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Road to Tokyo

A powerful pair of Massachusetts rowers team up to train their sights on Tokyo Olympics

Gevvie Stone (right) and Kristi Wagner are pulling with all their might to reach the podium in Tokyo.
Gevvie Stone (right) and Kristi Wagner are pulling with all their might to reach the podium in Tokyo.Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff

CAMBRIDGE — Dr. Gevvie Stone knows that split seconds can make a huge difference, whether she’s rowing for an Olympic medal or helping save lives in the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center emergency room.

“Time is life,” she says. “I love the adrenaline that comes with high-pressure situations and having to roll with the punches.

“I thrive on stress. In emergency medicine, you’re kind of thinking on your feet. I feel like athletics is similar to that. You can never entirely predict what’s going to come.”

The 2016 silver medalist in women’s single sculls, who is on leave from her residency to become a three-time Olympian, will race with Kristi Wagner in the woman’s double sculls at the upcoming Tokyo Summer Games.

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It is an unusual last-minute pairing of Massachusetts athletes from neighboring towns — Stone from Newton and Wagner from Weston.

Stone is a local hero. She has won Head of the Charles events a record 10 times. Her father, Gregg, was a national champion and is her coach. Her mother was an Olympic rower (Montreal ’76), and Gevvie was rolling on the Charles even in her mother’s womb. The photo still hangs on the wall at Harvard’s Weld Boathouse.

“I’m the baby bump in the team picture when my mom coached Radcliffe,” says Stone, US Rowing’s Female Athlete of the Year in 2016.

Stone and Wagner are on the river early in the morning for practice.
Stone and Wagner are on the river early in the morning for practice.Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff

Stone, who will be 36 when the Tokyo Olympics begin July 23, says she is in the best shape of her life. Taped on her computer is a quote from someone who also has aged well, Tom Brady: “I didn’t come this far just to come this far.”

In February, when her second-place finish in singles at the Olympic trials didn’t qualify her for Tokyo, she decided to try doubles. She picked third-place finisher Wagner as her partner after taking turns training with a half-dozen other athletes.

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“It was like speed dating,” says Wagner, 28.

The duo finished first and punched their ticket to Tokyo. They also captured a bronze medal at the World Cup in Switzerland in their first international race in April.

Resilient and confident

Tall and muscular, Wagner competed for the Wayland Weston Rowing Association in high school. At Yale, her varsity four narrowly lost in the 2015 NCAA championships by less than 0.2 seconds.

Afterward, she nearly retired.

“I graduated and didn’t think I was going to keep rowing,” she says. “I think I was just emotionally burned out.”

Instead, she moved to Vermont and learned to scull at the Craftsbury Outdoor Center with other Olympic prospects.

“That was a really great experience,” she says. “It was super fun.”

Wagner will be competing in her first Olympics.
Wagner will be competing in her first Olympics.Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff

She then worked for Converse and rowed in Boston for more than a year before joining a high-performance team in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., where she also coached high school athletes.

“This way, I could try my hand at elite rowing without calling up my parents and asking them to support my lifestyle,” she says.

She also gained confidence.

“I had always wanted to row in the Olympics,” she says. “I knew that people wouldn’t think that I could do it, but I thought that I could.”

She has had her share of bad luck. In high school, she was in the lead in pairs at the Royal Canadian Henley Regatta when her boat broke . She returned the following year to win the race.

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In 2017, she had hip surgery that required extensive rehab.

“Her greatest strength is her ability to get hit and get right back up no matter how hard she is hit,” says Eric Catalano, executive director of the Advanced Rowing Initiative of the Northeast, who has coached Wagner for years at Saratoga Springs. “She’s been doing that as long as I’ve known her.”

Gregg Stone, Gevvie's father, coaches the duo and was a national champion himself.
Gregg Stone, Gevvie's father, coaches the duo and was a national champion himself.Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff

She was named to US Rowing’s under-23 national team in 2013 and the senior national team in 2020. Her message to her detractors is sincere: “I say thank you, because it’s only when you start listening to criticisms that you can make yourself better.”

Will Porter, head coach at Yale, has trained six Olympic athletes, including Wagner. In an email, he saluted her “hard work and dedication.”

“Kristi is an awesome example of setting her sights on it, believing in herself and working really hard,” he wrote. “Our whole program is so proud of her.

“She is a late bloomer in terms of becoming an Olympian but she was a very good collegiate athlete.”

The Olympic postponement gave Wagner extra time to train even harder.

“I knew that if they were going to happen, I was going to be more ready than other people,” she says.

Once she was paired with Stone, she found they were kindred spirits with strong personalities and powerful finishes. Their goal in Tokyo is a podium finish.

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Stone (standing) and Wagner expect to be in peak form for Tokyo.
Stone (standing) and Wagner expect to be in peak form for Tokyo.Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff

Coach/father Gregg Stone likes the way they are progressing, but the Olympic competition is fierce.

“They’ve only been together eight or nine weeks,” he says. “The Romanians, who are the best in the world, have been together since they were 16. They’re 23 now and they’re really good.”

There are challenges to overcome before the Olympics. Slow starts are one, technique is another.

“They didn’t roll the same type of stroke, and originally when we tried to bring them together when they’re under pressure, they’ll come in and out of sync a bit,” says Gregg. “And I am hoping that in Tokyo they’re able to put together a race where they’re in synch the whole way.”

Aiming to inspire

Gevvie Stone knows plenty about adversity. She has fired her father several times, once when he told her to prepare for elimination races because he didn’t believe she could beat the rower from China.

Her answer was to win her first international medal on Father’s Day.

But he also has been her rudder.

When she failed to qualify for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, he had to gently coax her back onto the Charles. She finished seventh at the 2012 London Olympics. When she captured the silver medal in single sculls in Rio in 2016, she had already graduated from medical school.

“A lot of people said this is the great time to stop because you’ve got the medal, you’re starting residency,” she says. “It could have been like the happily-ever-after story, but I still love rowing and I still love training.”

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Stone and Wagner are in perfect sync as they go under the Eliot Bridge on the Charles.
Stone and Wagner are in perfect sync as they go under the Eliot Bridge on the Charles.Stan Grossfeld/Globe Staff

She found that the next year she was faster than before.

Wagner found that she, too, is still peaking both in speed and strength.

The Olympic rookie and the veteran are a good match. They push each other and want to make a difference.

“She’s a good person and I try to be a good person,” says Stone, “and I think one of the reasons we do what we do is hopefully to inspire young girls to set your goals high and work your way towards them and enjoy the process.”

Wagner echoed that thought before going to lift weights with Stone in her garage, near a huge cutout of Rob Gronkowski and an Olympic flag.

“She took a chance on me and I’m really grateful for that,” says Wagner. “She’s giving everything she has. And I feel like it just inspires me to give everything I have.”

Stone says she has a new goal after Tokyo.

“I think this will be my last time as a rower,” she said, “but I hope to be one of the team doctors for US Rowing.”


Stan Grossfeld can be reached at stanley.grossfeld@globe.com.