As the US men take to the water in Karapiro, the looming questions about current Head Coach Tim McLaren are: can he have the same success in the US 'system' (really a euphemism for a random selection of clubs and athletes all over the country who come together, usually at the last minute, and are thrown into lineups largely based on erg scores) that he had in the much more structured Australian one? Can he impose that same kind of structure on the truly amateur sport in the US? How will the US Team fair in the second year of his coaching regime? What are acceptable results?
Last year's performance at the World Championships did not make a sterling impression on his adopted home, as none of the camp boats medaled -- in fact, the only boats that took home any hardware at all were the victorious Coxed Pair (Henrik Rummel and Troy Kepper), and the second-place Lightweight VIII. Neither is an Olympic event, and the Lightweight VIII had only 9 entries (though, to be fair, it's a larger showing than the 2005 Gifu World Championships). More troubling than this is that outside of the two aforementioned boats, only one other US entry even so much as made the A Final (the 2- of David Banks and Charlie Cole). Naturally, this boat has been broken up and inserted into the VIII (?), and the pair will be OKC Training Center's Ryan Monaghan and Deaglan McEachern -- certainly very experienced (both having raced for the Light Blues in the Boat Race), but as yet untested on the international scene in this combination (though McEachern has raced internationally as a sculler). I just have trouble understanding why the one successful Olympic-class boat from last year was abandoned.
This is also true of the 4-, which only has one remaining member from the combination that had success earlier in the season (Giuseppe Lanzone), and is also as yet untested on the international stage. Again, I take nothing away from the potential of this crew to succeed. The thing is, most of the European and World crews they will be racing have been in their lineups much longer, and have a track record of success leading up to this appearance at the World Championships. There are some intangibles that take time to develop, and sometimes the fastest guys don't always make the fastest combination (remember 1997, 1998, 1999, followed by 2000?).
Being on the outside looking in, I am not privy to much of the information that has gone into the creation of these lineups. But that's just the problem. There doesn't seem to be any of that 'transparency' that the current political regime is so fond of, and what little data there is outside Princeton doesn't seem to align perfectly with the decisions being made. In the grand scheme of things, I understand that my opinion means little, and that if everything goes swimmingly in Karapiro, McLaren may just turn out to be a genius. However, if what we are seeing is a restructuring of the US system for the 2012 games, I've no idea where things are headed, and there seems to be even less cohesion on the part of US Rowing than ever before (especially now that it's spread somewhere between Princeton, Chula Vista, OKC and Berkeley). At the moment, the momentum seems to be with OKC, as I wrote two weeks ago. But what does that mean? Two years ago, the place to be was CRC -- now coachless and stagnant.
Perhaps we are also seeing how the long-term, unanticipated results of Title IX are affecting US Rowing. The women's team has a highly structured system, and a great deal of results on the international circuit. It can draw from a huge intercollegiate pool of athletes, many of whom get their start in junior programs with an eye toward being recruited to college. Opportunities abound. The men's team, on the other hand, has a dwindling number of varsity programs from which to draw athletes (and so is more dependent on the less-stable club system), little-to-no financial incentive (outside of pure love of the sport) for its athletes to make a cross-country move in order to be considered, and declining results on the international stage. To make matters worse, the few remaining men's varsity programs in the US have increased their international recruiting, leaving even fewer spots to develop future prospects for the US on the men's side.
There doesn't seem to be any over-arching structure, which could guide all the training centers popping up here and there toward some kind of common goal or technique, and the result is what we have now: a new 'elite' training center emerging every couple of years or so, sending a new batch of athletes out to Worlds, few if any of whom return to that same system or continue to be developed. Case in point: the Coxed Pairs race from trials this year. The result was a 0.2 second margin with the victorious combination from OKC going to Worlds, while the second-place crew (which clearly could have been on the other side of that result on any given day), made up of Steve Kasprzyk and Troy Kepper, must watch from home. Both Kasprzyk and Kepper were on the Worlds team last year, and Kepper was one of only two Americans to come home with a gold medal. But, apparently, he is not worth developing.
I truly hope that this is not the case this year, as I wish them nothing but success, and I'll be excitedly watching the results. One of the things I love most about the sport is that it is still largely amateur (at least in the US), and that causes some of the very problems I've discussed. Still, I think we can do better in creating a more organized, if not more centralized, training system that doesn't let people who have proven they can be successful on the international stage fall through the cracks.
I also know that Tim McLaren is an excellent coach for individual boats, as he has proven time and time again on the international scene, most recently with his success with the Men's 2x from CRC, which qualified for the Beijing Olympics, finishing 9th in only their second season together. But he made have bitten off more than he can chew coming into the highly disorganized, high-pressure situation, plagued by low athlete retention, in which he now finds himself. That being said, if he can show significant improvement this year in Karapiro (Olympic-class boats making A Finals, at least 3-5 podium appearances overall), I think he has earned a full Olympic cycle. If the team falters once again, missing finals and coming home empty-handed, as, given the overall lack of international racing experience on this year's squad (outside of Jason Read), I'm afraid it might do, then something has to give.
Prove me wrong, please, Tim.