Well, 2013 has been a hell of a year. For both of my goes at Post-Olympic years, both have packed a serious punch. There’s something about coming off of an Olympic performance — whether good or bad — there’s a sort of self-assurance that nothing coming at you can possibly be more stressful or more difficult than being selected and racing at the Games. Of course that’s totally wrong, because then the Post-Olympic year happens. After getting knocked on your arrogant Olympic ass, hard (maybe a few times) you get your feet back on the ground, and your shoulder buried back into the giant immovable stone that is elite rowing training. It’s been a long year. Thankfully it’s almost over. I’ve lost a lot, and dealt with a lot of change this year, but for a final and considerable change that 2013 has brought in to my life, it’s time to move on from a part of my journey and a part of my rowing career that has been hugely formative and a big part of who I am as an athlete. My doubles partner, teammate, roommate, partner in crime and best friend, Ellen Tomek, has decided to relocate from Princeton to Oklahoma City to continue her training for Rio in the women’s double. As long as I’ve been in Princeton, Ellen and I have been a team. We’ve been through just about everything there is to go through together as athletes, and now she’s moved on. This is our story.
The Early Days
In early September 2006, I got a call from a number I didn’t recognize. I was in the car with Erin Cafaro, and we were in the process of moving in to our new house in Princeton, but I answered anyway. The voice on the other end of the line was Ellen’s. She had gotten my number from a mutual friend, Josh Brown, who knew that Erin and I were looking for another roommate in Princeton. Ellen had just graduated from the University of Michigan and rowed in the U23 pair that summer and was hoping to move to Princeton to train. After a quick “who is this?” the conversation ended with “sure, you can move in with us” and that was that.
For all intents and purposes, Ellen and I started our rowing careers at the same time. I had been in Princeton since June but hadn’t been very successful in trying to make the W4- that summer. She and I and a few other unfortunate souls got put directly in to singles that fall and never touched sweep oars again. We were both pretty clueless, quite a ways behind physiologically, and on top of that, Ellen was an asthmatic with a lousy immune system. We spent a lot of time brooding and bonding over our shredded hands, terrible erg scores, our shared financial destitution, being shamed by the older athletes, and wondering just how in the hell we were ever going to make it on the National Team. But, we also decided that if we were going to be sculling from now on, we were going to make the most of it. We wanted to do something great in a discipline that, historically, has been pretty much anything-but for the United States.
By some miracle we were both included in quad selection for the 2007 Team. Ellen made it in stroke. I was the last person cut. The quad went on to finish 5th in Munich that summer. Ellen was now a funded athlete and had had a taste of senior level competition. I was really down, but thought it would be stupid to walk away from training in the Olympic year, so we both returned in 2008, hopefuls for Beijing.
In 2008 the team spent most of the winter in San Diego. During that time, the sculling group was sizable – at least fourteen athletes vying for Olympic seats in the 2X and 4X. We spent most of our time in a sort of 2X matrix, swapping partners and running competitive pieces week in and week out. On the water I was consistently at the very bottom of the group, and Ellen was doing very well at or near the top of the group with the experienced scullers. It’s only looking back at journal entries from that time that I can really remember now how dark those days were for me, and how hopeless I was feeling leading into the spring of the Olympic year. I had been stuck with the same partner almost all winter, and our results had been so poor. I was young and had such a limited perspective — what I had indicated that there was no way I was going to get a look for the 2008 Team. Then, for some reason that I still don’t understand, during the last week of San Diego camp, Ellen and I got put in to a double together. Literally from the first strokes off of the dock, it felt like we were absolutely flying. I had never had a boat move so well. Both of us were caught by surprise. We started beating all of the other doubles — crushing them. And that was pretty much it. We decided to row together at that year’s second National Selection Regatta, where we won all of our races easily by open water. Then, because neither of us had any international experience to speak of, and it was looking like we could be real contenders for the Olympic Team, it was time to head to the World Cups.
