Had the Tokyo Olympics been held as scheduled this summer, Clark Dean would have been back in a Harvard boat this weekend at the Head Of The Charles Regatta. Gevvie Stone would have returned to her medical residency and would be making her masters debut after winning a record 10 titles in the women’s championship singles. And the US men’s and women’s eights would have been defending their crowns and showing the flag.
But with the Games postponed a year because of the coronavirus and the Head canceled for the first time since the 1996 superstorm, American rowers are going through an unprecedented reset. The preparation cycle has been rolled back to last October when the athletes had returned from the world championships and were back in training for trials and selection camps.
This time, though, the candidates are coming off a lost racing season during which everything was scrubbed — Olympic trials and camps, the college calendar, the World Cup series, the final Olympic qualifying event, the Henley Royal Regatta and the August global championships in Slovenia.
Yet virtually all of the Tokyo hopefuls have stayed the course while rearranging their lives.
“It’s almost like the light at the end of the tunnel knowing that the Olympics have a set date,” said Grace Luczak, who just missed the podium in the pairs event in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro. “It’s something for us to look forward to and keep focused on, almost with a new rigor.”
The women’s eight, which will be going for an unprecedented fourth straight gold medal in Tokyo, qualified at the 2019 world regatta, as did the four and pair plus the men’s eight and four.
“In a lot of ways this postponement has helped us,” men’s coach Mike Teti said. “We have the same pool but some of the guys I would have considered developmental a year ago are now real legitimate candidates.”
The challenge has been continuing to train at a high level while remaining healthy. That point was driven home during the spring when a dozen of the women training in Princeton, N.J., either tested positive or showed likely symptoms after having caught COVID-19 from the team’s physical therapist.
The rowers now wear masks, socially distance, have temperature checks, fill out wellness forms twice a day and immediately are isolated if they show symptoms.
“It’s just as much what we do when we’re off the water and away from the boathouse that’s going to affect our ability to do this,” said Matt Imes, US Rowing’s high performance director. “It’s a lifestyle commitment.”
For those competitors who had planned on retiring or returning to jobs or college, the deferral of the Olympics until next July required a significant reassessment. Stone, the 2016 silver medalist who’s shooting for her third Games, extended her residency at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center for another year.
“They were amazingly accommodating,” said Stone, who has been part of a small group training on the Charles. “They said, we know that you’ve been working toward this goal and the goal hasn’t happened. We absolutely understand and assumed that you would take the time through the Olympics.”
Dean, who had taken off the 2019-20 academic year to train with the national team after stroking the four to a Tokyo berth, was reluctant to take another. So he’s training in Oakland while taking classes remotely, as are the overwhelming majority of Harvard upperclassmen.
“I didn’t want to spend that much time away from school,” said Dean, who’s the only undergraduate in camp and is rowing the Head virtually along with thousands of others around the planet. “If there’s a year where I could be productive, training with the Olympic team and doing school, it’s almost two birds with one stone.”
Luczak, who took a job in New York after the Rio Games, resumed training last year. The postponement “was a bit of a shock to the system to everyone”, she says, “but in terms of prioritizing the health of the world it makes complete sense. You have a moment of pause in life and you reflect.”
Unlike the 1980 team, which was kept home from Moscow by the US-led boycott and had to wait another four years for its chance, the 2020 squad received a same-time-next-year raincheck. “It’s pretty powerful talking to those people,” Luczak said. “You really feel for the 1980 group.”
The 2020 team essentially picked up where it left off in the spring.
“We pretty much have the same group as last year,” said Teti, who lost only Patrick Eble from the eight that placed fifth at the 2019 world regatta. “It’s not like we have 50 guys to sort through. We do have an idea already that certain combinations did work. So it’s not like we’re starting from zero.”
The question is whether and when the coronavirus will allow the Americans to compete again, as their European rivals did at last weekend’s championships in Poland. The sculling trials are scheduled to begin in February in Sarasota, Fla., with sweep camps slated for March (men) and April (women). If next spring’s World Cups and Olympic qualifier are wiped out again, or the team is forbidden to travel, the Yanks will have to compete at Olympus with no international racing under their belts.
“There’s Plans A through Z, each one a little less attractive than the next,” Imes said.
The ultimate fallback will be internal competition, which the Americans have done before.
“It’s not ideal but we’ll do what we have to do,” Teti said. “We have a stopwatch. If we’re fast, we’re fast.”