Op-Ed: Making Sense of the USRowing Men's Quad Selection Procedures

Early morning training at California Rowing Club (Photo: B. Kitch)

The final boats for this year's U.S. world championships team have been named, following trials on Wednesday in Princeton. And, we've got to say, we don't understand the logic behind the selection procedures for the men’s quad.

Interestingly, both the men’s and women’s senior national team coaches are overseen by the same person: Curtis Jordan, USRowing's high performance director. However, the two groups are run in a very different manner when it comes to centralization of athletes and selection of boats: Why is the men's quad a trials boat, and the women's quad a camp boat?

More generally, we don’t really understand why any boat bigger than a single should go to trials rather than be part of a camp system, as is the case in many of the most successful rowing nations in the world. Case in point: New Zealand's national rowing federation denied the reigning world champion (and FISA Female Athlete of the Year), Emma Twigg, a chance to represent her country this year because she is training in England, and away from the national team training center for the first time in her career. We're not necessarily advocating for that same system in the U.S., but rather include it here as an example of the polar opposite approach to what USRowing is doing with a relatively large team boat that simply has to show up a win a domestic race to earn a trip to the world championships.

It also seems very strange that we have a model in our own system that is working very well—the U.S. women’s current model—and, despite this, the men’s team has decided to take the exact opposite approach. The women have made the final in the quad every year since 2003 (they won the B Final in 2002) at the world championships, and won a medal in that boat class in the 2012 Olympics. Why would we have two teams training alongside each other with a governance led by the same high performance director taking two completely different approaches, when one is very successful and the other is producing sub-optimal results?

The likelihood that the quad that wins trials every year is going to have the best four athletes willing and interested in rowing that boat seems slim. Why doesn’t USRowing just name Craftsbury the training center and Dan Roock the coach of the quad, or California Rowing Club and Bernhard Stomporowski the same?

The answer cannot be funding. Why would a coach turn down the opportunity because he's or she's not getting funding from USRowing, when the alternative would be to receive no funding plus the risk that they might lose trials, as is the case now? Of course, any coach or club would rather have the situation be exactly the same as it is now in terms of being organized and funded by the club, but without the additional worry about winning a trial, and instead focusing on going fast at worlds.

The point is, it wouldn't take more funding going into the men’s quad than is currently allocated—all that would need to change would be for USRowing to name a coach and a selection camp training center for the boat, so that all athletes interested in rowing in that event at the world championships or Olympics have to go to the same place. That way, there would be a much higher likelihood that all of the best athletes are training together, and have a shot to make the lineup.

Also, there's precedent. The above is exactly what USRowing did with the U.S. men's eight selection camp for the 2012 Olympics. And, it worked.

This year’s quad out of California Rowing Club has four talented guys, but are they the four best athletes available? Is it the best quad that we could possibly have produced? Even if it is, given the current system, it's impossible to know. Pete Graves is the one guy in either trials boat that has been to the Olympics (in this very event, no less), and he is sitting out, not necessarily because he wasn’t good enough, but because he wasn’t rowing in the strongest boat. Wouldn’t it be great if we had a system where the only reason athletes were sitting on the sideline at the world championships every year, or the Olympics, were that they weren’t good enough to make the boat faster, or because they refused to show up for selection? That’s how it is in many of the top rowing nations in the world, like Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain, and Germany among many others. And, mind bogglingly, that's also how it works for the U.S. women.

Perhaps one argument in support of having different selection procedures for the men and women in the U.S. is that the pool of athletes to select from is different because of differences in collegiate rowing in the U.S. between the genders. There is a sense that U.S. women’s rowing has it better than the men because of the NCAA system, and the larger number of women’s scholarships, number of well funded women’s programs, etc. However, we don’t buy that rationale, as we believe the two collegiate systems are essentially the same at the top end and end up producing very similar talent when it comes to Olympic caliber athletes for the United States.

Here's why: There are not more international athletes in top men’s boats than top women’s programs. At the 2015 NCAA Championships, the two fastest varsity eights, Ohio State and California, each had just two Americans and six foreigners. At the 2015 IRA, the top two varsity eights, Washington and Cal, had four and three American student-athletes, respectively, in each boat.

So, let’s take a look at the men’s and women’s U23 selection camps and boats that were selected to compete at the World Rowing U23 Championships to see just how similar the men’s and women’s side are:

In looking at the makeup of the 2015 U.S. women's U23 selection camp invitations, there were only two athletes invited from teams outside the top 15 at the NCAAs. The U23 selection camp selected the women’s eight and women’s quad had athletes from only the top 10 programs (Virginia, Michigan, Cal, Princeton, and Washington) selected for those 12 seats. The men’s U23 selection camp was very similar Only three people were invited to the men’s U23 selection camp from programs ranked outside of the top 15 in the country. The camp selected the men’s eight and four without coxswain, and those 12 seats all came from athletes in top 14 programs, with one exception (bow seat of the men’s four). The point is that there is not a measurable advantage that the U.S. women have over the men when it comes to ability of the best rowers in the country at the national team level. We have very high level collegiate rowing for both men and women in the United States that serves as an excellent feeder system into the national team. The difference is not at the top end, but the middle of the road: The depth of “good” collegiate rowers is greater on the women’s side. Put another way, the average women’s collegiate rower is far better than the average men’s collegiate rower, but at the top end (those feeding into the national team system) the difference in ability is negligible.

