There has been a ton of back-and-forth lately on the Rowing Illustrated boards about a new feature of the ACRA -- that being an 'All-Star' camp this coming summer under the guidance of none other than Gregg Hartsuff of Michigan, arguably the most recognizable club rowing coach in the US, and certainly one of the best. The idea is that club athletes who have a great deal of potential, but who fear that they will be given short shrift by the USRowing camp system due to their non-varsity backgrounds, will have the chance to develop their talent and be appreciated based on what will (hopefully) be some positive results at U23 Trials. While the idea in and of itself is a compelling one, it raises a number of issues that could further widen the rift between club and varsity sports, as well as between American collegiate rowing and our own National Team.
(Note for non-US readers: US collegiate rowing is essentially split into two categories. While it is in reality slightly more complicated, at the most basic level, the breakdown looks like this: varsity = funded by the university, club = independently funded. In both cases, athletes represent their university in competition. Because of this division, there are also two sets of 'National Championships' in US men's collegiate rowing: The IRA for varsity programs, and the ACRA for clubs.)
The 'NTT' (National Team Testing) system under Mike Teti was reasonably clear, as Jason Read alluded to in his RR interview: if you can pull a good erg, you'll at least get a look. You might pull a great erg, and not get as much of a look as you feel you deserved, but the fact is, you probably weren't fast enough yet. The Teti National Team brought home a great deal of hardware, and the head coaches were certainly not trying to go any slower. They seem to have made some pretty solid choices, and there were a number of club athletes in the mix, the most famous of whom, Bryan Volpenhein, stroked the US Men's VIII to a gold medal in 2004.
While we no longer see the 'NTT' page on USRowing's website, there is still a similar attitude -- if you can produce an international-level result on the erg, you will be given a chance to prove yourself on the water, and develop within the US National Team system. What does this mean? It means that if you are a club athlete who pulls a phenomenal erg (like Matt Miller of UVA or Greg Flood of Notre Dame), then you should still opt for the US National Team Selection Camp, in order to place yourself in the midst of the toughest possible competition and make the most of your athletic potential. Sure, you might not make it the first time around. But look at Warren Anderson (before anyone runs off and 'uses the google machine' to show me that LMU is technically a varsity program -- please). He came from a small program, had no idea how to scull when he showed up in Princeton, and is now likely going to represent the US in a sculling event in London. The point is, if you are a phenomenal athlete, you need to put yourself in the most competitive possible situation, and go to work.
Again, when you arrive, you will likely be at a disadvantage. Not only do varsity programs ge to pick and choose from the best crop of juniors every year, they also have well-paid, professional coaches, who can help to develop the technical side of the equation on a very high level. What this means is that despite your monster erg score, you probably won't be as efficient as elite-level Varsity rowers on the water, yet. This does not mean that you should avoid competing against them or placing yourself in a National Team environment. By rowing with people who are better than you technically, your own technique will improve more rapidly. All it takes is the same commitment, hard work, and no bull attitude that is necessary for any club rower to achieve great erg scores. If you get cut once, who cares? So did Michael Jordan. Attack it with even more tenacity the next time. Coaches like Mike Teti love club athletes, because they know those club athletes have never been given anything -- they've fought for every inch of run and scrap of respect along the way, and they will keep fighting. For these reasons, it's my opinion that the best club athletes -- the ones with truly elite physiology -- need to push themselves to the fullest extent, and take on US National Team Selection camps.
The ACRA All-Star camp, it seems to me, is perfectly suited to developing the kind of talent that can, and often is, overlooked. It seems perfect for the club rower who is 6'2" and 185 lbs., pulling a 6:10 2k. It is exceedingly clear from the information published on the ACRA website that erg scores are weight adjusted, and this works perfectly for the 'midweight' oarsman -- perhaps the most under-appreciated rower of them all (look at JR, Scott Frandsen, Tom and Peter Graves, Troy Kepper, etc. for examples of why these athletes are worthy of development). Ideally, this camp will allow Hartsuff to develop athletes in the following situation: on the cusp of elite numbers, who would greatly benefit from a selection camp kind of environment, but who are not yet physiologically prepared for the next level. It would serve as a complement to the existing USRowing camp system, developing more talent and funneling it in the right direction (i.e. into the USRowing system following suitable development), instead of taking some of the best physiological potential from the National Team and setting up some kind of rivalry. Creating a system in opposition to the existing USRowing system would serve only to dilute the talent pool by spreading it across a host of distinct camps, each one actively recruiting the best athletes, while a camp set up with the idea of complementing the existing system would be mutually beneficial and help to produce better results across the board.
Last time I checked, the goal has been, is, and will always be, to win. Though I, from my comfortable position as armchair quarterback, don't always agree with the decisions that they make, I also don't think that US National Team coaches are out there making decisions with the intention of producing poor results on the world stage. They are trying to put the best talent together and win medals. With that in mind, I think that the best of the best club athletes, if and when they do get cut at a selection camp, need to get back up, brush off the dirt, and climb back on the horse. It's not going to happen overnight -- for that matter, most of the varsity athletes against whom you are competing have been rowing for twice as long, and that does make a difference. But keep moving. Consistency is key. Persistence, much more so than talent, will place you where you should be, and where you need to be.
Upcoming articles: NCAA v. IRA, and Varsity v. Club Sports