They came within a whisker of doing it at Olympus last year, when the four won bronze and the eight just missed.
This summer in South Korea, the US males hit the double for the first time in 20 years, putting both of their signature boats on the podium at the world rowing championships.
“It was a good way of saying, we’re back on the scene and we’re going to have to be dealt with,” says Curtis Jordan, who directs the high-performance program.
Four years after running aground in Poland, the American sweep program is on the move again and looking to medal in both events at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, which they haven’t done at the Games since 1988, and also to reclaim their crown in Sunday’s championship eights at the Head of the Charles Regatta.
Back when Uncle Sam’s oarsmen were consistently the gold standard, that was a given, but as the rest of the world caught up, winning even one became an achievement. When the eight finished ninth and the four 13th at the 2009 global regatta, alarm bells went off.
So when the four made the podium in London for the first time in two decades and the eight, which had to win a last-chance qualifying regatta, missed by .3 seconds, the rebound was underway.
“This was all coming to fruition,” says Jordan, who coached the Australian eight at the Games. “That didn’t start from scratch.”
Since then, though, US Rowing has committed most of its resources to those two boats and also hired two national coaches in Olympic gold medalist Bryan Volpenhein and world titlist Lucas McGee, who oversee the training centers in Oklahoma City and Princeton.
What they’ve been doing is what most of their rivals do, which is to focus on a couple of events where they’ve traditionally had success and work with a core group of oarsmen for several years.
What the federation has learned is that spreading its resources across eight Olympic men’s events makes for mediocrity. So US Rowing is depending on clubs to produce contenders in small boats and giving them access to athletes who otherwise would have been hoarded in team camps.
“We’ve got to get medals in the eight, that’s our culture,” says Jordan, who has coached US boats at four Games. “But we’re good enough to get medals in small boats, too.”
What the men have developed is a world-class pipeline that has enough talent to stock multiple boats. The Americans won back-to-back titles at the global under-23 championships before the last Olympics and five of those oarsmen made this year’s eight and four.
“Getting them on the podium, they get used to it,” says Mike Teti, who coached the US eight to gold and bronze in 2004 and 2008. “It gives them a lot of confidence.”
Jordan and the coaches want to widen the pipeline to make sure they don’t miss promising candidates from small colleges and clubs.
“I want to find guys like that,” says Volpenhein, who was one of those guys himself. “I think we’re missing guys.”
Volpenhein and McGee provide a synergistic yin and yang. McGee, who rowed for Brown’s robust varsity and most recently coached Washington’s freshmen, knows all about powerhouse programs.
Volpenhein, who came out of Ohio State’s club program and ended up stroking the Athens eight that won gold for the first time in four decades, knows that champions can come from Drexel and Cal-Davis as well as Harvard and Cal-Berkeley.
“I think we scored with Luke and Bryan,” says Jordan.
What’s important is that the two coaches are on the same page and that they communicate daily. “Bryan and I have a great relationship,” says McGee.
“We complement each other pretty well.” McGee is responsible for the eight and the under-23 program, Volpenhein for the four and lightweight four.
“Our mistake used to be in hiring one guy then saying, everything that US Rowing does, you’re responsible for,” says Jordan. “Luke is not the head coach, Bryan is not the head coach. They’re just coaches. They had a boat that they can keep their minds on.”
That approach paid off at the World Cup regatta in Lucerne last summer, where the eight shocked Olympic champion Germany and the four also won gold.
“Lucerne was a marker for us,” says McGee. “To get off on the right start is really important.”
Winning gold at the global regatta proved elusive, but the Yanks were happy to come back with precious metal of any color for both boats.
“If the US stays focused on those two events,” muses Teti, “I think they’ll medal through the whole quadrennium.”
Time was when that would have been assumed, but that time is past.
“People say, we’re the greatest rowing country in the world, we ought to get 10 medals,” says Jordan. “Nobody gets 10 medals.”
The British men and women claimed nine on their home course in Eton last year but they spent tens of millions of pounds doing it. They won only five in the Olympic events in South Korea. The Americans won three at the Olympics, including a gold by the women’s eight, and four in the five-ringed events this year.
“If we can come away with four medals, we’ve had a successful run,” reckons Jordan.
If they’re gold, so much the better.
For the men, two bronzes was a promising beginning, an affirmation that they’re pointed in a winning direction and they plan to stay the course.
“We’re not going to reinvent it,” says Jordan. “That’s for sure.”