The Greyhound and the Rabbit

It seems like this blog is getting more and more difficult to write.  If there was something that could top the last entry I wrote way back in April, this is probably it.  Looking back, I think writing what I did about losing the NSR was a lot about acceptance and moving on from a disappointing result.  Even though I felt like Kerry and I had a good race at the NSR in April, the challenge was in admitting that our best was not good enough on that day, and that we had missed an opportunity because of it.  But this.  This is something much more difficult.

World Cups II and III have come and gone, and we are looking ahead at final summer selection for the US Team.  Kerry and I have continued training together since April, and have had our good days and our bad days.  But consistently, the good have outnumbered the bad, and we have continued to make good progress as a crew. Never avalanching from one point to another, but just steadily adding to the way that we think about and understand the stroke in order to add a little bit here, make it easier there.  It’s a long, ongoing evolution with us, and I think of it more as adding layers upon layers to what we already know without ever really knowing which layer will be the last one.  And so it has gone for the past two months.

Almost immediately after the final at the NSR, our head coach let us know that he wanted us to try racing our pair at the World Cup in Varese as USA2 even though we hadn’t won–“just to be sure” .  This is a very normal part of the way Tom has run selection on the sweep side for the US Women.  On occasion there will be only one USA W2- entry for our World Cup trip, but more often than not we will have at least two (or four, as we did in 2014).  There are many reasons for doing this; racing experience for more athletes is one; evaluating medal potential for US crews in the event is another; and finally we have confirming that the NSR-winning pair is, in fact, the fastest USA combination (aka “being sure”).  I was somewhat reluctant to commit to racing in the pair in Varese, in a way, because I didn’t really like the idea of lining up as cannon fodder for our top pair on an international stage “just to be sure”, when I could have potentially instead begun to focus on another event that I would more likely be racing later in the summer if I were to be selected to the World Championship Team.  But, I’ve found it’s usually better to follow instructions from the coaches — and if there was one person I would not turn down an opportunity to race with one last time, it was Kerry. So we agreed.

We went to Europe with a straightforward plan: push our top pair to be as fast as they could in order to get the best possible result for our Team. We trained closely with Elle and Felice leading up to the Varese trip doing racing and pacing workouts with them as the pair posse. It was going well, and both pairs gained a lot by working together.  But it was very tough technical training with a lot of volume up until we left, and we were all ready for a racing taper by the time we packed up for the airport.

We arrived in Bled as a sort of staging camp for our racing in Varese with the goal of training through the first week in order to acclimate and then do some racing preparation via the Bled International Regatta.  Bled was meant to be an informal racing opportunity for us.  It was a chance for us to stretch out and do our first open rate 2k since April, and to see what we could learn from the work we had done since then.  The results weren’t going to really matter or affect anyone’s selection, so the race could be anything we wanted it to be.  Kerry and I decided there that we wanted to try racing differently than we had in the past, to see if we could make up some of the difference on our top pair earlier in the race.  We really had nothing to lose, so experimenting with going out harder sooner and maybe having less at the end of the race was a risk we were willing to take in order to maybe push the pace for both boats.  So we tried it.  And it worked.  We won our pair final in Bled by almost five seconds.
I think Kerry and I both felt like we had made a good step in actualizing more of what we are capable of as athletes with our race in Bled, but we didn’t congratulate ourselves too much, knowing that our other pair could just have easily been using a lower-pressure racing situation to also try something different or make a change.  It was good preparation for us and good execution of a change we wanted to make, but that was it. We focused on recovering, and getting back to work for the real goal of the trip: racing against the best women’s pairs in the world at the World Cup.

Varese was great.  Kerry and I got in to the swing of things and felt better than we had in weeks thanks to our racing taper.  We still felt like we had nothing to lose by having our best race in Varese and pushing our teammates as hard as we could. And even better, we were going to get another opportunity to race against the perennial favorites in the women’s pair, Great Britain, as well as the new combination everyone couldn’t stop talking about: New Zealand.  There wasn’t going to be anything easy about this regatta, but we recognized it for what it was:  possibly our last chance to race together in the event we love against some really talented athletes.  We wanted to make the most of it.

