The singles and doubles for the 2016 USA Olympic team went to trials this weekend, and among the athletes competing, there are those who have had a long, arduous road to the team, and others who have had a bunch of solid but hard years in of the type that most people think is the norm.
For example, in the women's double, Ellen Tomek was on the 2008 team, then failed to make the 2012 team, and now made it again in a new lineup for 2016. In the light double, several of the competitors have rowed together coming into this week, both on the US team and even in college. Kate Bertko went from being a heavyweight Worlds medalist to being a lightweight medalist and now Olympian, with a major disappointment and a major surgery along the way. Ken Jurkowski prevailed in a brutal week of training to win his third Olympic trials, but still has another step to go as he heads next for the final Olympic qualifier in Lucerne next month.
Talking to some of the winners on the dock after the race, many did exude a larger-than-life glow; even athletes you have known for some time seemed more full, even more archetypal, sunscreen and all, just minutes after winning the Olympic trial. It's still "only rowing," but no matter what you are doing, if you have given nearly your entire youth to the effort, it is everything.
For both the victors and those who came up short on the day, the trials results underscored the extremes of human experience and the vast chasm between winning and losing that is mercilessly an almost routine part of the Olympic quest, especially among the true amateurs that give their lives to the sport.
That said, not all the runners-up were unhappy to have made it as far as they did, with a large number appreciating the formidable level they have achieved even without winning the trials. In particular, the bronze medalist Sarasota light women's double of Monica Whitehouse and Rosa Kemp enjoyed almost instant celebrity status after their race, getting swarmed by supporters, reporters, and TV cameras – they were probably responsible for a fair portion of the attendance at the racing as well, so kudos and thanks to the crew.
In order of racing, here is what happened and what the winners had to say. Note that the men's single and men's double still need to qualify for the Olympics at the final qualifier next month; all the other crews are now named to the 2016 Olympic rowing team that will race in Rio this summer.
After a week of incredibly close times in the time trials, heats, and semis, the final of the men's single showed no one had been lurking too much in the prelim racing; in the second 500, the jumbotron photo of three bows surging dead even through line after line of buoys drew repeated gasps from the grandstands, and just over a second separating winner and two-time Olympian Ken Jurkowski from second place finisher Tom Graves at the line. After the race, the toll of the racing clearly showed as Jurkowski needed a solid 10 minutes recovering on the dock and in the water before finally getting to his feet.
The men's single is not qualified for the Olympics yet, so Jurkowski will have to go to the Final Olympic Qualifier Regatta - the so-called "Regatta of Death" with the somewhat queasy abbreviation FOQR - in Lucerne next month. Jurkowski knows the drill, however, having done the same thing in 2008, where he qualified the boat for the Beijing Olympics, so his perspective on that regatta has solid grounding.
"This term, the Regatta of Death, I think is silly," he said. "I look at it as an opportunity to make the team. So, I prefer to look at it as regatta of opportunity, and going into it with the personal expectations to just perform my best and be happy with the outcome, whatever it is."
On the prospect of making his third Olympic team, Jurkowski reflected more on the athletes with whom he had been competing.
"It's a privilege to represent the United States, and I think of it as representing all these other guys that are out here, training and sculling," he said. "It's more than just representing myself. It's representing all the athletes that are training for this. They're the ones who push you and they're the ones who get you to your best. I really owe it to them for their contribution to this effort."
Ken will need to place top three in Lucerne to qualify the boat and his spot for Rio.
After a week of rowing wonk drama over very evenly matched time trial and heats times, in which seven-time (junior, U23, and Senior) US national team member Stesha Carle posted the best time trial time and best semifinal time, Gevvie Stone threw down a solid race in the finals that seemed to find her on form as she took out to a length sometime in the first 500, eventually taking the win and the Olympic women's single spot by just over seven seconds.
"On the line, I was just thinking, 'Let's see what my best is. Let's see how fast I can go,'" Stone said after the race. "I didn't race an entire 2k until today, so that was the goal of today, to race a really hard 2K."
Having been the 2012 Olympic sculler and placing fourth at the World Championships last year, Stone came into the race as a favorite and reflected on the differences from four years ago when she was the new sculler.
