The 2011 World Championships are drawing ever closer, and it's time to take a look at what USRowing is bringing to the table as the international community gathers in Bled. First, let's look at the men's squad:
Thinking back to last season -- Tim McLaren's sophomore year -- Team USA featured a few potentially solid sweep entries in what appeared to be their first circuit in the build up toward London. The M4- (RR Interviewee Silas Stafford, Sam Stitt, Henrik Rummel, and Giuseppe Lanzone) and the M8+ were both solidly in contention, and the four fought well in a difficult lane in the final to finish fifth in one of the most talented fields at the regatta. The eight was disappointed with a sixth place finish in the final, which did not reflect their potential, but was at least a step in the right direction with a solid group, including two-time Olympian Jason Read, and 2008 Olympian David Banks. The M2- of Ryan Monaghan and Deaglan MacEachern raced well despite inexperience at the international level (as RR interviewee Ryan Monaghan explained), and managed a reasonable ninth place finish, which would have been enough to qualify for London.
Now, explain this:
Five of the eight people I just named did not even so much as make the team this year. Furthermore, three of these five just raced in Lucerne as the second entry in the M4- (composed of Silas Stafford, Ryan Monaghan, Sam Stitt, and David Banks), which took ninth overall (just over one tenth of a second behind defending World Champion France, and less than two seconds behind Australia's entry featuring Drew Ginn).
How is it possible that not one of these talented oarsmen, many of whom have produced excellent results in the not-at-all-distant past, made the team this year? Is there a successful international program that has this rate of turnover each year?
Let's take a look at last year's results again in the M4-. The US finished in fifth place, behind France, Greece, New Zealand, and Great Britain. Yes, the dominant, lock-for-a-gold-medal GB M4- of 2011 was outside the medals last year (three of four from last year's lineup are still in the crew). The only remaining rower from the US M4- is Lanzone, and while Bret Newlin is no stranger to the boat (having taken fourth in the event in 2006), and Charlie Cole is clearly a world-class sweep rower, Scott Gault has been in the quad until this season. That's nothing against Gault, but what inspired that move? The double has now been folded into a new-look quad, with Stitt having been moved back into sculling with a month to go before Bled. Also, inexplicably, Stafford, who stroked the four (which was the top US crew last year in selection), is not only out of the lineup, but not even on the squad despite training and racing throughout the year with the team. Maybe he just lost every seat race to every other port-side rower on the squad this year? What was it that caused the US M4- to be abandoned? As the GB entry illustrates, it takes time for a crew to gel, and if GB can go from fourth to gold in one season of rowing together, surely the US could have improved on their finish had they been allowed to continue training together. There are any number of examples of this in other international squads. Another easy example: Zac Purchase and Mark Hunter (bronze medalists in the LM2x at the 2007 World Championships).
The eight is a similar case. A crew with a good mix of experience and youth that made the A Final last year was entirely reorganized, and the US will enter their third consecutive Worlds since 2008 with a new lineup in the eight. Jason Read -- a member of two Olympic squads, who rowed in the seven seat of last year's lineup -- is out of the mix. While the eight placed fourth in Lucerne, it is difficult to take much out of that result, given varying training cycles (the Germans did not race very aggressively), and lane voodoo (the GB and Dutch eights both rowed through the US despite the conditions, which worsened across the course from lane 1 to lane 6). Was that result considered so good that the lineup could not be touched? Why not try mixing in the athletes from the the USA(2) M4- in Lucerne?
Going back further than that, David Banks has rowed on some of the highest-finishing crews that the US has fielded since Beijing, where he represented the US in the M4-. In 2009, he and Charlie Cole won a World Cup medal, and placed fifth in the M2- in Poznan. This lineup was also abandoned, and David Banks is not on the team going into an Olympic qualifying year. The US M2- last year (Monaghan and MacEachern) then finished in the B Final, and so far this year's new duo of Pezsek and Stangel have placed fourth in the C Final in Lucerne. Peszek and Stangel are talented oarsmen, and perhaps they can move up significantly in the ranks given extra time together, but it is a steep climb in a tough event.
The problem, I think, stems from a combination of 'pressing' due to a perceived need for immediate results (i.e. McLaren feels like the clock is ticking), and total disorganization following the restructuring of the men's program in a shortened year following Karapiro. The result, then, seems to violate one of the sacred rules of sports -- that being, 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it.' It seems to me that (ironically enough as we have an Australian head coach) we have a lot to learn from programs in the Commonwealth. If we are constantly reshuffling every lineup, cutting both proven contenders and up-and-coming talent in an effort to produce something immediately, we'll be a long way from where we need to be as we back into the starting blocks in Eton. Talent has been slipping through the cracks for some time now. If 2011 proves to be similar to 2010, will we see the same kind of upheaval moving into the Olympic year?
The USA women, on the other hand, are an entirely different story. The system of bringing in new talent to develop alongside proven, Olympic Champion rowers continues to work well, and head coach Tom Terhaar is again on pace to for a dominant performance at Worlds. The depth of talent on the squad is considerable, and it is being used efficiently to produce results. A good example of this is Cal standout Kara Kohler, whom we've talked about before on RR, and who will be racing in her first ever senior level World Championship regatta later this month. She began the summer sculling at Henley, and following her win there, won the eight in Lucerne with a lineup that was without four of the most experienced rowers on the squad, gaining experience and mental toughness from a gutsy battle with a very strong Canadian entry. Kohler will be in the four in Bled with Sarah Hendershot and Emily Regan (both winners of gold medals at last years U23 Worlds in the four and the eight, respectively), and Sarah Zelenka, who won golds in the W4- and W8+ at the 2010 Lucerne World Rowing Cup.
The story of the regatta for the US, however, again looks to be the women's eight. The lineup is just outstanding. From stern to bow, it's Mary Whipple (coxswain, 2004 Olympic silver medalist, 2008 gold medalist in Beijing), Elle Logan (2008 Olympic gold medalist), Meghan Musnicki (2010 World gold medalist), Susan Francia (multiple-time World Champion, and 2008 Olympic gold medalist), Caroline Lind (Beijing gold medalist), Taylor Ritzel (2010 World Champion in the women's eight and U23 women's eight), and Jamie Redman, Amanda Polk, and Esther Lofgren, all from last year's gold medal winning women's eight in Karapiro. No comment necessary, other than that I look forward to watching them row.
Eleven days to Bled!