RR Interview: Mid-Atlantic Erg Sprints and ACRA Champion Matt Miller of Virginia

UVa V8 Trains on Rivanna Reservoir (Photo © Jenny Moloney)
Matt Miller is not your average collegiate club rower. He first got our attention in January, when he dominated the Mid-Atlantic Erg Sprints, taking first place in 5:54.7 – a time that would have earned him a medal at the 2011 Crash-B World Indoor Rowing Championships. Since that time, Matt and UVa have continued to develop and improve, under the guidance of head coach Frank Biller, who is, by all accounts, a master organizer. This Spring, after a fourth place finish in the varsity eight at Dad Vails, the Virginia men capped off their season with a first-ever victory over Michigan at the 2011 ACRA National Championship in Gainesville, Georgia. Now, Matt and the Cavaliers are looking to build on that success internationally at Henley Royal Regatta later this month. Here, Matt catches up with us about his time training and studying at UVa, his team's success, and his plans for Summer 2011.

RR: What is your background in athletics? How did you hear about the sport of rowing, and what drew you to it? When did it become apparent that you might have real potential in the sport?

MM: As a kid, I loved sports and played soccer, baseball and basketball from a young age. In running, pitching and rebounding, my height gave me a natural advantage. In middle school, that advantage vanished as others grew and I adjusted to an average height and below average weight. In my final soccer season, a teammate with an older brother on the high school rowing team suggested I try rowing. He would later become my 1F and 1V coxswain. We both signed up for a learn-to-row program in the fall of our freshman year.

Although the pure competition of racing immediately appealed to me, friendships kept me in the sport that first year. I was not significantly faster than my teammates (my first 2k was 7:43) and we rarely won. The work-reward relationship is a lesson that came with time, but an aspect of the sport I still love. I wanted to make the 1V my sophomore year, and work over the summer got me there. I guess that was my first glimpse of “potential.” In the time since then, I’ve been blessed by a growing body, good health and great people to help me along the way.

RR: How have you balanced your athletic schedule with academics? Have you found that one provides relief from the other?

MM: Time management is something I, like many athletes, was forced to learn in high school. I realized the limited time for schoolwork had to be used efficiently, and rowing has certainly helped with that efficiency. My classmates burn out from studying, but I’m happy to sit and use my mind rather than muscles. Conversely, a 6:00 AM row is a great jumpstart to the day. I would say sleep management is a bigger challenge than finding time to complete work; staying awake in afternoon classes can be difficult.

RR: How would you describe your experience of rowing at UVa? What is it about the program that fosters competition and success? Does a positive relationship with the women's team help to build that culture throughout the boathouse?

MM: My UVa rowing experience has been most defined by great people. Frank Biller and Erich Shuler (men’s novice coach) have implemented a “good to great” mentality that has raised the bar for success and the team has responded. The rowers are all very different in terms of personality and interests, but united in their drive to succeed. I have never before been surrounded by teammates who work harder.

There is no doubt that we benefit from the culture and success of the women’s team. Their 2010 NCAA team championship created a winning atmosphere that partially contributed to our drive to succeed this season. Kevin Sauer is heavily invested in our success and generous with sharing equipment and facilities. During winter training, Wednesdays were “cardio party” days of 5x20 minute stations in mixed groups of men, women, novice and varsity. There are many friendships between the teams and I have great respect for the women and their work ethic. They are obviously some of the best in the nation.

UVa varsity eight, Miller at top right (Photo courtesy of Allen Miller)
RR: At the outset of this season, what were your stated goals? Was winning ACRAs something that became a clear possibility as the team progressed through Winter training? Or was it something that you set out to do from day one?

MM: Our goal in August was to win all of our spring races. We agreed our goals must be realistic, so we set erg standards and on the water milestones to get us there. There was no real “leap” in physiology over winter training in which we realized our potential. It was a slow, calculated improvement as part of the training plan. There were days of extreme optimism as we recognized our physiological improvements, and days of pessimism after struggling to complete a tough workout. As the spring season progressed, Frank raised the expectations for water time trials, and boats met those challenges. Winning ACRAs always seemed like a possibility, but became much more realistic as we got closer to race day.

