Friday, January 14, 2011

RR Interview: 10 Questions with Silas Newby Stafford, Stroke of the US Men's 4-

Stafford & Co. in NZ (Photo Courtesy of S. N. Stafford)
Silas Newby Stafford has quite a track record already in his young career. After getting started in the sport as a college freshman, Stafford's talent was immediately evident, and he put an exclamation point on his excellent college career in 2007, stroking the Stanford Varsity VIII to its highest ever finish at the IRA (tying Harvard for second place in an incredible photo finish). He then went on to win the U23 World Championship in the VIII in 2008, before moving on to Cambridge in the Fall.

While rowing at Cambridge, Stafford once again found himself in the stroke seat, and was referred to at the time by the British Press as "The Boy with the Golden Ticket." His crew emerged victorious (despite a clash that greatly effected his crew) during the Trial VIIIs racing that took place during the Autumn of 2008, and he stroked the CUBC Blue Boat for the 2009 Boat Race. Though they were eventually defeated by an extremely experienced, heavier crew in Oxford (featuring a number of Olympians from Beijing), Stafford's CUBC VIII fought very well, and lead the race until well past the Chiswick Steps.

Since coming back to the US, Stafford has been training with the US National Team, and has made waves once again, stroking the US Men's 4- entry to a close 5th place finish at the World Championship Regatta in Karapiro last November.

RR: You participated in the Boat Race, stroking the CUBC Blue Boat in 2009. In a promo for the 2010 Boat Race, Matt Pinsent said that when he took part in the event, he felt like it was "sporting life, and death." How did you find training and racing in the UK?

SNS: Training for the Boat Race is a one-of-a-kind experience. It is indeed, all-consuming of your time, energy, and thoughts. When the race is over, you really feel that your life is over, simply because you haven’t bothered to think past the race in the preceding months. The stark win-or-lose nature of the race, combined with the incredible 180-year tradition and media whirlwind surrounding the race, make for an experience that doesn’t leave you quickly. It is undoubtedly the hardest race I have ever lost, but I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.

RR: Since coming back from Cambridge, how have you found the training for the US team?

SNS: The biggest benefit to training for the US is that rowing becomes your singular focus; no schoolwork, no full-time jobs, nothing to compete for my attention. While some find this difficult and boring, I love it. Additionally, the level of focus and intensity is orders of magnitude higher than anywhere else I have trained.

RR: During the months and weeks prior to the World Championships in Karapiro, did you have a feeling that you would end up where you wanted to be?

SNS: Absolutely. I prefer the 4- to other boats; its very fast, but you have much more impact than you do in an 8+, and the group dynamics are easier to manage. It was also the priority boat during selection, and I thought we had a good combination with a good shot at a medal.

RR: How long before Worlds were you in your lineup?

SNS: We first rowed our lineup a little more than two months before worlds, although the lineup wasn’t finalized until 6 weeks before.

RR: I thought your entry and the 2x both performed very well, and the readers on RR agreed, voting the 4- and 2x as the most deserving of another round on the international circuit in the current lineup. Do you think anything, or everything, will be different next year? Or is Tim getting close to the lineups he would like to take forward?

SNS: I would like to keep working with that lineup in the 4-, and I think the coaches would as well. However, the four of us would need to get good results in the pairs at the National Selection Regattas to make that possible. I suspect that most of the lineups will change somewhat with the exception of the 2x. Its very hard to predict these things though.

RR: How did you find the atmosphere around Karapiro? I've heard both that it's a great venue and that it's very windy. Maybe both are true?

SNS: Its a great place to train in a beautiful part of the world, and the organizers put on a heck of a show for the world champs. Conditions were pretty miserable and un-rowable on some days. At one point in the final, the crosswind gusts were so strong that GB was about halfway into our lane, and we were halfway into the Italians' lane. Both of us were full-on the rudder, yet were unable to keep the boat in the lane. It was a complete circus. I am certain that conditions unfairly affected results in my race.

RR: You've now stroked boats for Stanford, Cambridge, and the US National Team. What do you think it is that coaches see in you that makes them place you there? 

SNS: I’ve spent a lot of time in the stroke seat over the past few years, and I used to despise it, because I preferred to grit my teeth and pull my brains out in the middle of the boat. Only recently that I started to enjoy stroking boats. Good stroke-seats have the ability to concentrate at a high level, combined with a fluid stroke and good boat-feel. While I like to think that I have those qualities, the real reason I am often in stroke is probably that I can’t follow anybody else.

RR: You've been coached by three outstanding leaders in Craig Amerkhanian, Chris Nilsson and Tim McLaren. What similarities can you identify that help to make them successful? What are the major differences?

SNS: I really can’t emphasize enough how different each of these coaches are, both in their technical focuses and in their coaching styles. Despite their differences, I admire each of them immensely as coaches and as human beings. Tim’s approach focuses on good fundamentals: grip on the handle, catch/seat timing, mental preparation and focus. His style is soft-spoken, subtle, and often sarcastic and harsh. Chris emphasized being tough as nails, while keeping focus and technique. Craig is very open and often boisterous, and he focuses on equipping his athletes for success; get them fit, give them the best equipment possible, and let them figure out the rest. A few similarities stick out; all three are men of great intensity, with passion for the sport and for their athletes. Also, all three keep it simple; rowing is not a very complicated sport, although it can be made to seem that way.

RR: Tim McLaren has been under some scrutiny because of the lack of medals at Worlds this year. How do the athletes feel, and what kind of expectations do you have for the coming season?

SNS: In the German squad they have a saying “achter ist gut, alles gut”. If the eight is good, all is good. This is equally true in the US. As a country, we really care about the 8+. While the 8+ has had disappointing results over the past two years, I think the small boats have unquestionably made strides forward, and we hope to have small boats in medal position in London. The guys on the squad are all buying in to Tim’s system, and we are using the disappointments over the past two years to propel us forward.

RR: The recent decision to move the US men's squad from Princeton to OKC and Chula Vista has yet to be explained in terms that make sense. Water-time was mentioned as a reason for the move, but the infrastructure necessary to provide you and the other athletes with adequate facilities is years away from completion, and the disruption to training caused by the uprooting of the squad must be considerable. What reasoning was presented to the athletes? How are you managing, given all the changes?

SNS: When Tim was named head coach in 2009, the Men’s national team began the experiment of a decentralized system. There has always been an east vs. west dynamic in American rowing, and this was an attempt to support athletes on both coasts, and foster competition between camps as a driving motivational force. Basically, results under this system were not what was wished, and US rowing wanted to take a more centralized approach. The decision was made to close the PTC and move everyone out to California. This closure was a pretty big shocker to the athletes, particularly those who had put down roots in Princeton. At the same time, we are well adjusted to rowing-induced disruption in our lives (we live in total transiency in the summer for training camps, selection, and racing. Also, the closing of the CRC last year had similar results). Overall the PTC guys have taken it well, and with resilience. I guess there is a sense that this is what we signed up for, and we are willing to do whatever it takes to hear the “Star Spangled Banner” in London.

Check out more of what Silas has to say at getsomesilas.blogspot.com.

-RR

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