#TBT: Michigan's Gregg Hartsuff on Team USA's 2015 World University Games Success

The U.S. men's eight crosses the line first at the 2015 Universiade (Photo © Chris Brown)

We're now just a little over two weeks away from the World Rowing Championships in Aiguebelette, France, where the world's top rowing athletes will gather to qualify for the Olympic Games in Rio next year. Team USA is coming off a series of strong international performances, including multiple trips to the podium in Plovdiv at U23s, as well as a historically good World Rowing Junior Championships, but we thought we'd take a look back to one of the earliest successes of the summer: The victory for the U.S. men's eight in Chungju at the World University Games.

The first thing that occurs to Gregg Hartsuff when asked about the experience? "We had so much fun," he says. "It's kind of like a mini-Olympics, and there's a lot of fanfare associated with the Universiade. It was a little odd, because we were the one sport that was away from the main village, which was in Gwangju—we were in Chungju. So we kind of had our own little nook. The [athlete] village was a vacated dormitory for some sort of a tech school, and they had the cafeteria up and running—it was pretty much all rowers all the time. But the way they do the whole opening ceremony thing sort of like the Olympics—it's just fantastic." Looking at the short video clip below will give you some idea—certainly reminiscent of the Opening Ceremonies at the Olympic Games.

He continues: "Racing-wise, one aspect that most people will look at is the eight winning and say that's great, which it was, but another thing that was really good I thought was that all three sweep boats made the final. The pair only had a week together, with one half of the boat coming in quite late [a last-minute sub for an injury]. So, every time they took to the water, they just got better and better. They made the final, and to do that given what they started with was just great."

Off the water, there was an adjustment to be made for some of the oarsmen, racing at their first international event. "There are also a lot more logistics involved in international-level rowing that people who haven't done it are a little surprised by at first—you've got to get EKGs submitted, and then accreditation for an event like this; then the rules, of course, about weighing in boats, and they are a little more strict about being on the water at certain times, and off a certain times," explains Hartsuff. "The whole drug testing element is something that you have to really prep the athletes for—what sort of substances that they can and can't take in the months and weeks leading up to the event. That was a whole new learning curve for these guys, but if these guys go on to try to earn spots on the national team, which several of them have the potential to do, then it's something they'll need to be accustomed to."

Looking back at the training camp, did that structure work? Beyond the results, Hartsuff says that putting boats together was also made easier given that the athlete pool was known well in advance. "As far as selection, I think that selecting them early was crucial—then, it was just a matter or sorting them out into lineups," he says. "I didn't have a priority [boat] when we came in—I was kind of leaning toward the eight, because most of these guys have done most of their rowing in an eight."

There were several athletes, though, who stood out, regardless of boat class. "We saw how some of the trials that we did here [in Michigan] played out—it was pretty clear based on all the pairs and four matrices that we did, as well as some straight up seat racing, that there were three guys who always won. Whatever lineup they were in, they managed to come out on top—it was Ryan Searcy from UNC, Austin Gentry from Grand Valley, and one of my guys, Alex Brown." Then, with a couple of athletes from Washington coming in after finals in June, and more testing on the water, Hartsuff says that it just made sense to go with the eight. The four then became the second priority boat, and then the pair.

Looking at the video, the U.S. crew is a very cohesive unit—something that goes back to Hartsuff's original, clear vision of simple but consistent technique, which the crew took to from the start.

(Read our post, 'World University Games: Michigan's Gregg Hartsuff Putting Experience to Good Use' for background on how selection was conducted, as well as Hartsuff's technical approach.)

"I think part of the key was that the sort of 'required reading' was the video of that Dutch crew from [the Olympic Games in] 1996. I had talked about it via email, and pointed to that in some of the preparatory work, saying, this is what I'm coaching. Also, I was prepping them a little before they got here, based on some of the things that I was seeing in their own rowing programs and their respective colleges, just saying something like, 'here's probably what you'd need to change; don't do it now, obviously, as you're rowing with your college crew, but just something to keep in mind.'" Coupled with early selection, this 'pre-coaching' helped the team come together efficiently, and allowed the coaches to focus all their energy on drive mechanics once everyone was in the same place.

"I spent just about all my time working on [drive mechanics], and just made the bladework passable. My belief is that good bladework comes from good drive mechanics anyway," adds Hartsuff. "And to the guys' credit, they all worked very hard. There's no debate about that. They were ready to work and make those changes when they arrived." Hartsuff also said that he used a fair bit of video, continuing to work together with the athletes off the water. "There was a lot of commitment from the guys."

In the end, it paid off to the tune of an open-water victory over the field in the men's eight. While the camp might have been short, the preparation began early, and the crew seized the day. As the saying goes, "Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity."

So, how'd they do it? Just lucky, I guess.


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