row2k Features
UPDATED 10/18: Interview with Sara Hendershot, USRowing High Performance Committee Chair
October 18, 2021
Ed Hewitt, row2k.com

Updated Oct 18 3pm with information on USOPC funding and more.

USRowing High Performance Committee Chair Sara Hendershot spoke with row2k on Friday afternoon about some of the factors and decisions behind the proposed National Team Selection Procedures, as well as how the procedures would work under a new High Performance Director, how USRowing will work with clubs, and more.

The Selection Procedures are currently open for public comment through October 29, 2022; information on how to submit comments can be found here.

row2k: This is a pretty major overhaul of the previous system; what were the most important drivers that led to such a major change?

Sara Hendershot: As we drafted these procedures, one of the biggest motivators for change was athlete feedback. We have spent much of the past 3 months listening to our high performing athletes and consolidating all of their experiences regarding the existing system. One of the most consistent themes that came up was concerning objectivity of selection. Athletes want more control over their futures and more performance-driven selection procedures. Those desires are reflected in this draft.

row2k: I know you did surveys and other outreach; what was the effect of those efforts on what you decided to do, and how did they result in the particulars of the procedures as written?

Hendershot: Athletes also asked for earlier selection, expedited Selection Camps, the option, but not requirement, of a centralized training location for both men and women, more financial support, and better communication between all parties involved in USRowing High Performance. Many of these items are also addressed in this draft, and we will continue to communicate updates in response to all concerns in the coming weeks and months.

I think it's important to note that this is a draft. We are currently in a two-week public comment period that will close on October 29th. We anticipate there will be changes to these procedures based on the continued feedback we hear during this period. This is why it is so important for our athlete pool to continue to participate in the process - we can't make the changes you want if we don't hear from you. While many have felt they have not been heard in the past when voicing their opinions and perspectives, as one of your Athlete Representatives, I want to assure all athletes that we are listening now.

row2k: I have picked up over time that the USOPC is interested in small boats medals. Is that the case?

Hendershot: One big change that we're putting forward for this year is having the funding follow athletes rather than boat classes. We are using Trials results as an objective measure of performance and talent.

The USOPC has been clear with us that they are not interested in funding us if we continue to put all of our top talent into the 8's. They want us to distribute our top talent across more medal opportunities, and this was expressed by the USOPC prior to our Tokyo results. We will therefore encourage our top performing athletes to choose the smaller boat opportunities (1x, 2-, 2x, 4-, 4x) over the 8+. This year we are reserving the 8's as development boats and will also be funneling top collegiate talent into these boats.

This does not mean that the 8's are entirely unfunded. It means that the funding will be spread across our top athletes, and that we hope to put most of our top talent into the smaller boats this year. There is also a high possibility that this evolves over the cycle under the direction of a new CHPC. They may shift some of the boat emphasis in the future after demonstrating good results in other boat classes outside the 8's only.

The positive outcome I see coming from this is the emphasis it puts on developing small boat skill. We will not be able to get away with incredible athlete physiology that lacks small boat moving skill - we need both. These selection procedures put a higher emphasis on small boat moving and asks our athletes to step up to the challenge.

row2k: The timing is unusual to have selection procedures come out and then a high-performance director come on two months later. Will the new high-performance director have input on these? Or will these be in place by then?

Hendershot: Yes, it is a little bit challenging, and we have to have a thorough process with a high-performance director to make sure that we get the right person and that we're really thinking about the long-term future of the program.

The selection procedures have to be done now in order for us to be compliant and to give the athletes time to plan for their year. When these are final, they will be final for the year, and that's the way that this year in particular has to be. The new chief high-performance director, once hired, will have input on future years, but there is a lot of language within these selection procedures (for this year) addressing where the chief high-performance director will be involved and what they can influence. So definitely their mark will be made on this year and these procedures.

row2k: What if they have different ideas?

Hendershot: Yes, if they have different ideas, then those ideas for this year have to work within the selection procedures that have been set.

row2k: And then you can talk about doing it in a different way in the future?

Hendershot: Yes, I anticipate that next year will look different than this year.

