Friday, March 4, 2011

RR Interview: 10 Questions with Olympic Champion Jason Read

Jason Read has a lengthy resume of success on the international rowing stage. While he is perhaps best known as the first man to cross the line in the Men's 8 at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Read also had fantastic results on the World Cup circuit earlier that summer, where his 4- defeated both the British as well as the Canadian entries that went on to win gold and silver (respectively) in Athens. Needless to say, Read formed an integral part of a number of Mike Teti National Teams, and he has the hardware to prove it. In this interview, Read discusses his career, the differences between the old regime and the new, his experience of Karapiro, as well as the squad's goals for the coming year with a view toward London.

RR: You've had international success in the 2-, 4- and the 8+ -- is there one boat category that is your favorite? If so, which one, and why?

JR: Not really…I like all boat classes! The pair is special because you have to be exactly on the same page as your partner to move the boat effectively. It requires slightly more skill than larger boats to go fast. Obviously there's nothing like the feeling in an eight when you are going hell-for-leather with eight other men. If you're in the stern, it feels like the boat is going to take off. If you're in the bow, you feel like you're going to get ejected. Though we try our best, that incredibly explosive feeling is hard to fully or accurately articulate; yet it is known and can be generally described by men and women who haven't rowed in decades. They still remember how it feels.

RR: You were the first person across the line in 2004, in a record-setting 8, capping off a very successful year on the international circuit. At what point, and why, did Teti decide to put you guys in the 8 rather than the 4-, which was going very well through the World Cup series?

JR: To make (and win) the eight was always the goal. On the way to achieving that objective we came up with a very special and quite fast straight four. It would have been fun to line up in Athens in that boat, but all of us were happy to be in the Eight as we raced in Marathonas at the Olympic Regatta. What many people might not know is that we had three fours that were all very close to each other on Lake Carnegie in May and June 2004 during final selection. Once the team was officially named, it was common for three fours to go out and have great sessions. The spirit on and off the water was the highest I have ever seen. Positive morale begets boat speed.

RR: In winning the 8, you accomplished one of your life-long dreams. What was it like in the aftermath of the 2004 Olympics? Did you consider retiring, or did you have Beijing in mind at the time?

JR: It was a sublime and totally electric experience. To win an Olympic gold medal in Greece where the Olympics all began more than 2,000 years ago was life changing. Because we were in such an ancient city it was as if we were searching for the Golden Fleece! Team USA's celebrations (not just the rowing team) were commensurate with the overall success and medal haul in Athens. When I returned home I never realized the implications of what we accomplished. Our Athens’ campaign seemed to run well into summer of 2005 when the NYC2012 Olympic bid was determined. There were dozens of events, interviews, dinners, and fundraisers. Chip or Ahrens coined the phrase 'living the dream!' well before the release of Wedding Crashers. We were definitely ‘living the dream’. It certainly did not come easy. Between 8/22/2004 and the Milan World Championships in 2003, we trained about a thousand times.

RR: How is the atmosphere different now from when you first began competing for the National Team? How does the 'culture' of McLaren differ from that of Teti?

JR: The atmosphere now is considerably different; it is significantly less cut throat. Every college rower in the country sought after a coveted invite to the Princeton Training Center. U23 athletes coming back from Henley or U23's would come to the boathouse immediately after returning from competing overseas, hoping, praying, or dreaming of a shot to get in a boat with one of the many World Champions training on the team. Even if these guys were jet-lagged, sick, or beat from having recently raced in England or Europe – they’d be at the boathouse no more than one day after their return. I distinctly remember in 1998 or 1999 Henry Nuzum coming to practice the next morning (a Tuesday) after getting back from Henley. A few rowers from Penn came in on Friday. It didn’t go unnoticed by Mike and the rest of the guys training. It wasn’t surprising that they didn’t make the team. Now, some guys roll in up to a week after they've gotten back with the impractical expectation that they'll be boated and selected immediately. The sense of urgency for some of them is not there.