This was a huge turn of events for me – in a matter of just a few weeks that spring I had surged from the bottom of the team to the top. I always say that most of my making the 2008 Olympic Team was just luck: pure, dumb luck. On paper, there was no way I was going to make it. But because Ellen and I happened to make the boat go fast, and we happened to want to row together, we made it. We raced World Cups I and II, and ended up with a pretty solid regatta in Lucerne for a couple of young athletes who had never rowed the event before:
Our performance in Lucerne was enough to qualify us for the 2008 Olympic Team, making us the first athletes nominated to the Team that summer. It was pretty awesome.
We worked hard for the rest of the summer with the blessing of being able to just focus on Beijing much earlier than our teammates still fighting for their seats in 4X and 8+ camp. It was lonely at times as some of the women in the 4X group never forgave us for taking the double, and punished us with the silent treatment. The 8+ was sort of on a different planet, which left us to spend a lot of time with the spares. But we went in to the Beijing Games optimistic, naive and with nothing to lose.
We finished fifth in a field of extremely experienced and talented athletes, among them the legendary Evers-Swindell twins, the unstoppable favorites that year in the Chinese W2X, a determined Christiane Huth and Annekatrin Thiele, and future gold medalist Anna Watkins. It was the best international finish in a women’s double for the United States in almost a decade. The medals were insanely close, but we were not. We were both crushed as we rowed back to the dock, where we were met by our coaches, who smiled, patted us on the back, and said “You’re not even fit yet.” I couldn’t believe that Tom was making jokes at a time like this, but looking back now, it was sort of a compliment.
We knew before we had even taken the boat out of the water at Shunyi that we would do whatever it took to try again in London.
The Row to London
Ellen and I were back at the boathouse almost right away in singles gearing up for the 2009 season. Neither of us had any interest in the 4X–only the 2X. No American women have ever won an Olympic medal in the 2X, and we wanted to be the first ones to do it. I knew (and still know) that the best small boat crews are the ones that develop together over time — and that was what we were missing. We had all the resources, the drive and the same goals, we just needed time together. We were young and had very limited international experience, so the upcoming quadrennium was going to remedy that with miles and miles of experience. Our coaches seemed to be on board with us staying in the 2X–so we got to work getting as strong and as fit as we could, and continuing to build confidence and small boat skills.
2009 unfolded somewhat predictably, and Ellen and I again commanded the women’s double event at the NSR that spring. We had a busy summer racing singles at Elite Nationals, then Royal Henley, and then got in to the double at Lucerne. We had a tremendous regatta, and were the first and only American women ever to win gold in the women’s double at Lucerne. Because of some health issues on the team, we also had the opportunity to hot seat the 4x a few hours later, and just narrowly missed out on double-gold day, taking silver. I was on top of the world.
We were excited to get back to training after Lucerne, looking eagerly toward the World Championships in Poznan, where it seemed that a medal was definitely within reach. We took almost no down time after the World Cup and hit the training pretty aggressively within just a day or two of being back. Ellen’s periodic and nagging muscular and joint pain she had been managing for the past year finally manifested as a broken rib within just a few days of being back in the US. I spent the rest of the time leading up to Poznan in the 1X and doing a few rows in the 2X with our spare, Brett Sickler. From there, however, things did not go well. Despite the best efforts of our med staff, when Ellen tried to come back for racing in Poznan, the snap we’d had in Lucerne was gone. I could tell that she was in pain and trying to row through it. As we tried to manage her first injury, another came up — this time, her back — and that was the final nail in the coffin. We had struggled a bit in our heat and semi, finishing second both times with no real power to take us through the second half of the race. When it came time to race the final, we were left behind at the 1000m.
After that race was the only time my coaches have seen me cry. And I cried a LOT that day. After everything we had been through that summer, my expectations were so high for our World Championships, and instead we came home the losers of the women’s national team: the only boat without a medal. I wasn’t sure what was going to be next for us.
