The Wall Street Journal got involved in the debate surrounding the US National Team this week, publishing an article that is the first appearance to date of any reasoning behind the moves as expressed by Glenn Merry himself. The rationale, according to Merry, is directly related to training -- the warmer climate in California allows year round training on the water, and, given the US men's failure to bring home any hardware from Karapiro in November, the US Rowing leadership decided that the move would facilitate rapid improvement in small boat categories. The results from the RR short answer poll show that the move is a divisive issue: 38% believed the move was a bad decision, while 32% backed the move to California and 28% remained undecided. While I believe this is the right move in the long-term, there are a number of problems yet to be addressed in the wake of such a dramatic shift, and only 20 months left to resolve them.
First, let's look at the benefits of the move from the standpoint of training and the long-term:
Let's face it, the climate in Southern California is better suited to outdoor training than the climate in New Jersey. If the top priority is simply time on the water, it is hard to take issue with sacrificing three to four months of unrowable conditions for year-round convenience. The Arco facility has been in use by the US National Team for a number of years now, and many of the athletes and coaches are already familiar with the facility. McLaren is also quite at home in California, having coached at CRC prior to taking on a leadership role with US Rowing. Thus far, the athletes have expressed that they are willing to make the sacrifices necessary to continue training in pursuit of the Olympic dream, and, despite the logistical issues that it raises for all those currently training in Princeton, they have maintained a unified front while beginning to pick up stakes and move across the country. Also, while the Arco facility is currently not equipped to service the entire team, it is at least a workable situation that can be improved over time.
All right, now let's talk about the problems:
There are only 20 months left until London. The move is not scheduled to take place until March 2011, when the athletes would be on the water once again in Princeton anyway, so while the idea of year-round training may apply to future Olympiads, it will have, at best, the cumulative effect of allowing another three months training on the water. Perhaps that is not insignificant, but due to the rushed nature of the move, following a very late World Championship Regatta this year, training for some of the athletes may be interrupted for almost that long as they move out to California and seek both housing and work. According to a recent national survey, the unemployment situation in California is tied with Michigan for second-worst in the US at 12.4%, and Chula Vista is located in a distant suburb of San Diego, so the more affordable housing will be located at some distance from the training center. Add to this the fact that the training center is not currently equipped to meet the needs of the entire team, hence the squad has effectively been split in half between the High Performance Center in Oklahoma City and Arco. This split involves the central issue discussed in the Wall Street Journal article -- that being the goal of producing more results in small boats and sculling events in 2012 -- as the developmental heavyweight group is currently scheduled to train in OKC, along with the lightweights. If the heavyweight group is split between two time zones, it will be difficult to create a consistent, team-wide culture, not to mention put together meaningful comparative data.
If, as the article states, the goal is to bring home five medals from the rowing events in 2012, then is this really the best time to reorganize the entire system for 50% of the National Team? If the stated goal were more long-term, even 2016, it would be easier to understand taking on such a major challenge at this point in time. Between relocating the entire coaching staff (minus Korzeniowski...?), sorting out the housing situation and providing some support for athletes as they seek new jobs in a new location, and (hopefully) making necessary improvements to the Arco facility to better serve the needs of US Rowing, the National Team may have a few too many variables to worry about outside of boat speed to be able to compete at the desired level in London. If the USOC were able to negotiate employment programs for the athletes in the process and aid them financially as they make the move, it would greatly improve the situation. I hope that McLaren et al. can manage to right the ship, and I will always be an enthusiastic supporter of the athletes representing the US -- maybe that's why I'm so concerned.