US Men's Rowing Performance in Karapiro: Rough Waters

The US men's squad emerges from the competition in Karapiro with very little to show for its efforts this year, though this does not do justice to the improvements that have been made over the past twelve months. The cold, hard fact is, this year's team did not take a single medal of any color home from Karapiro, failing one of the major criteria laid out as a basis for saying McLaren's program is working as we head toward London. Even in events that were not well subscribed (the 2+ and the LWT VIII), the US couldn't manage a podium finish, and of the boats that made A Finals (including final-only events, this amounted to four) the best finish by a US crew was 5th place.

Now, as far as improvements go, there are a couple of things to talk about, most notably the 4-, which didn't even make the B final last year, and which finished in 5th place overall during this year's campaign. A great deal of work has gone into this boat, and the results show that a tremendous amount of progress has been made in what is possibly the most competitive event on the men's side. The problem is, placing your most talented athletes in an event that is probably out of reach (the GB team finished fourth, with a lineup that didn't include two of their Olympic Champions from 2008 -- Triggs-Hodge and Reed -- who were busy nearly toppling the Kiwis from their place atop the podium in the 2-) may not be the best way to up the medal count in London. The VIII also improved, making the A Final this time, but did not have a good showing in the final race of the 2010 World Championships, finishing 6th in a race that left them behind from the beginning. Still, despite the lack of any tangible evidence of their improvements, the US brought a stronger team to World's this year than last year, with fewer boats missing the A/B semi.

Here is the hard part -- what we are witnessing is an attempt to restructure the US Rowing community in the style of a European or Commonwealth system, with a greater emphasis on smaller, skilled boats and sculling, making the top priority crew the 4-. That system works really well in Europe and elsewhere, because the athletes grow up with the sport forming a much greater part of their consciousness, and because they are much more likely to begin with sculling rather than sweep rowing. Therefore, they are much more accustomed to coxless boats by the time they are ready to make the step up to the international scene. This is absolutely not the case in the US, and I have a great deal of trouble believing that it ever will be.

US Rowing is, and will always be, much more driven by intercollegiate rowing than club rowing. One needs only to look at the relative levels of participation to see that much, and this association is getting much stronger now that the NCAA is beginning to take control. The most important boats in intercollegiate rowing are the VIII and the coxed 4, and, because of the restructuring of the national championships, there are no longer any events for coxless boats. The only experience most US oarsmen get in coxless boats is pairs matrix racing in the Fall, or perhaps a little time in the 1x in order to work on stability issues. The most talented oarsmen will spend all their focus and energy trying to make it into the Varsity VIII -- the nation's premier event. This creates problems for the next level, because US Rowing's development system is just like that of the NFL -- utterly reliant on collegiate talent. There are no minor leagues here, as there are in Europe (with it's extremely competitive club rowing circuit), so when it comes time to make a national team, we end up drawing directly from the ranks of collegiate athletes, none of whom know how to move a 4-, but all of whom know how to move the VIII. Why, then, is McLaren trying to install a European system on top of an existing collegiate one, which is entirely based around the VIII?

This kind of change needs to happen from the ground up, and unless McLaren can get collegiate teams to do something they have never done in the past -- that is, come together with the common goal of developing athletes for the national team, rather than teach wildly different rowing techniques and ignore the obvious benefits of having championship races for coxless boats -- this system is not going to work in the US. The highly successful British national team (which topped the medal count leader board this year in Karapiro), has benefited greatly from its club rowing system, which emphasizes small boats, standard technique and year-round training. Club rowing in the US is largely a summer program, and there is very little cross-over in terms of technique from one program to another. This is because of the short-sighted tendency to look only at immediate gain -- whatever seems to get the job done at the moment is the preferred style, rather than having a long-term, consistent approach (look at the difference between lightweight rowing techniques in the US from the early 2000s and those that are used now).

The long and the short of it is, something has to change. If Tim McLaren is going to be successful as the US Men's Head Coach, then the landscape of collegiate rowing has to adapt to the needs of the national team to an unprecedented extent. Should McLaren and the 4- make their way to the top of the event in London, it would be an emphatic, landmark change in the history of rowing in the United States, signaling the beginning of a new era of post-collegiate development. If the collegiate system remains the same, then I don't think the resources at hand will be going to their best use.

The stereotypes about US rowing are, in large part, true. We are very strong, don't row that well, any yet somehow keep winding up on the Olympic podium based on guts and rage. That's a great way to move the VIII. The 4-? Well, not so much.

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