"Four years ago, I didn't have as much of a target on my back going into the race," she said. "Lindsay (Meyer) and I were on pretty even terms; she had represented the U.S. in 2010, I represented U.S. in 2011. I didn't qualify the boat that year, so there were a lot of unknowns, and so it was really a thrill winning. When you're the favorite, there's definitely a thrill, but it's also a sigh of relief that you got the job done, because if I hadn't, it would have been a real disappointment, to myself but also to everyone else who's helped me along the way. So there is relief and exhilaration in getting to move on to the next step, and that my racing career isn't over. I get to go compete against the best."
Looking ahead to Rio, Stone is going to stick with the long view for now – with some help from the numbers on the end of the weight bar.
"I don't know if you can feel urgency with 100 days to go; so much of the training is done in the past years and months," she said. "In the next hundred days, it's all about the fine touches and mental prep more than real endurance and power. That stuff's been gained. And I am stronger than I was four years ago. I know that from the weight room. So, that's good reassurance. On the Charles, it's hard to check in with exact speed, because there's current and wind and boats and turns and whatever else. So, it's nice to have concrete measurements like in the weight room, and just see I am making progress."
As a side note to the Women's Single event, spare a thought for women's 1x runner-up Stesha Carle. In 2012, Carle, partnering with Kate Bertko (who won an Olympic spot in the Lightweight Women's Double today), won the Women's Double at the spring 2012 National Selection Regatta required to earn a chance to go to Europe and attempt to qualify the boat for the London Olympics. Carle and Bertko declined the spot at the time in order to focus on seats in the quad, but neither ultimately earned a seat in London.
The US has not yet qualified for a spot in the men's double, so today's win by Stephen "Hap" Whelpley and Willy Cowles leads them to the next step in the process, the FOQR regatta next month. The two have been chasing the double for some time, with detours into other boats, having placed second in the 2012 trials.
"Steve and I raced this event four years ago and got 2nd, and we were pretty disappointed to not have the opportunity to go to the qualifier," Cowles said. "So this is a great opportunity for us and something that, in some ways, has been in the works for a while now."
I asked about how they reflected on the past six years, where the duo raced together, then raced apart, and are now together again.
"Willie and I kind of went separate ways after quadrennial, mostly because I didn't want to keep living in a city," Whelpley said. "Then when we first teamed up again, at first it was like, 'Really? We're back where we started?' But I think, as you said, it's been a cool six-year evolution."
The crew was careful not to get too far ahead of themselves, though, and remained very focused on the trials.
"Our focus has been on this race," Whelpley said. "Each step is its own challenge, and I think taking this next step, we're going to have to elevate that much more. This race was a great first step, and I think we can make the next one. We will have to open the floodgates and let ourselves go, and take it from there."
The crew will need to place top two in Lucerne to qualify the boat and their spots for Rio.
The 2016 US women's double of Meghan O'Leary and Ellen Tomek includes a couple of athletes who might be seen as budding veterans of the event, having been the US women's double for the past three years at World Championships. That didn't make the anticipation on the starting line any easier for stroke seat Ellen Tomek, who when asked about how she calmed her nerves on the line, said "I don't know if we did…" as the emotion of the moment overwhelmed the 2008 Olympian.
"Really, we were so nervous," she continued. "We knew that everyone was going to go out here and give it their best, so we just went out as hard and as aggressive and calm as we could, and once we saw that we were up, after that every stroke we were trying to get another inch."
The strokes added up to give the crew the biggest margin of the day among the Olympic events, a little over 12 seconds at the finish line. On the international level, the women's double is a very closely contested event, and the crew will keep looking for more speed in the next few months.
"That is what makes this event so much fun, and we've been fortunate enough to be the women's double the past few years and see the competition," O'Leary said. It's going to be a lot of similar faces, so we know what we're up against. We think we got it. We're going to go back to work, work really hard, and find that extra speed we need to be on the podium."
Their time together in the boat is somewhat of an anomaly for US crews, which often shuffle lineups continuously; the duo committed to the event some time ago, and only now look back on it.
