Andrew Campbell may be America’s best oarsman

Andrew Campbell, who may be America’s best pound-for-pound oarsman, can be found rowing the Charles River most mornings bright and early.
Andrew Campbell, who may be America’s best pound-for-pound oarsman, can be found rowing the Charles River most mornings bright and early.wendy maeda/Globe Staff

If he wanted to, Andrew Campbell could calorie up and row against the big boys all the time. The Cafe de Boston across the street from his office at Quantopian, the financial technology startup where he works as a data analyst, has a lunchtime smorgasbord the size of a boat dock, offering rib-sticking fare by the pound.

Campbell, who usually opts for whole grains, vegetables and fruit, could pack on 40 pounds or so and take on the planet's top heavyweight single scullers, but he prefers to stay light, lithe, and linked on the road to next summer's Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, where he hopes to row the lightweight double.


"The single definitely is something that I've thought about but the double feels like the right place for me to be," says Campbell, who at 155 may be America's best pound-for-pound oarsman. "It feels like I have a responsibility to help carry the standard for men's lightweight rowing."

At last year's Head of the Charles Regatta the 23-year-old Harvard graduate struck a major blow for his undersized brethren, beating a procession of beefier, burlier rivals that included Olympic champion Mahe Drysdale to become the first lightweight to win the men's championship singles.

"I'm definitely very proud of it," says Campbell, who'll be bidding to retain his crown in Saturday afternoon's event and whose younger sisters Mary and Claire will be contenders in the club and youth singles. "Every lightweight lives for those days when you edge out the heavyweights."

Campbell will get another chance a week later in Philadelphia when he takes on Drysdale, world champion Ondrej Synek, and two-time Head titlist Kjetil Borch in the Gold Cup, a 750-meter dash along the Schuylkill River for a $10,000 first prize. "There are some serious people in that field," he conceded. "Although never say die. Any given Sunday."


After that, though, Campbell will jump back in the double with Joshua Konieczny, the Dartmouth alumnus with whom he earned an Olympic spot for the US by placing eighth at this summer's world championships in France, and will try to win next April's trials in Florida. "The single is an amazing event and there's definitely a lot of allure to that heavyweight spot," he acknowledged, "but I think I'm in the right spot right now."

The lightweight double represents unfinished business from 2012 when Campbell and then-partner Will Daly missed collecting a ticket for the London Games by one place at the last-chance qualifying regatta in Switzerland.

"Not making the Olympic team was one of the low points of my rowing career," said Campbell, who'd taken a year off from college and trained for three months in New Zealand. "We sank a lot of effort into making that happen and to miss by that little was incredibly disappointing."

The best way to cope was to get back into the boat, he concluded, so Campbell went to Henley that summer and reached the semifinals of the Diamond Sculls and went on to win a bronze medal in the single at the world championships for non-Olympic events in Bulgaria. Then he returned to Harvard and helped the Crimson lightweight eight retain its national title over archrival Yale.

Until college Campbell always had been a sculler (two oars, one in each hand). He'd grown up in Illinois sailing on Lake Michigan but when his father moved the family to Connecticut and landlocked New Canaan he switched to rowing, learning the two-handed version from two former Soviet instructors. At Harvard, where his freshman (Linda Muri) and varsity (Charley Butt) mentors both had been lightweight world medalists, he found kindred spirits.


"It definitely helped to row for two coaches who had the perspective that there is a level of excellence that is great but attainable," Campbell said, "and that if I wanted to shoot for that level they knew the way to get there."

The secret is an obsession about perfecting the rhythmic cycle of catch-drive-finish-recovery that makes up each stroke of the oars. "I'm willing to go all the way to get it right," said Campbell. "I'm a huge believer in that the difference between first place and sixth place is in the technique."

Of course, one reason he values technique is that he knows he won't out-muscle his competition.

When a sculler is giving away 50 pounds to rivals, bladework has to conquer bulk. His crisp technique, his intimate knowledge of the twisty Charles and a helpful tailwind propelled Campbell to a course record last year. "I knew that I had had a good race because I'd passed a couple of people but I honestly didn't feel like it was an amazing race," he recalled. "When I crossed the line my high school coach happened to be on the shore right by the finish and he yelled to me: Hey, you won!"


Winning an Olympic medal, which no American men's lightweight double yet has managed, would be even more globally significant in an event whose 20 competitors is second only to the men's single in numbers. "There are a lot of lightweight-sized people in the world," Campbell said. "So you see an unparalled level of depth in the field."

While there's no weight limit in the single, the lightweight maximum is a couple of mouthfuls under 160, which means Campbell will have to keep an eye on the scale between now and next summer. Ordinarily, after a hard morning row, he works off what he consumes, but he has to be choosy about what he has at noontime across the way. "I can't let myself do the food bar there," Campbell said, "or else I end up spending 20 bucks on lunch."

John Powers can be reached at john.powers@globe.com.