The goal for us to continue to improve our performance in small boats is going to be a constant, but where they want us to focus resources and time and energy and how that will be distributed, I'm certain it's going to be impacted strongly by whoever comes into that role.

row2k: Arguably someone like Steve Redgrave, whose interest in the position leaked this week, is probably more of a centralized system person.

Hendershot: Yes, I think whoever we end up moving forward with, if they have a strong vision of what it's going to take for us to have success, we're definitely going to lean on that person's expertise and their perspective.

row2k: There are going to be satellite clubs, but where do athletes go now? Also, often some of the problems that affect (national team) selection can be similar to and sometimes even be amplified at clubs; how do you see that working? What if no club will have you? What if you don't have oversight over those folks? Does that concern you at all?

Hendershot: I see this opportunity as a really nice way for athletes to have more control over their destiny. Ultimately, we're not looking at a completely decentralized system. That's not what this is outlining. It's just outlining more options and opportunities and paths to be able to make our team.

For many, there have been more roadblocks to come from a club and then make it into a training center or into a camp selection process. Our intention here is to get rid of a lot of those roadblocks.

The chief high-performance director is going to have to have a really close relationship with these high-performing clubs, and that's the plan. They're all going to be working together to ensure that we are able to put our development talent in the right places to have the opportunities to grow, and to have what they need in order to reach their best potential.

I'm really optimistic that this is going to lead only to better opportunities and better communication across all groups. We've had athletes come from high-performing clubs in the past and compete, represent us, and this is just formalizing that process more.

row2k: Would USRowing be seeking oversight in how the athletes were treated in their clubs and what boats they ended up in, et cetera?

Hendershot: The clubs are always going to function as clubs to make their own decision around resources and how they are run because they are independent groups, but the chief high-performance director will work and provide as many resources as we are able to with the leaders of those groups, and really try to help consult in those processes too.

If we have top talent across the country in different places, he or she will absolutely be part of that journey. I don't know exactly what that's going to look like until we're able bring the person in and build out the full picture. Which is why this is challenging, right? Because we don't have that person yet.

And so, this year is going to be different than future years for that reason, and part of why we're encouraging athletes to go find a club that works well for them is because we're in this interim period of waiting to find that leader. They (selection procedures) will definitely look different in future years.

row2k: Do they have financial help? Say you're going to drive and move to Florida or California, to get there and get set up if you're a currently identified athlete?

Hendershot: The Direct Athlete Support procedures and process and allocation and all of that has not been finalized for this year yet. That's actually the next task of the high-performance committee to work through. And then, the grant that we receive from the USOPC will have a lot of weight in that. But the intention as well is that we're going to be able to create a process where the funding follows athletes and those that are our top athletes rather than boat classes or location.

So we're not going to say, "We're only giving funding to one boat class, and you must be here in order to do that," rather "if you perform and you show speed at our trials, that's going to help to unlock funding to follow you wherever it is that you want to be." Before trials begin, it's going to be a process of identifying who is returning and where that talent currently was before this assessment.

row2k: Many of us have been through both camps and trials on the way to the team, and have seen all of the elements of what can happen, good and bad. Is there a mechanism for intervention for athletes to address problems between clubs and athletes? Or do they just encourage them to say, "Okay, that club didn't work out, go give this one a shot."

Hendershot: Yes; I think, big picture, the need for USRowing to better outline the path of athletes to give feedback and concerns and for them to be heard by a grievance panel, it needs to be fleshed out. That's very much so on the list of top priorities right now that Amanda is focused on and that the board is tapped to solve.

We hope that there's not going to be an overwhelming number of reasons to tap into the grievance panel through selection processes this year, but that needs to be in place in case that there are issues that pop up, so that there's full process for due diligence and transparency around anything that an athlete needs to raise concerns of.

row2k: Are you naming these as officially named satellite clubs, or are they just clubs that folks can go train there and show up at trials?

Hendershot: Yes, the clubs that are linked in Amanda's letter are part of the roster of official high-performing clubs, so we're including those as options or suggestions where we know there already is infrastructure for these high-performance programs. But that is, as far as I understand for right now, the extent of the sanctioning that will occur.

And then there will be updating that will need to be done, because there's going to be more information that we'd like to go out and get from some of the clubs and reps.

Sara Hendershot (right) in the 2012 Olympic Trials
Sara Hendershot (right) in the 2012 Olympic Trials

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