The request came from US Rowing before the summer. Would Mike Teti be available to help pick and prepare the men’s eight for September’s World Championships in Florida? Of course he would.
“I’m a rowing coach, so I’m interested,” said the man who directed the Americans to Olympic gold and bronze earlier in the millennium.
Teti has developed a reputation as one of the sport’s foremost turnaround artistes when it comes to crafting an eight that can make a global podium. So he happily signed on again as lead coach working with Bryan Volpenhein, and their rookie-heavy bunch ended up grabbing a startling silver behind favored Germany.
“Probably the easiest group I’ve ever had,” said Teti, who was eights coach at four Olympics. “Just nice guys. No superstars, but a very solid crew.”
Teti, one of a handful of men to be enshrined in the National Rowing Hall of Fame as both a coach and competitor, will be doing his customary double duty this weekend at the 53rd Head of the Charles Regatta, where he’ll be both pulling and prodding.
After racing with his 87 Gold seatmates in Saturday morning’s senior masters eight event, he’ll be directing his California-Berkeley entry in Sunday’s championship race, where the Bears will line up right behind defending champion and archrival Washington.
“It’s the Rose Bowl of rowing,” said Teti. “If you’ve ever been in a boat, there are two events you want to row in: Henley and the Head of the Charles.”
Cal hasn’t won the pigskin Rose Bowl in eight decades and never has prevailed at the Head, although the Bears were runner-up the last two years. Teti, though, has been involved with multiple breakthrough boats over the past three decades.
The 1987 crew, for which he rowed bow, was the first US eight in 13 years to claim the world crown and the last for another seven. The following year’s Olympic group, which took bronze in Seoul, was the first to medal at the Games against a full field since 1972. The eights that Teti coached in 1997-98-99 were the only US crews to three-peat at the world regatta. And the 2004 eight that won gold in Athens was the first to manage that at Olympus in four decades.
Teti’s recent assignments have been more about getting things back between the buoys. After the Yanks failed to earn a ticket to the 2012 Games at the previous World Championships, Teti took on the task of getting them through the last-chance qualifying regatta, then directed them to within three-10ths of a second of the medal stand in London.
The expectations this time, after the US finished fourth last year in Rio de Janeiro, were decidedly more modest.
“We said, ‘OK then, it’s a rebuilding year, let’s do the best we can,’ ” said Teti. “So there was no pressure.”
The plan was to establish a foundation for the 2020 Games in Tokyo from a new batch of contenders.
“A lot of those guys, this was their first rodeo,” said Teti, who had only one holdover from the Olympic eight (Alex Karwoski) in the lineup. “Most of the credit goes to Bryan. He kept it together after Rio. He was remarkably positive all summer. He said, ‘Hey, man, we’re going to be fine.’ ”
A productive notion was enlisting accomplished college coaches like Harvard’s Charley Butt, Washington’s Mike Callahan, and Yale’s Steve Gladstone to work with the camp contenders in Princeton.
“These coaches are turning out super-fast crews,” said Teti, “and we want to have their input.”
Since the eight didn’t compete in any World Cup races, the coaches had no idea how it would fare once it took the line against the planet’s best in the Sarasota steambath. But their practice clockings had been promising, and Teti liked how the boat was cohering.
“There was a lot of chemistry,” he said. “It was a pretty cerebral group that was easygoing. There was no drama.”
After the US chased Germany to the line in their heat, Teti was encouraged.
“I thought, ‘Yeah, we’re right in there,’ ” he said. “I’m sure the Germans were holding back a little bit, but the times were fast.”
When the US did it again in the final, rowing through Italy in the second half of the race, the Yanks came away with the only medal from the hosts’ 12-boat men’s flotilla and their first in the global regatta in four years.
“It’s not often that you script something and it works out that way,” said Teti, “but it kind of worked out that way.”
He has no idea what to expect this weekend from his Cal boat (“That’s my real job”), which he assembled “pretty much by smoke and mirrors.” The Bears haven’t raced since they finished a disappointing fifth at last spring’s IRA national championships.
There’s no such uncertainty with the 87 Gold boat. Their annual excursion has almost all of the same guys who sprung a surprise on the planet three decades ago.
“Camp and selection were brutal, but it was an easy-rowing boat,” said Teti. “Everything matched.”
Once again Teti will row in the bow, this time with kid brother Paul aboard as a substitute. The usual ritual will apply. The boat won’t practice. After they cross the finish line, the oarsmen will continue rowing upstream in a steady-state paddle.
“And when anybody asks how we did, we say we won,” said Teti. “We know they don’t care and nobody’s going to check.”
John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.