"It's high risk, high reward, right?" O'Leary said with a smile. "It's risky to put the chips all in, but the outcome can be that much greater and that's how we made the gamble. We thought we had something good and decided to stick together and build the boat, and we've made the adjustments we needed to over the past few years. We're going to continue to do so now, but I think having these few years has given us that ability to make the mistakes, learn from them, and not have to do that all in the next few months to give ourselves a chance to medal against boats who have been together for a whole quadrennial, or even two."
"For me, this was going to be my last race, a culmination of three years in this boat of hard work, and I'm just so happy, so excited," Tomek said. "This was going to be it, and we were going to give everything we had at this race knowing that there was no second chance. We've worked hard for three years for this day and we had to put it all together, and I think we did."
Men's Lightweight Double
The cross-section of scullers in the light men's double included a group of tight-knit athletes who had worked together toward common goals in the past, and would have to face one another for the Olympic spot here. Austin Meyer and Andrew Campbell had been college teammates, while Meyer and Josh Konieczny had rowed the double together at Worlds in 2014. Now Meyer was paired with Nick Trojan, and Campbell and Konieczny reconvened their double from the 2015 Worlds. After a week of nearly identical times on the race course, the final loomed as a potentially brutal race – especially given the equalizing factor of racing as lightweights, all at the same weight at the same time.
It took the crew about 1500 meters to establish enough of a lead to look convincing, but in the end Campbell and Konieczny prevailed. Staggering from the effort of the racing, it took a while for the athletes to get wobbly legs under them, and even then neither was ready to express too much jubilation. Asked how it felt to have won, Konieczny expressed mainly relief.
"Just relief," he said. "This has been a really stressful week and I'm glad we came out on top. It was a tough race, and all credit to Austin and Nick, they rowed a really great race. We're excited to represent the U.S."
In 2012, the US had to go to the final qualifier in the light double, where the crew of Campbell and Will Daly missed qualifying the boat by one spot. Campbell was very cognizant of that history this week.
"The last time trying to make the Olympics was definitely with me through this whole process, and I did everything in my power to make it different this time," he said.
Light Women's Double
Having posted the fastest times against the international gold medal standards all week, the win by the light double of Kate Bertko and Devery Karz seemed all but assured going into the final, but the road the two took to get there was hardly as straightforward. After rowing with the heavyweight team before London, rowing in the quad and double from 2009-2011, Bertko did not make the 2012 team. Subsequently she decided to row lightweight, winning silver in the double in 2013, bronze in the single in 2014 (after undergoing major surgery shortly before Worlds, and then, after losing the doubles trials last year to Karz and Michelle Sechser, bronze in the single again last year.
Karz rowed in the light double the past two years with Sechser; with the trials having been so close between the doubles last year, ultimately the three joined several other scullers to train all in the same place to try to find the best combination. After the racing, Karz was quick to recognize the work the entire group has done over the past few years.
"This crew wouldn't have happened without my previous partner," Karz said. "The past three months training in Austin Texas have been some of the most brutal months of my life. We had a group of five women who were pushing each other to the max every day. Without all five of us, we would never have made this happen. It takes a team to make a boat."
Bertko gave similar credit to her time on the heavyweight team, and also put some of her past tribulations into perspective post-race (see the note in the section on the women's single above for more information).
"I have had a lot of things happen that could be a little traumatizing, but it's definitely made me who I am, and I like what it's made me," she said. "Even not making the team in 2012 was awful, but I think it made me kind of a better athlete. Everything I learned from the openweight group in Princeton really taught me how to be strong and smart, and I wouldn't here without them. They made me really have to be serious and fast, and that really served me well, and I am thankful for them. And everyone I've trained with as a lightweight, at CRC and with at Carlos and now at Vesper, it's been pretty awesome."
Before the racing, Bertko did let herself think on the effort that has gone in up to this point, and tried to use it as a strength.
"I tend to be a little bit of a dumb animal, so sometimes I'm just (makes growling sound)," she said. "But I've been preparing for this because I knew it would be heavy. I knew that it would be a lot of mental stuff just thinking about how much has gone into this. It has been eight years of training to try to do this, and I didn't make it last time and I do know what that feels like, but I wanted that to give me speed, rather than make me worry about it."
With that, the dumb animals and smart athletes – sometimes one and the same – who won this first set of trials head back to training, with more speed, and maybe medals, on their minds.
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