When we started training for 2010, the plan was for Ellen and myself to spend most of the year in San Diego in order to get as much time on the water in singles and the double as we could. Then, when her injuries weren’t clearing up and she was unsuccessful getting a clear diagnosis, just Ellen went to San Diego to make use of the full time physio staff there and try to get healthy. I stayed with the group in Princeton, and kept working and working. As the months went by, and Ellen still wasn’t making progress on her now-chronic injuries, I began to realize that I needed to start thinking about a Plan B if Ellen wasn’t going to make it back in time for the 2010 season. I loved the 2X, but did I want to row it with someone else? Or, more appropriately: would it be as fast with someone else? The answer was: no. I didn’t, and it wasn’t. And so I turned my focus to the 4X for that season, putting more effort in to my erg testing as a means to open a door into 4X camp. I was rewarded with huge PRs on my 2k, my 6k, my 30′ and my 1′ T that long, long season – and in the end, tentatively re-entered the selection process that had burned me so badly three years prior…and which I have grown to loathe over the past four seasons. I made the 4X for Worlds, but I wasn’t happy with the crew selection, and was still hanging on in some ways to the event that I was really passionate about: the 2X. The 4X underperformed for the whole regatta at Karapiro and finished a miserable 5th place, disappointing ourselves and our coaches. I was very unhappy. And Ellen was still nowhere near being ready to come back.
2011 was a very important year for both of us. It was the year that I was able to go all-in for my pursuit of, and selection to, the 4X. And with the length of her mysterious and chronic injuries stretching on and on, Ellen had to decide if she wanted to keep fighting against whatever was holding her back, or if it was time to leave the sport. I took the time to really evaluate what it was that I wanted to do with my rowing over the next two years. And as hard as it was for me, I thought about how I was going to do it without Ellen. For the early part of my career, I had always felt that she was the reason that I had made it at all; without her, I would have been stuck at the bottom of the group with little hope of breaking in. She has always been faster than me in the 1X, was always one of the coaches’ favorites (whereas I am one of their least favorites) and has a gift for racing in the stroke seat that I don’t. But with no indication of when she would be healthy enough to return to competition, I had to decide if I wanted to do what she and I set out to do in 2009 and start winning some damn medals, or if I was going to sit around and hope for something to change. It was already the qualifying year, and I was running out of time.
The 4X was not a project I wanted to take on when I came back from 2008, but by 2011 with the emergence of the GBR and AUS W2Xs it was clear that the 4X was going to be our team’s best chance at a sculling medal in London. I wanted to be a part of that. We rallied an awesome, scrappy crew for the 2011 USA W4X and battled for a fantastic silver medal in Bled. It was my first Worlds Medal, and it felt great. I came back for 2012 guns blazing, only focused on making the Olympic 4X.
2012 brought all of the stresses and challenges of an Olympic year. After having gone through it all before, it was still stressful, but more manageable the second time around. The good news was, Ellen had steadily been healing over the past several months, and was finally back to full time training. Training was intense leading up to Olympic Trials in the W2X in April. Despite having the 4X as my primary goal, I was left to race Trials with the other three top scullers on the team at the time: Ellen, Stesha Carlé and Kate Bertko. We were left to sort out two 2X lineups between the four of us amongst ourselves, which was truly one of the most unpleasant experiences of my career. In the end, Ellen and I had won the most pieces and by the biggest margins together that spring, and we decided to row together at Trials. We didn’t have a great regatta, and ended up coming second behind Kate and Stesha. Going in to it, we both knew that no matter the outcome, we were not going to accept the 2X berth, so coming second didn’t change that. But by not winning we missed out on the opportunity to put ourselves in the best possible position going in to 4X selection, and for that reason I was very disappointed.