In the late 1990s, the list of athletes participating in National Team Testing ("NTT") was lengthy. Every month guys couldn't wait to see who Mike might snatch off the list and give an invitation to. Having a big erg was crucial in that ID process.

On the coaching side, Mike pulled together the best collegiate and club coaches and created a posse of talented leadership that yielded an unprecedented World Championship medal haul from 1997 - 1999. It was a system that worked very well and built an unshakable esprit de corps within the group.

Tim is working hard to implement a professional structure that has made his athletes very successful in Australia. Guys are embracing his model of small boat rowing, with many traditional sweep rowers now becoming proficient single scullers.

RR: You were the seven seat of the US men's VIII in Karapiro, which went quite went well as you defeated the Kiwis and Canadians in the rep, knocking the Canadians out of the final. What were your expectations going into the final? Were frustrated by the result?

JR: We had a solid campaign of training leading up to the latest scheduled World Championships in recent history. Tim and Korzo worked us very hard in the run up to our departure. I think the boat was capable of winning a medal. Unfortunately, we did not have our best race in the final and ended up under-performing. The result was frustrating, to say the least, but we are using that 6th place finish as motivation moving forward this year.

RR: Do you have a feeling for whether next year's VIII will have a similar look? Or will things be greatly shaken up through the coming selection process?

JR: Everyone is trying to make the team. I would say it's too early to tell on the sweep team where each athlete might end up.

RR: As a veteran of 12 National Teams and an Olympic Champion, do you feel that your position on the squad has changed? Do you find yourself taking on more of a leadership role?

JR: The guys might be able to answer that question better. I do try and help with organization, logistics, and fundraising as much as possible. I also try and set a positive example by cleaning (very aggressively) the boathouses where we train. Korzo used to yell at me to put the broom down because I usually sweep out the bays of the boathouse as part of my pre-practice warm up. This fall I set up an eating program with the Colonial Club on Princeton’s campus so guys wouldn’t have to worry about scrambling for food following a long/intense training session. The food there is excellent, affordable and very close to the boathouse.

Looking at the value of leadership in broader terms, it may be the most important asset an Olympic athlete or coach can have. I think the best leaders in our sport are men like Teti, Nash, Gavin White, Gladstone, Stan Bergman, and Chris Clark. In terms of athletes, Jason Lezak as the anchor for the 4x100 meter freestyle relay in Beijing showed incredible leadership and tenacity in a come-from-behind victory was epic. He defied all odds and confounded NBC announcer Rowdy Gaines in the most exciting race at the 2008 Olympics. USA Swimming's team veteran, Lezak, is a leader we can learn a lot from. I wrote about this race in The Wall Street Journal’s online coverage of the Beijing Games.

Many of us learned about leadership from training year in and year out under Mike Teti with some of the greatest, most decorated men our sport has ever seen. These guys are all strong leaders who helped elevate the team to great success in the late 90s. In no particular order, teammates like Bob Kaehler, Tom Murray, Jeff Klepacki, Porter Collins, Paul Teti, Bill Carlucci, Marty Crotty, Wolf Moser, Mike Wherley, Chris Kerber, Henry Nuzum, and the men who rowed in our 2004 Athens’ Eight gave me invaluable insight on various leadership styles and on goal execution.

RR: The most surprising thing about the recent move by USRowing to split the men's squad between SD and OKC is that it seems to have been a complete surprise to the athletes as well. Were the athletes given any indication that such a major action was even being considered? What rationale was presented to the athletes regarding the move?

JR: No, the transfer of most Princeton Training Center functions to Chula Vista for almost all of the men came as a crushing surprise. Money.

RR: Since the announcement, how has the atmosphere on the team changed? Are people able to stay positive? Do you feel that the change can work?

JR: The exclusive reason for training as hard as we do, for as long as we do, is to win gold medals at the Olympic Games. Hopefully this directive will help our team achieve that.

RR: What are the goals of the squad for the coming year? Which entries should we keep an eye on in 2011?

JR: Qualify all boat classes for the 2012 London Olympics. All of them; competition is severe and anything can happen.

Thanks very much to JR for taking the time.

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