RR: At Dad Vails, you and your squad faced some very difficult challenges in the heat and semi before even getting to the final. In addition to those issues, your team was also dealing with illnesses. In light of the above, do you feel that you underachieved in the varsity eight in Philadelphia? Did you feel confident that you could win entering ACRAs?

MM: In light of recent results, it’s hard to say we performed to our potential at Dad Vails, but I would not say we let ourselves down. Illnesses really developed in the days just before SIRAs, leaving some (including myself) recovering for the next two weeks. This had the unfortunate effect of disrupting the training program, creating a rush to prepare for the Schuylkill. Everyone was healthy in Philadelphia and we executed the race plan, but the team-wide sickness had already taken its toll.

The large margin to Michigan despite a well-rowed race at Vails left our team very discouraged. There were tense moments on the water in the days that followed as we discussed strategies for catching Michigan at ACRAs. We made some changes, and ultimately harnessed that negative energy into boat speed. Confidence grew as we consistently posted the fastest times of the season in the days leading up to ACRAs. That confidence got a boost from cleanly beating U of M in the semifinals.

UVa on the awards dock, Miller at center (Photo courtesy of Allen Miller)
RR: How did it feel to accomplish something that no club has ever done in the brief history of the ACRA Championships, in defeating the Wolverines?

MM: There were many mixed emotions, but in a word, amazing. I had never before won a championship race. It was also the closest wire-to-wire race I’ve ever experienced and my last intercollegiate race. My teammates and I have been working towards this for four years now. I have deep respect for those Michigan guys. They are very fast year after year, so beating them is a real accomplishment.

RR: Building on the last question, your season is not over yet. You are gearing up to head over to England this June/July for Henley, and I know that your coach will be preparing you well for that. Does that mean that the tapers for both Dad Vails and ACRAs were relatively slight, as you continue to build toward the centerpiece this summer?

MM: I don’t know that Henley is prioritized over Dad Vails or ACRAs. Our training for those races was to produce the fastest possible races, and Henley will be no different. I see Henley as a rewarding opportunity after years of hard work. It’s a once in a lifetime experience to prove ourselves against teams we would not otherwise face. I really don’t know what to expect in terms of the speed of our competition. We’ll have to take it one race at a time. Winning there may be more exciting than winning ACRAs, but no win will be as satisfying.

RR: At both Dad Vails and ACRAs, the freshman team and the second varsity eight turned in very strong performances as well. How has coach Biller gone about creating an environment that is competitive from top to bottom?

MM: As I mentioned, Frank and Erich have really embraced going from “good to great.” They are different in coaching style and personality, but work together fabulously to recruit novice walk-ons and prepare them for varsity. This is Erich’s second great recruiting class, and the varsity team will certainly benefit from their addition next fall. Some (now former) novices will be competing with the team at Henley.

The second varsity’s win at Dad Vails was a great morale boost for the whole team. They are very driven, and provide great competition for the varsity eight at practice. My fourth-year friend and stroke seat of that boat, Ted Wyeth, has always said “if a 2v rows like a 1v, they’ll win.” I think they proved his point in Philly.

RR: Given your outstanding personal performance at the Mid-Atlantic Erg Sprints, what are your plans for the summer following Henley?

Unfortunately, the timing of Henley prevents me from using my final year of U23 eligibility to enter a small boat in Under-23 trials. After some time off from Rowing, I’ll be joining a Potomac Boat Club (PBC) in Washington, D.C. I will be working in the D.C. area, and have heard great things about the coaches and rowers at PBC. One of their rowers, Williams Cowles, was a fierce competitor at the Mid-Atlantic Erg Sprints and I have been following his success at National Selection Regattas. I am hopeful for steady improvements that could put me in a position to train with the National Team down the road.

Thanks very much to Matt for taking the time, and thanks also to Jenny Moloney for contributing the title image. For more of Jenny's work, check out her website at jennymoloney.com.


Popular posts from this blog

The 30 Best Rowing Coaches of All Time, Part 3: The Top 10

"I Row Crew" — Rowing in 'The Social Network'

Video Of The Week: Holland Beker 2013

The 30 Best Rowing Coaches of All Time, Part 1

Best Rowing Drills: 5 Favorites of Olympic Champion Esther Lofgren