Photo ©USRowing

Photo ©USRowing

When we got to the Final, we pulled the ripcord and then took a look around when we crossed the finish line.  We’d had a seamless race that had built strongly on the progress we’d made in Bled, and once again finished second to the GB pair.  New Zealand were third, and USA1 fourth.  We’d posted some very quick women’s pair times in both the Semifinal and the Final, and added another three quarters of a second to the margin on our top pair. I was so happy with the way we’d put together our last race, I enthusiastically smacked Kerry on the back after we crossed the line and she yelled at me because it was too hard.  We collected our medals and came home.

A few days later, Kerry and I sat down with our coach and he told us that we would not be continuing in the pair for the rest of the summer.  I had been preparing myself for that final confirmation since April, but still hearing it after such a positive and successful trip to Europe where Kerry and I had made good progress together was really hard.  The way our selection procedures are written, the NSR-winning crew has the ability to nominate themselves to their event if they satisfy the qualification standards at a World Cup.  For the US women’s pair, a top four finish earns the NSR winners an automatic nomination to the World Championship team.  It’s a process we call self-selection, and is not affected by any coaches or selectors.  Elle and Felice finished fourth in Varese, and so were legally entitled to make the decision to take those seats.  They chose to accept the nomination and will be racing the pair for the US this summer at the World Championships in Aiguebelette.

I have had some time to think about this situation and try to figure out how I feel about it.  I’ve talked to my teammates and my coaches, trying to find a way to be ok with it, because it’s distracting and exhausting being angry all the time.  I think getting to this point and trying to rationalize or justify things is infinitely more difficult for me than accepting our loss at the NSR.  In April, we lost–so we were out. That sucked, but it made sense.  This time, we didn’t lose, and the stakes were much higher–and we’re still out.  This not only sucks, but it also doesn’t make sense, or seem fair.
However it is fair, and it has to be, because it is the way our selection procedures work.  It’s the way they have worked for the entire time I’ve been on the US Team.  And, since I work with the High Performance Committee I am actually one of the people who approves the selection procedures for the Team each year.  The irony of this is not lost on me.  But when we’re doing something “just to be sure” and the certainty of the situation get smashed… well, it’s not great to be on the winning end of it and still end up losing.

Looking back on this summer to this point, all we have been trying to do is to make our Team as fast as it can be in order to put ourselves in the best possible position for Olympic Qualification at this year’s World Championships.  As a group, we know that we have medal targets to hit at the World Championships, and that those performance markers have larger implications, including not only Olympic Qualification, but funding and support for all the female athletes on our Team.  Even when I had accepted that Kerry and I were not going to be the top pair for the World Cup, I wanted to do what we could to make our top pair as fast as they could be so that someone from our Team would be pushing the pace in that event, and also meeting performance goals.  If it wasn’t going to be us, I was going to make sure we were working our asses off to make our top athletes stronger, and the whole Team better as a result.  That wasn’t the position I wanted to be in, but it wasn’t about us anymore. It was about doing what needed to be done to benefit the Team.  If we hadn’t continued to push and progress in the role of USA2, we wouldn’t have just been hurting ourselves.  We would have been giving the finger to our teammates, saying: “What I want or how I feel is more important than making our Team faster.”

This is the philosophy that has driven our program for all the years I’ve been a part of it.  I’ve talked about it before in my writing, but I think it’s particularly relevant here: we don’t have individuals at the Training Center.  We have a massive, collective effort from an intensely talented and competitive group of women who work for years at a time to continue to push the standards of US Women’s Rowing.  We don’t accept performances from ourselves that are only-ok or less than what we are capable of.  It’s why our gym is probably the only place in the world where you’ll find women who are genuinely disappointed when they go 6:31 or 6:35 on their 2ks.  Because we don’t accept that if we know it’s not the best we have to offer.  We do what we do, and think what we think, because we all want the same thing: to win.  We have to push and be pushed in order to do that.  And it works because everyone believes it.  Everyone believes that by being a part of the group and working together, we can reach our potential. If we don’t all believe it–trust it–the system fails.  So you have to trust that sometimes in this group you’re going to be the rabbit, and sometimes you’re going to be the greyhound.  No one escapes it. And it’s not always going to be fun.  But one thing you never, ever do is excuse yourself from it, or turn your back on it, because there isn’t a single person on this Team who hasn’t benefitted from this system from one point or another.

