RR Interview: 10 Questions with Peter Graves

Pete (bow) and Tom (stroke) in the 2x, Newport, CA
(Photo credit: Val Stepanchuk)
Peter Graves, 2008, 2009, and 2010 winner of the Championship 2x at the Charles along with his brother Tom, talks with RR about his rowing family, winning Henley with Trinity College, racing the Head of the Charles, US Trials, Worlds, and more.

RR: Your family has a tradition of great rowing -- at what age did you start in the sport, and when did it first take hold as a passion of yours?

PG: My earliest rowing memory was when I was very young. I remember walking up and down a course searching for my Dad. It seemed like I was by myself all day asking people if they had seen him. Then finally someone said that they knew where he was and pointed to the river. Sure enough there he was... racing by. So I walked to our car and just waited. So that's a pretty boring memory that I just dug up right there. Since that point I have grown to like rowing more and more.

When I was 10 years old, my family lived in Marlow, England -- 8 miles down the river from Henley-on-Thames. My dad took my brothers and I out in a double, one by one. That was the first time I sculled. In high school, I played soccer, basketball, and rowed in the spring for our high school, Cincinnati Country Day School. I enjoyed my soccer and basketball seasons and was quite successful in both sports. In the spring of my freshman year, we went on the water for the first time after school and that was it, I was sold. It really didn't matter how good or bad my boat was, I absolutely loved being on the water.Rowing practice was amazing. When I went to school the next day, I felt like I knew a secret that not many other people in the school knew about. I was having a two hour adventure on the water everyday after school. It was exciting and exactly what I wanted to do. I soon realized that I already had a ton of knowledge about the sport from my father and so the rowing was second nature to me. I think I was lucky that the sport was only available in the spring. I was able to have a nicely balanced athletic career in high school, more importantly, I was not introduced to winter training until after I got hooked on rowing.

I believe that our rowing tradition has just started. My dad was the first rower in our family, a walk on rower at Trinity in 1975. Now there are four of us: My younger brother John who was the U-23 LM1X 2010 and M2- the year before. My cousin Brian DeRegt U-23 LM4X Silver Medal, LM4- and 2010 LM2X. Then of course Tom and myself. There is a lot of rowing in the family these days.... A "Family 4x" is in the works.

RR: You and your brother Tom have accomplished some pretty amazing things together thus far, including a (nearly) undefeated season at Trinity that you capped off with a win at Henley in the Temple. What was your experience of Henley, and how did you feel as you crossed the finish line first in the final?

PG: Rowing at Trinity was a dream experience for me. I am very thankful for it, and thankful to everyone that was a part of it. I was very fortunate to row with a special group of guys under the guidance of a great coach. When I and the rest of my class arrived at Trinity, the Trinity Varsity program had never won ECAC's, had not won New England's for a few years, and was defeated in the first round of Henley in its last attempt in 2001. The stage was set for a rise to the top.

In 2004, my freshmen eight was undefeated and had a great year. The varsity boat which Tom was in struggled. It was very tough to see my brother in a boat that was not as successful as I know they all would have liked. It killed me when we raced in practice and our freshmen boat would win. It didn't happen all the time, but enough times to make me think that Tom deserved better. During the 2005 season I thought we were going to be something special and I was on a mission to give Tom the college rowing season he had deserved all along. I had three of my sophomore buddies in the top boat with me to get job done. We won the Head of the Charles, the San Diego Crew Classic twice [in two events], New England's, and I was ready to win ECAC's. I knew that we could do it. Then we lost. Its important to note that we were not undefeated in 2005. I will never forget Michigan rowing through us 5 lanes to our starboard in the final of ECAC's. We lost by 0.8 seconds and I will never forget that. I was crushed.

We recommitted ourselves and when into a serious training camp for 7 weeks, leaving no stone unturned. We arrived at Henley as a new crew with something to prove. All 9 guys in the boat were very focused and tuned-in to each other. The boat felt more powerful, smoother, and much more composed than ever before. A lot of hard work was paying off. We had won our first two races by comfortable margins before we were seriously tested. The race against the Cal Freshmen on Friday really sticks out in my mind as a turning point. We were up by about 1 length at the 3/4 mile, and then they started coming back...3/4 of a length, 1/2 length, 1/4 length, 2 seats, 1 seat, and as we approached the grandstands (roughly 500m to go) we were even. I remember taking a huge breath as we entered our thoroughly trained last 40 strokes at a 40 spm, and then I began to pull absolutely as hard as I could. I could feel our boat respond with power. It was a serious slugfest, an entire minute of bowball to bow ball racing. Fortunately, we were able to come out on top. After the race, our 3 seat (fastest 2k in the boat) comes up to me and says, "Good job... it was seven on eight out there." I wondered what the heck he was talking about. Later in the day, I saw video of our race which illustrated exactly what he was talking about. He had had a massive issue with his back and was just hanging on for dear life. It is a miracle that he was able to get his blade in and out of the water without catching a crab. He was able to recover over the next two days and told me that he was ready to go 100% against Yale, promising me our boat would be a few seconds faster than before. As we lined up against Yale in the final, it was a familiar cast of characters just a different setting.

