Let's start by being absolutely clear - winning no medals for the first time ever was bad. End stop.
Now let's look at numbers - edit 8/4: I limited these observations to the direct experience of our US athletes, and not to orgs and systems such as USRowing etc; that is a much larger although obviously directly related topic).
Of the four camp sweep boats - the women's and men's eights and fours - there were exactly five returning Olympians.
- Women's eight had two: seven-seat Megan Musnicki and coxswain Katelin Guregian.
- Men's eight had one: five-seat Austin Hack.Women's four had one: stroke Grace Luczak.
- Men's four had one: two-seat Anders Weiss.
Of the 26 athletes in those four boats, five had raced in an Olympics before last week. I haven't run the rosters, but can any other large rowing country say the same?
A lot of those folks had never been on a senior team, and there were at least 1-2 on their first team ever.
In the two women's doubles, there were three first-timers, including one first-time national team rower.
The men's eight was two seconds from gold; the women's eight three and a half.
Athletic success is absolutely cyclical, and these numbers alone point to a simple notion: this was a rebuilding cycle.
Or just as possibly, this is the first rebuilding year of the 2024 cycle.
Men's eight final, with the US men in the hunt on the far side of the course
Then let's look at training conditions.
In Princeton, a large number (I think it was 14??) of athletes contracted Covid almost immediately in early spring 2020, and had to make extremely cautious returns to training.
After that, as we spoke to the women's eight about yesterday, their training conditions were extreme and even bizarre; ergs set up in parks, sheds, driveways, and sidewalks; townies knew all the houses where rowers lived due to seeing them putting in long hours on the ergs in public view.
Those who had roommates had to ask those roommates to enter into their bubble; there were non-rowers who did nothing but walk their dogs in order not to bring home an infection that would compromise their training roommates.
Those who were living with host families - and let's be clear, that is almost everyone, as there isn't really any money for housing in our national team system - had even more complicated 'bubble' situations, especially as the country opened up to some extent last summer. When summer weather arrived, many families in Princeton created small bubbles with a couple other families, so that their kids were not completely shut in and could maybe get on a bike to go get some ice cream at the new Rita's with one or two friends.
Then in mid-spring, all the kids went back to school.
Meanwhile, the athletes living in those homes were starting to get back in small boats, maybe pairs or doubles, creating small training bubbles inside their teams.
When they moved around each day, they rotated through a Venn diagram of a few different bubbles, at the center of which was arguably significant risk.
At their actual training sites, the complications just kept coming; boathouses were closed, boats were in parking lots off of Route 27, coaches were massively challenged just to have a shell in a spot where crews could launch, rules changed constantly...
I'll stop there except to share one anecdote: the coaches in New Jersey had to set up a porta-potty on a trailer, and transport it to the launch site every day so that the athletes did not have to use any spaces common to people not in their bubble.
Do you know any other Olympic/national team coaches who have had to do that?
Or not - let's not forget that the athletes and coaches were concerned for themselves, their teammates, and their families all the time, just like all of us; worried about grandparents, parents, infant nephews and nieces, and everyone they could or could not come in contact with.
This went on for months, and months, and months.
The folks we are talking about are my own neighbors, so I can attest that this is a very accurate description of the situation in Princeton. I don't know how the pandemic played out for the athletes based in Oakland, but it is hard to imagine it is less complicated in an urban environment.
Certainly the year is showing its toll on other teams in other sports, and it is not unreasonable to think it had a more powerful effect on our athletes than many even know. (Edit 8/4: surely it is telling that perhaps the only three nearly certain gold medals - US women's soccer, Simone Biles, and the US women's eight - all struggled mightily in these Games.)
Notably, all of this - and the simple fact that the pandemic and an unexpected additional full year of training precipitated retirements by some very accomplished veteran athletes increased the youth of the ranks - amplifies the notion stated above: this is a rebuilding Games.
In fact, the argument could be made that this is more like the first year of a new quadrennial, except for the fact that not every country was boating such young teams.
Which brings me to another possible point: in our internal chats here at row2k, multiple people remarked independently of one another (in asynchronous texts caused by the time zone differences) that the medals table seems to mirror somewhat how well countries handled the pandemic. New Zealand topped the medals table, mostly on the virtue of their big boats; has that ever happened? It did in a year when NZ probably did the very best job of handling the pandemic among the bigger rowing nations. The United States' overall handling of the pandemic has arguably been among the worst.
Briefly, as someone who saw up close what the pandemic required of coaches of large-ish teams, and the absolute mismatch between the requirements of a pandemic versus overseeing continued progress of ambitious athletes in a team sport, it is hard to overstate the demands on the coaches of the past 18 months. The already complex job of coaching rowers, which ranges almost absurdly from loading and driving 60-foot trailers to working with ambitious and strong-minded adults on the most important decisions of their lives (a job description that might not exist in almost any other profession), expanded exponentially.
While so many were setting up epic home offices in new homes in the Berskhires and beach towns (or Hawai'i), spending more time with family, and buying dogs for company on their new pandemic walking regimens, this was not a work-from-home year for coaches and athletes.
Meanwhile, there is not a ton of funding for our national teams, so the coaches are bootstrapping everything, and are missing the one thing that could mitigate some of these issues, which is of course enough money to do the job at hand.
What is the saying - America doesn't win medals, Americans do - and if we are going to ask these young people, their coaches, their supporters, and their families to produce better results, we are going to have to do a better job ourselves.
A blast of sand
So how bad was it? On the face of it, pretty f'ing bad, to use a word that at least three veteran women rowers used in our sometimes difficult and raw interviews with US athletes this week, and none are happy about it. But what is worse, a bunch of fourth and fifth place finishes, or what these young adults have gone through the past year, and what we expect of them despite all of it?
If I were in one of those boats, I would be absolutely crushed to have missed the podium - but I also might be thinking that I couldn't believe we even made it that far - and as I think back over the past few days, a lot more than a few athletes said the same.
This reads like a defense, but when I woke up this morning I had no intention of defending the results at all. This is not a complaint, but life in the mixed zone this week couldn’t really be described as fun - but after a head-clearing two-mile walk to the beach volleyball venue (in the stands of which I am writing, a tremendous privilege I know, since even athletes can't go to other sports) passing through streets that had an almost-crowd of masked locals cheering on the triathlon event in the Odaiba neighborhood, all of the above had crowded out nearly all other possible assessments of the results.
To be honest, the least complicated and yet most compelling assessment is the stunning youth of the team, and slightly but strangely less so the insane drama of the past year. But put all together, this narrative is proving hard for me to shake. Maybe instead of a defense, it is a clear-eyed stake in the sand to close out a truly mad and harrowing quin-quadrennial.
Yep, it was bad - zero medals, worst ever.
But what if, last Thursday, we had said that this US team might be the youngest and greenest we have ever sent, and had just endured a global pandemic and all that goes with that - including contracting Covid themselves in significant numbers, and still showed up ready to race?
From that perspective, some fourth and fifth place finishes might just seem like a miracle.
Stay pumped people
Banging on laptop way up in the stands