RR Interview: NSR I Winner John Graves

John Graves training in the single (Photo via J. Graves) 
The Graves family knows rowing. While older brothers Pete and Tom have raced together in the men's double representing the United States at the world championships in the past, and Pete earned a trip to London with the U.S. men's quad last summer, they're not the only ones in the family that know how to move a boat. Though John has primarily raced as a lightweight at the elite level in the past, he showed that he's got plenty of juice to step up to heavyweight at the first National Selection Regatta of 2013, posting the fastest time in the time trial, and carrying that momentum through the regatta for a victory over an excellent field, which included Olympians Sam Stitt (Beijing) and Glenn Ochal (London). Here, John catches us up on his personal athletic background, his family's rowing legacy, and his plans for the summer.

RR: How did growing up in a family of rowers shape your athletics goals?

John Graves: Growing up, rowing was always a part of life—I don't think I understood just how strange that actually was until I was in high school. I was always pretty sure I didn't want to do it—I always wanted to do other sports, and try to not be just another rower, so I pretty much did everything I possibly could to make that happen. And it worked, for about 14 years—and then I fell into it, and here I am.

RR: So you played soccer at Trinity [College, Hartford]?

JG: Yup, that's correct.

RR: But you had already started rowing by then as well.

JG: Yeah, I rowed in high school, but I would say that soccer and basketball were my two main sports growing up. I was recruited to play soccer at a few different places, but the lure of being able to play two different sports in college is kind of what brought me to a small school like Trinity. I don't think I'd really explored rowing that much by the time I got to college—I was more of a soccer player at that point.

RR: What position did you play, both in basketball and in soccer?

JG: I was a point guard in basketball, and I was a central defender in soccer.

RR: Is that like a midfielder?

JG: Yeah, like a holding defensive center midfielder....I had a lot of head balls...I was a pretty physical defensive presence in the middle of the field.

RR: So were you a three-point threat as a point guard?

JG: I was—I mean, I don't want to toot my own horn here too much, but probably the only school record I have in anything is that I once made seven straight threes in a high school game.

RR: Nice! I don't mean to dwell on it too much, but I feel like there is a scarcity of rowers that are also good at ball sports.

JG: That is definitely what I have come to find. But actually, O.J. Mayo—he currently plays for the [Dallas] Mavericks—was in our league [in high school]. I played against him [for several years]—I was a year ahead of him, and we definitely had some of our better games against him. But yeah, I loved playing basketball in high school.

RR: So when did you start taking rowing more seriously?

JG: I was lucky enough to be coached by Larry Gluckman at Trinity, and I would say that he was a really big influence on my brothers, and on me. When I was 15 years old, I went over to Henley and watched Pete and Tom race in the Temple Challenge Cup in 2005. They had a great week of racing and ended up winning that event.

RR: I remember the standing salute!

JG: Right! That was a really awesome moment. I was young and impressionable, and it was just a great experience—an amazing accomplishment. I knew what it meant to them, and what it meant to our parents—it was kind of like the fulfillment of a dream to win that race. I was really drawn to the process that it took to get there, and the amount of work that it took, and I felt that it was a very worthwhile pursuit. I would say that has really stuck with me—that was the start my feeling that rowing would be a cool thing to do, to put in that amount of work and try to accomplish something like that.

RR: After that, did you guys start training together? Did you first start taking it more seriously with them?

JG: It's important to note that they are both a good amount older than I am—Tom's about six years older than I am. And Tom really helped to pave the way for all of us, and Peter as well, but I think I was fortunate enough to be their biggest fan while in school, and playing soccer, and doing all kinds of other stuff, as they went out into the elite rowing world not really knowing what to expect. They had to feel their way through things, and they did an awesome job of making the [national] team a few times, and Peter making the Olympic Team, but I think they made it easier for me to start from a better platform than they did. Last year was the first year that we all actually trained together—I was rowing with my cousin, Brian [de Regt], in the lightweight double, while [Pete and Tom] were training in the heavy double for Olympic Trials.

RR: Fast forwarding a little bit, you've been doing a ton of work in small boats, and it's been paying off (to say the least). Can you describe your recent training and when you decided to enter the National Selection Regatta?

JG: Obviously, last year, I was rowing lightweight. This past summer was kind of a big turning point. After racing in the lightweight single trials against Andrew Campbell—I think that that point I was either going to stop rowing, or just find a better way to be the athlete that I know I can be. And I think my weight at the time had a lot to do with that.

RR: Right, because you're naturally around 6'1" and 170 [lbs] or so?

JG: Yeah, I'm naturally probably around 175, right now about 180. So that was a turning point, as far as recommitting myself and figuring out if that was actually what I wanted to do, or not. I went up to Craftsbury, and just kept sculling, and tried to enjoy it a little bit more. And to enjoy racing—just racing it up more. Because, at the end of the day, if you're not enjoying racing, you're just in the wrong sport. I think I really needed to find that that is what I love doing—competing. I feel really fortunate that there is a group of guys up in Vermont that is up for having fun and racing it up, and that is really what our program up here is built upon—racing, and having fun doing it. That has been the theme of this year. I didn't really have any expectations, goals necessarily, I just felt that if I was enjoying what I was doing, and racing as hard as I could, that my athleticism would help me at least reach my potential, whatever that might be. So I think that was really important, just to enjoy it, as much as I possibly could. It's been a great year of training so far, and the result this week was unexpected, but I think it aligns pretty well with how things have been going this year and the type of attitude we've all had.

RR: You were able to carry the fastest time from the time trials all the way through to the final, so it certainly seems like it went well!

JG: Yeah—pretty good!

RR: So what's next on the schedule?

JG: We're trying to figure that out right now. A few weeks ago the plan was to try to do the same thing in the double. So that was the original plan. But the single is moving pretty well—I kind of knew how I stacked up against everyone in our team, and it just so happens that the other guys that I normally race are also pretty competitive. But I think I probably want to go see how I stack up overseas, and keep learning and see how far off the pace or on the pace I am, and then come back and try to make improvements.

RR: Just kind of reassess after getting a taste of international competition this year?

JG: Yeah. I mean I've definitely raced internationally before, but it's a different ballgame going up against the fat guys.

RR: Obviously, it didn't affect you being much smaller than your competition over the weekend, and Nick Trojan also finished in the top five—a lot of little guys in the mix. Is [your weight] something you're thinking about at all at this point?

JG: I'm just thinking about moving the boat, to be honest. I feel like there are a lot of things that we can do to find speed, and getting stronger is always something that I want to do, and something I've focused on all year, but I don't see my size as a limiting factor. I think there is still a lot to be gained by just being more efficient and stronger. But yeah, that's part of the reason I'm excited to just go and race it up, because the only way you can really find out what you need to work on is by seeing how far off the best guys you are.

Thanks very much to John for taking the time, and all the best for the upcoming international season! 


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