We had scrimmaged the IRA Champion Yale LWTS twice that year and we had lost both times. They would take about 6-7 seats in the first 400 meters and then over the next 1600 meters they would only move about a 1/2 length. Needless to say, we had raced them twice and had only seen their stroke seat at the start of each race, which was pretty intimidating. Right before the start of the race, I looked down the boat at everyone. They were all smirking -- wanting to smile but too focused to actually smile -- and in the bow giving me a thumbs up was Tom. We were ready and I was more focused than ever.

We had a clean start and we made a point focusing on our boat and not "racing" them until a couple minutes into the race. We were locked in at a nice 35.5 spm. After the Quarter Mile mark, I looked over to starboard. We were down... but only by 3 seats this time. Just before the Barrier we took a move and gained a seat or two, but we were still down. I noticed that they were over-stroking us. We took another push. We were up by a seat or two. I could see the stroke seat and the coxswain for the first time ever. I could feel the excitement in the boat, we were just doing our thing and we were ahead of them for the first time all year. We took another move about 20 strokes later. I don't know where all that power came, but it felt amazing. I think the guys were just sick and tired of losing to Yale. We surged ahead and just kept going. As we came into the grandstands we had about a 1/2 length of open water. When we took it up to a 40, we were full of power and drew away from Yale, winning by 3 lengths. I felt my body change during the sprint. We were rowing at a 40 and I simultaneously had shivers down my spine. I had total consciousness and knew that I wanted to remember this moment for the rest of my life. My dad had won the Henley Royal Regatta with Trinity for the first time ever in 1976 and this was going to be the second time in school history. I was very proud of our crew. Right when we crossed the line I was overflowing with positive energy. Without any hesitation I stood up immediately and saluted my crew and my brother. I knew that this was the perfect ending to his college rowing career and I wanted to tell him that he deserved it. Through all of the ups and downs, Tom never stopped leading the charge in his quiet, hardworking way. It was a very special time for everyone involved. The guys in that crew were really something special.

RR: You and Tom also raced at Henley in the 2x, and did quite well in one of the toughest events of the regatta. Did you start sculling first? When did you and Tom decide to row the double together?

PG: We first raced the double in the summer of 2002. I was a junior in high school and Tom was a freshmen in college. I remember not making the final of any races that we entered... except for one final only race in Ann Arbor Michigan, haha. You've got to start somewhere! We had fun traveling to regattas by ourselves and racing. It was a fun time. We rowed the double a little bit each summer, 2003, 2004, 2005 and seemed to get a little bit faster each time. Tom and I always had this crazy idea (definitely incited by my dad) that we would try to train for the Olympics after college if we were good enough. That was back in 2002. We followed up on the crazy idea when I graduated in 2007. We moved in together and began doing a lot of sculling. It was a real gamble and we probably had no right to attempt the Olympics trials, but what the hell you only live once!

RR: In 2008, you and Tom narrowly missed the Beijing Olympics. While this must have been extremely difficult, it seems also to have motivated you to pursue international racing with even more intensity. What's your advice for people bouncing back from a tough loss?

PG: Like I said before, it was a big gamble to commit all of this time, energy, and resources to something that may be out of our reach. So I would say that I was actually quite relieved with the result. I remember after our heat at Trials thinking to myself, "Holy smokes, this is sweet. We are actually in the game!" There was about a 2-3 day period when I actually believed that we could make the Olympic Team. That was wild and yes it was a big let down when we lost. Though, when I look at the big picture its not so bad. I was definitely a novice in terms of learning how to train on my own and the learning process was quite difficult. Tom had been injured for most of the year with countless injuries including three fractured ribs. He was only able to train for about 3 weeks on the water before Trials. He had been on the stationary bike for months. So it was a relief that he was able to compete and the cherry on top was that we actually had some speed!

I think when you have a loss that really hurts and is a huge let down, the emotions involved are incredibly powerful. Those emotions are motivation for me. When I am training for the next race and I think its too windy to go out or I am too tired to finish my workout or I want to stop with 2 reps to go during a weight session, that emotional scar from the last race drives me to the next level. After a loss, I can more easily find the "crazy switch" to do things that I normally wouldn't. If you truly have something to prove, a loss is only fuel for the fire and ultimately more guidance on your path to future success.

RR: Not only did you two bounce back, but you went on to represent the US at the World Championships in 2009, how did it feel to win Trials after dealing with the narrow miss the year before?

PG: At the 2009 Trials, we found ourselves in a very similar position to 2008. We had made the final and there was one boat that was in the driver's seat having raced at a World Cup and fairly well. We had raced Sivigny and Whelpley a month prior a U.S. Elite nationals and had lost by a couple seconds. In 2008 and at 2009 Elite Nationals, we had been behind the entire race. We were slow in the first 500 and were trying to catch up the entire race. In final one of 2009 Trials, we were down again. We hung on to Mike and Steve during the body of the race. They had kept about a length lead most of the way. I could still see their stern in the corner of my eye. With 500m to go, I think our emotions took over. We were sick and tired of this scenario and something had to change. We threw everything we knew about technique and "good rowing" out the window and went balls to the wall. Tom shifted gears and drove the rate up to 40, and then to 42. It felt like we were breaking through a mental barrier of always being behind and never being able to move through. We won that race by about a 1/2 length which gave us a lot of confidence.