I think it’s pretty clear at this point that I’m disappointed.  I’ve loved racing the pair the past two seasons with Kerry and I think we had a great regatta in Varese that showed that we have good, competitive speed against our teammates and against some other really classy women’s pairs.  After a lot of years of the selection procedures working for me, this is really the first time that I’ve felt like they haven’t–and I guess after ten seasons, that’s not too bad.  I would have loved to have raced in the pair with Kerry again this summer, but for now our run at the pair is over.

I hate feeling this way. I hate being disappointed in myself, and angry at my teammates, and like I can’t do more to give Kerry everything I think she deserves.  But unfortunately as an elite athlete, there are going to be times when things are not going to work out the way you want.  There are just going to be some things that suck sometimes, and there isn’t going to be anything you can do about it.  It’s part of being on a Team.  And all of this has certainly reinforced that you are more likely to encounter sucky situations if you don’t win the NSR.  So maybe acceptance is not in the cards for me, or maybe it’s just a long ways off.  I don’t know.  But no matter what: I do still have a job to do over the next few weeks.  Part of that is making to decision to tuck this away, and to focus my energy on things I can control, and having as much positive impact on the rest of the Team as I can before we select our camp boats and the Team heads to Aiguebelette.  We have just two weeks until the Naming Date for our 8+, 4X and 4- and there will be some very challenging times ahead for all of us.  We have a lot of talented, committed athletes for those seats, and competition for them is going to be very tight.  When we were told about the pair nomination, I was given the option to choose whether I would sweep or scull for the rest of the summer.  I think initially I was inclined to try for a seat in the 4X.  But after giving it some thought, I decided that I would be open to trying any seat on the Team that my coaches felt would be best for me, and for the group.  Whether they need a sculler or a starboard, I intend to do what is asked of me to make this summer the best it can be for my Team.

Long Live the Dream,

–MK

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5 responses to “The Greyhound and the Rabbit

  1. A gut-wrenching post, with an inspirational theme. Giving it your best, putting your confidence in your coaches and teammates. This one line gave me chills of respect for you as I read it: “I intend to do what is asked of me to make this summer the best it can be for my Team.” You inspire me greatly.

  2. Another great post. Thank you for this, you are a true inspiration. I’m sorry that your time in the pair is over for the summer and I wish you the best of luck in the coming selection.

  3. Gah! This was so difficult to read as someone that wants the US team to put the best boats forward. I recently read “The Amateurs”, and this story sounds strangely familiar. The best boat (or sculler in 1984) has an off day on the wrong day (selection), which screws up the whole selection process and probably ensures that the whole teams’ results are worse than they would have been.

    After spending years in the UK watching (from a distance) how the GB squad does selection, I’m consistently amazed at how last-minute US selection decisions seem to be made. It really sucks that you got the short end of the stick this year. (And the US team is getting robbed of your speed, which is almost incomprehensible!)

    That said, your line here says it all: “I intend to do what is asked of me to make this summer the best it can be for my Team”. That’s 100% class, and please know you’ve got a lot of supporters no matter what the rest of boat selection holds for you.

  4. Your mindset is very mature and admirable! Also your blog makes me appreciate the benefits of Intercompetition a little bit more!

  5. As we saw at the climax of the Women’s World Cup of Soccer semi-final match between England and Japan, competition at the elite level is not only arduous physically but emotionally as well. Athletes put their feelings at risk as much as their bodies.
    You are taking a strong, honest attitude toward this major disappointment, Megan. This shows your inner as well as outer strength.
    Continue to “enter the arena and make the attempt.” There’s more ahead for you yet!

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