Aug. 6, 2012
PART ONE: Training and Selection Process
My time in Trakai, Lithuania, for the Under-23 World Championships was nothing short of unforgettable. Not only was this my first time competing at this elite level, but I also came away with a gold medal in the Women's 8+ representing my country. There was a long and difficult road leading up to that victory, making the success that much sweeter. Over the course of the summer, I learned so much about the sport of rowing but most importantly about myself and what my body could do.
My journey started in Syracuse, N.Y., consisting of countless seat races, long rows in small boats, and technical sessions with the mastermind Justin Moore. Each practice was a high-pressure situation, each stroke an opportunity to prove oneself as a competent rower, worthy of a spot in the top boat. Initially these challenges seemed overwhelming, and I found myself questioning my abilities and potential in this sport. My mind was involved in equally strenuous activity as my body, juggling processing technical feedback I was receiving from my coaches, stress from seat racing, and also spending a summer in an unfamiliar place. This was the toughest part of camp for me, and I remember telling myself that although I might not even make a camp boat this summer of selection camp, my main goal was to improve and bring back my skills to Michigan. My focus was on learning and challenging myself.
However, as the weeks unfolded in Syracuse, I was able to tune up my rowing stroke to make it as efficient and powerful as possible. The technical shifts I made allowed me to harness that extra speed I needed to claw my way through this group of excellent rowers and secure a seat as a starboard in the U23 Selection Camp 8+ boat. After the selection process grind, I imagined that I would be satisfied with making the boat. Having a spot in this top boat seemed impossible for me, and now that I had accomplished my ultimate goal, I told myself that maybe now I could finally relax. I was wrong.
Our next step in camp was to load up the trailer and move over to Princeton, N.J., to train in the presence of the Senior National Team. If I thought that the stakes were high in Syracuse, nothing compared to the competitive pressure (and fun) of practicing against the Olympic men's 2-, lightweight 4-, and the women's 8+. It was such an honor to be in the presence of such elite rowers, and they were truly inspiring to those that want to train at the next level. Not only that, these boats were the most competitive and skilled racing challenge we could face this summer. The power and focus we had to harness to keep with these crews truly prepared us for what was to come at the U23 World Championships. Racing these elite crews helped to shake off any pre-race jitters and tap into the ultra competitive mode that would give us the edge overseas. When we packed up our bags and headed over to Lithuania, we left with the confidence that if we could hang with our senior team, we could hang with anyone.
PART TWO: The Races
The eight-hour flight to Warsaw, Poland, coupled with a nine-hour layover, and finally an hour long flight to Lithuania, was exhausting. Still once the sun rose (at 4 a.m. to be exact, and the sun set every night at 10:30 p.m.), all crabbiness from travel was forgotten when we were able to see how beautiful the country was. It reminded me of a Hansel and Gretel storybook land. There were beautiful flowered meadows stretched over rolling hills, scattered with lakes and streams, decorated with little colorful houses. After the initial awe and excitement settled, reality set in that we were here to race. After a quick run around the hotel complex to get our blood flowing again, we took the 10-minute bus ride down to the course to rig our boats and set up our area.
Once we arrived, I could hardly contain myself. There were hundreds of boats everywhere, being rigged by the most gorgeous international bodies I have ever seen. Seriously, it looked like a scene from an ancient Greek tale with all these rowing gods and goddesses roaming around. I thought to myself that I will definitely be sticking around in this sport for as long as possible. Not only were these exquisitely fit people impressive to look at, it was eye opening to realize that this level of rowing dedication existed around the world. In fact, rowing is considered more popular internationally than in the United States. Seeing our competition seemed to have an almost instantaneous effect on my boat mates and me. It was quite humorous to visibly see people become more aggressive and determined, even with simple tasks such as rigging a boat. Then I realized that merely participating wasn't enough, not even close. If I was going to be in Lithuania representing my country and my university at the U23 World Championships, I was coming away with the gold, and nothing less. I wanted a win for my boat, my country, my university and myself. It was show time.