Another common talking point when it comes to selection is concern regarding litigation as a reason for having trials rather than a camp system for certain boat classes. There seems to be a need to justify decisions in selection to all of the athletes to avoid vulnerability to a lawsuit by having specific “seat racing” data and other selection justification.

Try to imagine USA men’s or women’s basketball saying that they are going to have a basketball tournament, and that players need to find their own coach and teammates to compete in a trial to decide the best basketball team to send to the Olympics. There are obvious problems with this model when compared with the current model employed by USA Basketball, US Soccer, and many, many other U.S. national team sports. First, the talent is likely to be diffused among multiple teams rather than having the best players on one team. Second, the goal and focus may become peaking emotionally and physically at the trial rather than at the Olympics or world championships when other countries are aiming specifically at those championship races. In a sport like rowing, might it be possible for athlete “A” to beat athlete “B” four weeks before the world championships, if athlete “B” is in heavy training and fatigued four weeks out from the championship and aiming to peak four weeks later than the trial to determine the team, but then have athlete “B” ready to beat athlete “A” at the time of the championship? The short answer is, yes.

Would it not be prudent to allow the coach appointed by the national governing body use his or her expertise in determining the best combination of athletes that will be most successful on the day?

There seems to be a pretty clear and easy safeguard to ensure quality performance and decision-making from the coach: If they select and prepare a crew poorly, then they will be replaced either at the end of the year or at the end of the Olympic cycle. See Matthew Pinsent and Steve Redgrave before 2000 Olympics at their “trials,” where they got third in the pairs but still got placed in the priority crew for the Olympics. (Watch the Gold Fever documentary excerpt here.)

There's an interesting quote in that video, when a reporter asks Pinsent, “If this was America, you would be out of the team, wouldn't you?” Pinsent responds, “Everyone looks at the American system and thinks, that’s ridiculous.”

With that in mind, let's imagine for a second that the U.S. had selection procedures similar to those of Great Britain or New Zealand. In New Zealand or Britain, you would have selection groups like this:

-LW2x: Michelle Sechser, Devery Karz, Kate Bertko, Kristin Hedstrom

(Last Olympic cycle, the best athlete, Ursula Grobler, didn’t make it into a boat.)

-M4x and M2x: Ken Jurkowski, John Graves, Steve Whelpley, Ben Dann, Pete Graves, Hans Struzyna, Ian Silviera, etc.

Given the amount of talent out there, the U.S would seem to have two podium or A Final contenders, though admittedly in very tightly contested events, for the LW2x, and either the M4x or M2x, if the above groups could be part of selection.

The LM2x this year seems to have the best two guys, or if not, at least very, very close to it, but only because they all came together and agreed to go into a selection camp-type system. While that’s great as a one-off, it should be the product of a mandate, not a happy accident.

Some might argue that the reasoning is based on the fact that the men, given that the men's four is an Olympic boat class for them, have more boats to deal with than the women. However, the women routinely put together very competitive fours at the world championships, and would no doubt welcome the chance at the Olympics. Also, the men have two chief coaches in Luke McGee and Bryan Volpenhein, while the women's team is primarily run by Tom Terhaar. And, in 2012, the women's team won more medals in fewer events, and made finals in the eight, quad, pair, and double.

(Before you argue that the double and pair were trials boats, the pair was a duo that had been training with the main group until they were cut from selection relatively late, and the double got third at trials—it was only because the two crews that finished ahead of them opted to go for selection to the quad that Sarah Trowbridge and Margot Shumway were able to represent the U.S. at the Olympics—and they represented their country quite well. And, in a cruel twist of fate, the winning crew—Kate Bertko and Stesha Carle—missed out on the quad, and therefore the Olympics, simply because the double was set before the quad was named. So, the U.S. women's double could arguably have been even faster in London, were it not for the trials system.)

In a recent interview with Sean Wolf, Volpenhein cited the bronze medal by the men’s quad in Lucerne in 2014 as evidence that the current system can work to produce a competitive quadruple sculls (listen to the podcast here). But this reasoning seems faulty, and smacks of classic American overvaluation of World Rowing Cup results. In other words, a medal at World Rowing Cup III in Lucerne doesn’t necessarily indicate world championship or Olympic finals speed. You see, many top countries, like Great Britain, are heavily training through World Rowing Cup III because of its timing relative to worlds, whereas it seems the Americans often go over to Lucerne a little more rested and prepared for racing closer to their potential for that season.

In our opinion, performances at the world championships or Olympics should be considered true indicators of speed. The beauty of the world championships and Olympics is that all of the best teams that season are always present and everyone is peaked for that race. In other words, it is an apples-to-apples comparison that can be used for evaluation in a way that World Cup results cannot.

We also know that Curtis Jordan, and those working around him, are intelligent, dedicated, and experienced people. That is perhaps the biggest reason why this is so hard for us to understand. We're not interested in politics and nitpicking about individual athletes, or getting into debates about who should and shouldn't have made a boat. What we want to know is why the system is broken, when it doesn't have to be.

-The RR Editorial Staff

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