In final two, we went out with the intention of getting the lead as quickly as possible, because we liked the feeling of being ahead. We did just that, rowing very fast to the 1000m mark and then hanging on for the win. It ended up being our fastest time to date, 6:17. I guess sometimes you need to just bite off more than you think you can handle, then try to chew it.

RR: What was your experience of the 2009 World Championships? How was the venue, and how did it feel to don the colors?

PG: 2009 Worlds were definitely a disappointment, but a great experience nonetheless. There were many different factors at play, but to summarize: I don't think we rowed to our potential. It's one thing to not place well, but to lose while not rowing your best is a tough pill to swallow. I felt we let a lot of people down, mostly Mike, Steve, and ourselves. There were many things that went wrong. Back injuries and rigging issues snowballed into a slew of problems. Ultimately, the blame for our mishaps rests on our shoulders. I think we have learned quite a bit from this experience. If we earn an opportunity like this again, I know we will not waste it.

RR: You and Tom have spent a great deal of time training at Craftsbury. What is it that makes it such a good place to train?

PG: Craftsbury has been a special place for us. The center has some great qualities that allow athletes to get the most out of their training. The first thing that comes to mind is the lack of noise. When you step out of the car, it is dead silent outside. This is wonderful. I always feel a sense of focus and purpose. There are almost no distractions. The food is outstanding and healthy. After a month of training up there, I always experience what I like to call "the vacuum effect." It is a combination of eating healthy food and doing work around the center to pay for our room and board (chopping wood, painting, picking berries, planting grass) that leads to a dramatic tightening of the skin to the body. The third thing is that the water is very calm making it perfect for measuring your speed during final preparations. I am very grateful for having the chance to train there and cannot thank Judy and Dick Dreissigacker and Larry enough.

RR: You and Tom have now won the Champ 2x at the Head of the Charles two years in a row -- by a considerable margin. What was it like to race in a field along with Mahe Drysdale and Marcel Hacker in 2009? How was your experience in 2010?

Pete and Tom at the Head of the Charles,
2010 (Photo: Val Stepanchuk)
PG: In 2009 we raced a German double and then a few "super doubles" including Tim Mayens/Ondrej Synek, Hacker/Alan Campbell, and Warren/Iztok Chop. That was a very fun race. I remember paddling to the start laughing because I was so excited. We were starting first and we had a group of world famous scullers behind us. We had a terrible warm-up due to windy conditions in the basin and Tom was pissed. Once we were lined up, I yelled at the doubles behind us,"HEY! WELCOME TO AMERICA!", thinking I might as well have some fun before they pass me ... probably around Riverside. I got a couple smiles and I was cracking up. I thought that if we were going to race thess guys, we should at least have some fun doing it! So Tom and I went off at 35-36. Tom was filled with rage (big puddles, high rating, no talking) because our crappy warm up and I was steering the bucking bronco down the course, having the ride of my life. We kept this rating the whole way. We could see that we were moving away from the German 2x that started in 2nd, this definitely boosted our energy all the way down the course. I can't say we steered a perfect line, but it was pretty good and we didn't miss any buoys. Going by Belmont Hill, I knew we had moved away from all the doubles in view and tacking on a last 2 minutes at 38-40 would definitely seal the deal. So we did. I think we rowed in disbelief the whole time, which made it extra fun.

2010 was a lot different. There certainly wasn't the same amount of excitement leading up to the race. We knew the formula for success so we went out there and did it again. I would say the piece was a little less on edge than the previous year, not to mention the slow conditions. It was a great feeling going around the last turn with nobody in sight.

RR: This past year, you and Tom attended the NSR in the 2x, and managed 4th, despite the fact that you were training on opposite sides of the country for most of the year. How were you able to put things together so fast?

PG: NSR 3 was a disappointing regatta for us. Yes, we had trained on separate sides of the country for most year, but to be honest I think we did a poor job of putting it together. I expected that we were going to be able to row well together like we had done in the past. Two years of training separately showed in our performance. We were in a very good position around the 1500m mark. I thought we were able to have a good sprint and come away with a good result. During the sprint our rowing came apart. We ended going significantly slower in the last 500m than the other doubles ahead of us and behind us. Sometimes reality hurts. I felt as though I really let Tom down. After all, its my job to match him. This year I am doing everything I can to make sure that doesn't happen ever again.

RR: You've recently moved back to Newport, CA. in order to train with Tom full-time. How has your training been going and when can we expect to see you two this Spring?

PG: Training as been going very well. It is great to be back in Newport Beach. We are enjoying our morning cruises (aka Harbor Burns) in the double and most importantly we are working well together as a team. We are building up in preparation for NSR 2 in May, but we'll see you at San Diego Crew Classic first!

Thanks very much to Pete for taking the time.


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