because like I said, you can never be far enough ahead.
This is an excerpt from Lindsay Shoop's new book "Better Great Than Never," which retraces her journey from college walk-on to Olympic Champion. Read our full row2k review of Lindsay's book here.