We got back to Princeton, and got back to work. Because of our second place finish at Trials, we were left home from World Cup I, but soon enough it was time for camp in Breisach, which would determine lineups for the second World Cup in Lucerne. Ellen and I were boated in one of two USA quads with Kady Glessner and Kara Kohler. But in the last days leading up to the regatta, Ellen tragically broke a rib again and was unable to race, putting her back at square one after working so hard all year to scramble back in to the group after two years out. The other USA quad finished with bronze and was on sub-world record pace in the heats. Our quad with a substitution in bow, finished an embarrassing 8th place. I was not feeling good about things on the trip home from Lucerne, but my self-pity was nothing compared to Ellen being faced with a very short timeline in which to heal her broken rib in time for final seat racing for the Olympic Team, in just three short weeks.
Selection was a bloodbath. An unprecedented approach to seat racing, we all raced to our limits over the course of the six final days before the naming date. I was in on the second-to-last day. On the last day, Ellen got her seat race–the only seat race of the day–and she lost. I knew it before the results were posted, and then the crew announcement came. It was horrible knowing that there was nothing I could do or say to comfort my friend and teammate who had fought harder than anyone just to be there, and who missed making the Team on the last race of the last day. We had been balancing our mutual support and frustrations with one another for the better part of three years – me trying to listen, sympathize, encourage and help manage her injuries while also trying to move forward with my own career; and her always being so strong, and happy to celebrate my successes while she tried to heal, when I knew all she wanted more than anything was to be out there with me taking on the world. Our dream of going to London together that we had been holding on to for four years had come down to the very last day–and then it was gone. To make things even harder, our Olympic 4X went on to do what Ellen and I had always wanted to do together — and won the first Olympic medal in our sculling event for the United States. I would be lying if I said it didn’t take a toll on our friendship.
Now, we’re looking to Rio. Coming in to this season, I wasn’t completely sure where I wanted to end up, but eventually made my way to the 4X. Ellen, however, made a beeline for the 2X in the spring, taking on a new training partner, Meg O’Leary. The double is going well for them, and they are excited to stick with it in order to approach the event the way Ellen and I wanted to in 2009. For that to happen, they have taken the double and themselves outside of the Princeton Training Center, which is undergoing some structural and procedural changes for 2014, one of which includes the elimination of disciplinary specialization. For now, there will be no more “sweepers” or “scullers” and everyone will be required to do both proficiently (more on this later). For someone looking to medal a W2X in less than three years, it’s probably not a system that will work. So they’ve found a place that will support them in their medal pursuit and they can scull to their hearts’ delight.
After being teammates and roommates for seven years, it wasn’t easy to say goodbye to Ellen. But we did our best and I honked the horn and waved in the rearview as I drove off to practice the morning she and Meg left for Oklahoma. Since then, a new body has moved in to the house in her place- a young up-and-comer recently graduated from Columbia, and with a sculling background. We’re eight years apart, but so far, we’re having fun.
I’m adjusting to life without Ellen, because I have to. We both have goals for what comes next as we work toward the Rio Games. So far, our plans haven’t worked out the way that we imagined them when we were young and bright-eyed in 2008. But no matter what has happened, and how we have had to bend and change in order to keep moving forward, we both have always done our best to support the other along the way. Now, that means seeing each other a little less often, and leaning on new or different teammates in the interim. I’ve gone on and on about what we did and what boats we rowed over the past five years together but what this story doesn’t include to this point are the countless hours Ellen and I spent talking, laughing, crying, plotting, commiserating and sharing our experiences with one another. We lived, commuted, trained and worked together for seven years–so if there was an adventure, mishap or a pitfall to be had (particularly while traveling) we had it. If there was a crazy scenario involving late nights, bad boyfriends, or possibly too much to drink, we’ve been there. Ellen has seen me at my lowest and my absolute worst. She was also one of the few people on the Team that knew that my Dad was sick, and has long been considered a part of my family. It is the end of an era, truly. But nonetheless, I am incredibly lucky to have had Ellen as a teammate and a friend on my journey – and others should be so fortunate to find someone as dedicated, honest, fun, and fiercely competitive to row with in their careers.
Here’s to the next step, and the still un-won Olympic medal in the USA W2X. Go get it.
Long Live the Dream,