Lucerne: Last Look

I’ve spent the last several days thinking about this trip to Lucerne, what it means for my Team, for my crew, and also what it means for me as an individual athlete within the framework of these larger athletic machines.  It’s not easy for me to pare down my Lucerne experience from this year because it was anything but simple.  The goal is always simple: race hard. race smart. make improvements. learn.  If you can take those things away from a World Cup performance as  you work your way toward a World Championship or Olympic regatta–you’re doing your job as an athlete, and the World Cups are serving their purpose to our athletic community.

Lucerne has never been the same experience twice for me.  After racing was completed on Saturday and I had failed to qualify my crew for the the A final for the first time in all my years racing at Lucerne, I was running through all of my trips with my physio during a therapy session.  Talking it through with Marc, I realized that the only year I’ve had a completely ordinary and drama-free trip to Lucerne was my very first trip in 2008:  Ellen and I were in the double.  We only had to worry about one another, and with a top four finish we would complete our Olympic selection.  It was so simple.  I had no idea then that every subsequent trip to Lucerne would find some way to turn my expectations on their ear, and essentially leave me with more unanswered selection questions than we had going in.

With the clock ticking on final Olympic selection, everyone in the USA camp is eager to find the answers to those questions, and we will do just that together over the next few weeks.  But before I fully engage our last three weeks as a Team of Olympic Hopefuls, it’s important for me to figure out what happened with my races this year in Lucerne and why, so I can apply those conclusions to my approach over the next three weeks.  This wasn’t my perfect race weekend, and I definitely didn’t find the success I had hoped I would.  But if I don’t recognize that and learn something from it–I’m not doing my job as an athlete and as a teammate.

It has taken me some time to figure out what didn’t come together, or what I could have done better to produce a better result for my crew this weekend.  Since I am confident that our fitness/physiology is on track, and our coaches told us that there was no technical reason that we shouldn’t have been able to be better, I am left with the difficult task of determining the intangible element that kept us off the pace of the other 7 boats that were faster than us.  I’m not sure that I have it completely figured out, but what it has come down to for me in the end is leadership.
Taking a look at the resumes of the women in my boat, I was the veteran athlete this weekend and it was my responsibility to provide the leadership and stability that our boat needed to be confident and successful.  With last minute changes adding some extra stress to racing, it was more important than usual for there to be a strong voice in the boat to keep all four of us focused and working together.  I knew it, I recognized it, and what I did wasn’t enough.

For me, this is a critical error.  The concept of athletic leadership is something that I have spent a lot of time thinking about and developing–first as a collegian at the University of Washington, as well as during all of my years on the National Team.  Before my senior year with the Huskies, I typically went about my business at the boathouse in a very quiet, focused manner.  I believed that leading by example and working hard was good enough, and that I didn’t need to expend any extra energy on the social aspect of athletic leadership.  I didn’t make myself available or approachable to other athletes–younger or older– or to coaches.  Many of the women who are now my closest friends and teammates describe me as being “terrifying” or “intimidating” when they first met me years ago, because I smothered myself in my competitive drive and was completely standoffish at the boathouse.  I am naturally not an affectionate, fuzzy person–so I sacrificed other crucial elements of effective team relationships like trust and communication, and I didn’t realize how much it affected my team or my teammates’ perception of me…until Olivia showed up.
Olivia was one of my best friends at Washington, and was also elected Commodore my senior year, I was Captain.  The difference between the two roles in our program is subtle.  But a perfect example of that difference was her acknowledgment at the beginning of our senior year that if I was going to help our very small senior class provide effective leadership to our younger athletes, I was going to need to make a change.  She approached me one day, and spoke with me gently but very frankly about how my attitude at the boathouse wasn’t going to be good enough; that scaring the living shit out of the freshmen wasn’t going to help our team be faster; that never smiling at the boathouse actually was a problem.  I argued with her.  I didn’t want to accept that leading by example wasn’t enough.  I was a top performer on and off the water, in small boats and on the erg.  I showed up every day and didn’t complain about the work or about the coaching staff.  That was what I wanted for our team: hard work with no excuses.  But it doesn’t work that way.

