This is my second season racing the pair for the United States. Over the past four years, I have spent more time in the pair than probably any other boat–it’s our primary training and selection tool at the US Training Center, and for most of the 2016 quadrennium I had hoped that it would be the boat I would row in Rio. Having the pair take shape as a major part of my rowing career was a surprising, humbling and profoundly emotional experience as I came in to what I thought was going to be the twilight of my time as an elite athlete. I had spent such a long time away from sweep rowing of any kind by 2014, I was hesitant to accept that I might actually be taking to it somewhat naturally, and that the pair might actually be a good fit. I remained cautious but optimistic for several months, and then I found Kerry. What followed were some of the best, and worst, times I have had as a rower.
Throughout the process of falling in love with the pair (whether I wanted to admit it or not) I was keenly aware that part of what made the prospect of rowing the pair at that time so enticing was the opportunity to line up and race against the two women who were arguably, the best women’s pair in history: Heather Stanning and Helen Glover. For me, coming in to a situation that wasn’t optional or optimal given my lack of experience and then discovering that I was not just proficient in the pair, but was able to trade blows with one of the best women’s crews in history … that was something. To participate in an event with such a high standard and with the superlative crew setting the benchmark every time we raced: that was irresistible.
In 2014, Kerry and I raced to a second place finish at the World Championships in Amsterdam behind Heather and Helen, who set a new World Record in the process. Any doubts about their status as the greatest of all time were dispatched, and I was more excited than ever to get back to work and to try to improve in order to match their mastery of the event. The next time I saw the GB pair was the following season in Varese at the second World Cup. Kerry and I had our best performance ever in the pair, continuing to close the gap on the GB women and being chased hotly by a new combination from New Zealand.
It was my first time meeting Kerri Gowler and Grace Prendergast that day on the medals dock and I liked them instantly. They were friendly, chatty, gracious and funny. They had rowed a great race in Varese, and went on to Lucerne in continued pursuit of the GB pair. Kerry and I weren’t allowed to stay in the pair that summer so didn’t get to rematch with these two crews in Aiguebelette; it was the only time we all got to race one another before being reshuffled in to other crews for the Games, or retiring after Rio. I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to compete against these two incredible powerhouses of women’s rowing, even if was just this one very memorable race.
Coming back in to training for the 2017 season, I didn’t give much thought to who might also be returning in the pair. I knew that Kerry was retiring, and that Heather and Helen were stepping away at least for the season, but not much else was on my radar. I didn’t read much about what was going on elsewhere in the rowing world, and kept to myself and my training. As my goals for the year started to come together, I started thinking about the pair, and how I was going to earn a seat in it. By the time the early selection regattas came around, it had worked out that the boat was moving along with one of my teammates from the 2015 and 2016 W4X crews, Tracy Eisser. Having gone through all the highs of 2015 and the disappointments of 2016 together as a crew and as friends, Tracy and I have been on the same page for this season from the start. We raced the spring Speed Order and the NSR together and won both, and then moved on to our summer season.
Our first stop was World Cup II in Poznan. I was excited to see some familiar faces at the start line with Kerri and Grace back together and back in action. With just a fraction of the racing experience together that the Kiwis have had over the past several seasons as a combination, Tracy and I lined up with open minds and really no expectations except to do our best, have fun, and see how fast we could go. We raced to a silver medal behind the Kiwis who in the process, again set a new World Record. And then it started all over again: there were now new superlatives.
We raced Kerri and Grace twice more this summer at Henley Royal Regatta and again in Lucerne, and they have made it very clear that they are the form crew in our event with their speed and consistency. And for me, there is nothing better. To be taking part in an event that has the absolute pinnacle of talent active and setting the standard for the rest of the world every time they race, there is no more exciting challenge. It’s the thing I have loved the most about being an elite rower: racing against the very best. And it is something that I think is more unique to small boat events, especially with crews who work together and stay together over time to develop, and grow and rise to the top of the game. There is something that is so admirable and –to me– alluring about that process, and I think it’s been that way for me since the start.
So am I disappointed to come in to an event and have there be a strong, dominant crew sweeping the medals and putting on rowing clinics during our races? Absolutely not. There is no better way to learn, and to be pushed to be faster than to race against the best there’s ever been. For a new combination with not a lot of pair experience, I think it’s the best possible way for us to come in to the post-Olympic year and start to learn about the event, while keeping in mind that four years is a long time, and a lot can change between now and Tokyo. The pair this season could be one step among many forward and back–there’s no way to know. But I do know I’m happy with the steps we’ve taken over the course of just a few months rowing together in the pair, just as I’m sure Kerri and Grace are pleased with their own progress this season. As crews we are in very different stages of our development, and for now, that’s ok. If I keep messing up the docking here in Sarasota every day there’s a good chance Tracy isn’t going to want to keep rowing with me next year anyway, so no reason to get too wound up just yet.
Not long to go now before we see our friends again in the W2- A Final on Saturday morning. I hope you’ll all tune in, or maybe even be there in person, to see the very best show you how it’s done.
Long Live the Dream,