The races for the women's 8+'s consisted of a race for lanes on Friday, July 13, and the final on Sunday the 15th. We had to wait almost a week to compete in the big show. Our pre-race training consisted of long easy rows, with a few race-cadence pieces mixed in between. Overall training was relatively low key mentally, which built up the restlessness and eagerness to finally compete. By the end of the week, I would have raced a German rower to the water fountain if given the opportunity. I was ready to go!
After what felt like an eternity, the day of our first race had arrived. We were facing Belarus, the Netherlands, Great Britain, and Germany. This was an excellent opportunity to get a look at our competition and to get a racing piece under our belt. Sometimes crews will only race hard the first 1,000 meters or throw in a few tricks trying to give their opponents a false appraisal of their actual power and speed. Our plan going into the race was to pull hard the entire 2,000 meters and see what our boat could do. The wind conditions for that day were a relatively strong cross-tail, which we knew would be another good challenge for us. The racing started out strong, with Germany and Great Britain leading the front. We were close behind, knowing that we had it in us to walk back through the field and take the lead. The Dutch and Belarusians were trailing off, making it a three boat race for first. At the 1,000-meter mark, we took a huge move to change the course of the race and put our bow ball ahead of all other crews. We continued this momentum for the remainder of the race and finished in first by open water. Germany sprinted through Great Britain in the end to place second. Next came the Dutch, then the Belarusians. My boat mates and I were all pretty pleased with our finish but knew that these results were not conclusive for the final results on Sunday, especially once we realized that the Netherlands had the fastest finishing 500 meters across the board. Could there be some tricks up their sleeves? Or maybe there were some black magic vibes in the air. After all, it was Friday the 13th.
The next day and a half was spent fine-tuning the ends of our stroke, knowing that we needed to row cleaner and more effectively in the chop we faced in our race for lanes, because conditions on Sunday were predicted to be even worse. We wanted to gain command in the first strokes of the race, and locking our blades in cleanly and pushing as hard as we could with the legs, leaving nothing on the table, would be the formula for success in the finals.
My boat sensed that we had done the preparation and contained the mental strength to absolutely dominate the race. Since we had won the race for lanes, we got the best lane assignment given the conditions, lane six. The water was alive and electric that day, mimicking the minds and bodies of our boat. An hour before our start time, it was time to launch. As we shoved off the docks and got situated in our seats, the atmosphere in the boat was that of contained aggression. Everyone was ready to go, ready to represent our country, and win.
After what seemed like a blink of an eye, the boats were locked in to their respective lanes. We sat ready at attention, waiting for the red light to switch to green. The winds were swirling around our boat, but our blades were locked solidly into the water, ready to shove out of the blocks and command the race right from the start. The green light appeared, and immediately we were off. Our plan was to have our bow ball ahead by the 500m mark, and that is exactly what we did. Kendall Schmidt, our coxswain from Wisconsin, asked us to give her a seat or two, and we delivered. It seemed as if we were all completely in sync, unable to be stopped. Another two seats at the 750m, and by the 1000m mark we were a full boat length ahead of all crews. It was a beautiful view seeing all other crews trailing us, as we were completely in control of the race. The Germans were in second place, followed by Great Britain in third. The Netherlands were closely behind, showing the strength that we saw in the last 500m of the previous race, beginning to walk through Great Britain.
As the last 500m approached, Kendall made a call to have "our anthem play" on the podium, and at that point there was no stopping us. The boat immediately surged ahead to a whole new level of speed, and we rowed through the last few meters of the race with the grand stand going wild. We could hardly hear the horn as we crossed the finish line first, but as we pulled up next to the beautiful, centuries-old castle that lay along shore of the finish line, we knew that we had won. Our hands lifted into the sky as we claimed our victory for our country.
I had never before been this proud to be an American, nor did I realize how much I loved this role of representing my country. Not only that, I was proud to be a Michigan Wolverine representing my university. I am certain that without my coaches, my teammates, and our effort this past year in the NCAA, this may not have been possible. As we say at Michigan, "We are Michigan. We are relentless. We race to win. We win championships." This victory left me with a hunger that can only be satisfied by an important event in four years, until then I will never be completely satisfied.