Olivia in Lucerne

Olivia made me understand that leadership as a complete package is more than just pulling an erg score or being fast in a pair.  Effective leadership is found in those who others want to follow because they share a mutual trust, respect, and commitment to goals.  There isn’t a perfect formula for leaders or for leadership–sometimes its natural, sometimes its forced on us.  Whatever the case, it’s difficult for teams to be successful without it.  I’ve become more attuned to the subtleties of my own leadership style as I’ve transitioned into elite rowing because I faced challenges at PTC similar to those I faced at Washington.  It has taken me time to open up to my teammates and coaches, and to be open and approachable at the boathouse.  It has taken years of conscious effort to make small changes to my approach to make myself a more effective leader and teammate with the USA women.  I don’t always succeed.  I don’t always do it perfectly.  And I may not be the strongest leader on the Team.  But I am a much different athlete than I was when I walked in to Conibear ten years ago and when Olivia sat me down in the summer of 2005.
That having been said, I still have room to improve.  I can always find ways to be tougher, more compassionate, more prepared, and a better communicator.  It meant the world to me that Olivia was in Lucerne this year to watch me race.  She made the trip up from Milan with two of her friends, and as part of introductions we talked (not coincidentally, I think) at length about the ways that I credit Olivia with cracking my shell.  We have been through so much together, and now I am poised to execute the final coup de main on my Olympic journey, it was wonderful to have her support this weekend and have her send me back to the USA focused on the goal of the next three weeks–which has been the goal all along.

Great racing from all the other USA crews this weekend: W8+ gold, W2- silver, W4X bronze and LW2X have secured their Olympic bids with a 4th place finish.

Off we go.

Long Live the Dream,

–MK

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9 responses to “Lucerne: Last Look

  1. This post is outstanding – brave, candid and wonderfully generous to the teammate who helped you begin the process of evolving as a leader. To be able to offer these thoughts so close to the frustration and disappointment of Lucerne is even more impressive, and speaks volumes about how much you have learned and grown since your first days at UW. More, it highlights the immense potential that exists for you and your teammates in the weeks ahead; you have identified an issue and begun to consider the best ways to address it and solve it. I wish you and your mates all of the best as you discuss the previous racing together and collectively consider next steps. For now, however, I just want to thank you. Your words about leadership apply well beyond the boathouse, and actually provide me invaluable insight with a leadership challenge of my own (in an entirely non-athletic office setting). Good luck, and again, you have my admiration and gratitude.

  2. Love your blog. You are very inspirational, and you have a great attitude. Keep up the awesomeness, and best of luck with your upcoming endeavors.

  3. We all have things about our character we can improve. The trick is to acknowledge it, which you clearly have, and then to seek ways and advice on how to change. You have the ultimate goal in your sights, and can very quickly put into practice your new improved leadership. Good luck and I hope to see you racing in London.

  4. you’ve got your head in the right place heading back to the States and ready to go for the next few weeks. leaders always find a way to get it done and i’ve got the feeling you will too.

  5. What a great post. You’re such an amazing example to young female rowers aspiring to be as great and successful as you are. Seeing that you have internal struggles such as this makes you even more relatable. We’re all works in progress, striving to be the best we can be. Just reading your posts has given me a lot of confidence in my own rowing career.

    Thank you so much for everything you do.

  6. I hesitate to comment, but cannot hold back. I was on the recieving end of a similar conversation when I was a senior captain. It was one of the worst talks of my life. In fact, I was told by the coaches that my co-captain was selected to “balance me out.” It’s beyond difficult breaking down the walls that you think are helping your team, and allowing teammates to see your vulnerabilites. Thank you so much for this post. I’m so grateful for your honesty. Go team USA!

  7. The grace and candor with which you discuss your experiences and development as an athlete and a leader is incredibly moving. Thank you, best of luck, and may the dream always be alive.

  8. Thank-you so much for this post. You’ve given me a lot of insight into my own life. It’s as if the person you were at UW and the person I am now are one in the same. I can only hope someday to learn and grow to be as talented as you. Best of luck.

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