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Row to Rio: Gaining Confidence and Support

November 28, 2014

When the United States Olympic Committee decides which sports to fund, it looks for where opportunities exist to win medals at upcoming Games.

“More than anything, as we’re looking at Rio, the mandate that has been given to us is to make sure we are doing whatever we can to put as many U.S. athletes on the podium as possible, and in doing that, don’t leave any stone unturned,” said Wesley Barnett, one of the USOC Team Leaders in Sport Performance.

“When we look at providing resources to national governing bodies, they are seen as an investment and typically, when you invest in something you hope to get something out, or you’re expecting something out.”

And the USOC has judged USRowing a good investment.

So when USRowing went to the USOC at the end of the 2014 racing season with an argument that shows the potential for a historic performance in Rio in 2016, the Olympic Committee upped its programming contribution by 40 percent for 2015.

“What they are saying is, we’re doing an excellent job,” said USRowing Chief Executive Officer Glenn Merry. “A 40-percent increase in funding is huge. That is a statement of trust.”

What the USOC sees with USRowing, its athletes, coaches, and high performance managers is an investment worth making. They see the performances of the last two seasons at world cup events and the World Rowing Championships. They see a plan in place that is focused, a coaching staff that stands apart from the rest of the world, athletes that train and compete at the highest level on minimal funding, and they see opportunity, “incremental opportunity.”

“We look at five different pillars when we are evaluating our investment,” said Barnett. “We look at, do they have the right athletes? Do they have the right coaches? Are they doing the right type of training? Are they going to the right competitions? And do they have the right leadership from a staff, and in some cases, even a board perspective.

“And when you look at rowing, in total, they’re really firing on all five of those cylinders at a very high level, we feel. And based on the results they have gotten throughout this quadrennial, we see opportunities to grow the medal count for Team USA.”

The work toward that trust began just after the 2012 Olympic Games in London, when USRowing brought in Curtis Jordan to head up the association’s high performance effort, when it hired two new men’s coaches to complement a coaching staff that already included Tom Terhaar, arguably the best women’s head coach in the world, and when it decided to narrow the focus, effort, and funding on a limited number of boats, crews it was confident could win medals.

It began when Jordan called on the rowing organizations around the country to take up the challenge of finding, coaching, and training athletes that could win at trials and then go to a world championship with a potential to medal, and they responded.

It continued with a restructured executive board, whose motto became, “We are USRowing, fostering community, cultivating excellence and developing Olympic champions,” and with a continued commitment from the National Rowing Foundation, which also increased the amount of funding it provides to the association’s athletes, an increase that saw a donation of $1.2 million this year.

The questions now are, does this mean there is enough money to support all of the athletes at a level equal to their competition, is the American rowing community doing all that it can to partner with those athletes, and is a historic Olympics now guaranteed?

Not according to Jordan and the facts that make up the landscape of being part of the United States Olympic movement, the only major country in the world not funded by its government. How does a projected total of funding toward 2016 that is expected to peak no higher than $6-7 million compare to the $64 million Great Britain will have available from their national lottery funding?

It is certainly a boost, but really is just an investment in a plan and a belief that the U.S. athletes, its coaches, staff, and supporters can make good on. That’s Jordan’s point of view.

“Right away, as soon as we were awarded this increase, I wrote them a letter and acknowledged that this is an investment, saying, I understand this is not a gift, that this is an investment and that you are expecting something in return. So the pressure is on us in 2015, because we’ve had an increase in our budget.

“We need to show that it adds value to the USOC, and we have to perform. Like all investments, if it starts to go sour, they’re going to pull it.”

And so the work continues. It’s up to Jordan and everyone who is a part of the USRowing team, and the American rowing community, to find the “incremental opportunities” the USOC believes exists.

For Jordan and for Merry, a significant boost in funding does not mean a completely changed landscape. The plan put in place stands. There will be a limited number of boats directly supported by USRowing. Those crews will receive varying levels of support stipends, not enough to let them focus only on rowing, but a regular contribution to their cost of living expenses.

It will mean coaching, equipment, and trips to the Olympic training facility in Chula Vista, Calif., that will keep them rowing through the winter. It will provide medical support and opportunity for international competition. But it will not mean a significant increase in the use of the kind of scientific physiological testing and training, and direct athlete support that countries with four to six times the amount of funding have available to them, including some of the tougher competition like Germany, Canada, and Australia. And while the rest of the world’s Olympic teams enjoy some form of government or national lottery funding, the U.S. does not.

Each of the 39 Olympic national governing bodies has to compete for a piece of a pie of about $50 million. In deciding who gets money, the USOC looks at the top athletes in the top sports around the world and judges which have the best chance of winning medals.

“What we’re doing is taking a look at that same tier of athletes in every sport and trying to evaluate the gap,” said Alan Ashley, Chief of Sport Performance for the USOC. “We look to see if they are at the top, and if they are, how do we make sure that we programmatically provide the services and resources to keep them there. If they’re not quite at the top, but they are on that trajectory upward, what sorts of things can we be doing with the NGB to give them a little bit more assistance.”

Ashley said USRowing has demonstrated the kinds of performance and direction the USOC is looking for.

“They’re really moving in the right direction,” he said. “There’s a couple of really good things that are happening,” he said. “They have a really good stable of athletes. You can look at the performance of the athletes in the boats, and you can see some really good movement in both the men and the women. It’s either good movement upward or a continued trend of excellence, of being right at the top.”

Jordan said the U.S. needs enough to fund four key elements that include, “hiring great coaches, supporting great athletes, keeping great athletes healthy, and developing those athletes. We want to support our athletes on an equal level to their competitors. We want them to have a fair playing field, and that’s why we have narrowed our focus.”

What this has done in the past two years has produced world championship medals from the supported boats, two from the men’s program and two from the women’s in 2013 and one from the men’s and three from the women’s in 2014.

Jordan firmly believes the U.S. has the potential to win two medals from the men and two or three from the women in Rio. The level of funding for those supported boats will not change, and boats will not be added to the prioritized boats.

What increased funding does mean is that USRowing can more easily make good on a promise to support boats outside of the system and increase the chances for crews that are funded and are on the edge, having medaled in one of the last two years, reached the finals, or showed continued improvement.

There are Olympic medal chances in the lightweight men’s four, lightweight women’s double sculls and men’s eight of the supported crews that missed in 2012.

It also includes non-funded crews training outside the USRowing system like the women’s double sculls, which reached the final in Amsterdam, the men’s quadruples sculls and the lightweight men’s double sculls. These were all crews that had solid performances at world cups and world championships during the last two years and earned funding to the world championships.

For Merry, USRowing’s plan has paid dividends and earned the U.S. more medals the last two years.

“We’ve had these conversations with the Olympic Committee and said, ‘Look, here’s our plan’. They are very much about funding a list of prioritized sports that can medal, that have the potential to medal, and have a demonstrated medal potential,” Merry said. “And those two things are different. One is being able to identify crews that can win. The second is identifying crews that have potential to win.

“They may have the potential to do it, but we don’t have the resources to give them that leg up. That’s where this half-million-dollar increase from the Olympic Committee is really them saying, ‘You’ve got 18 months before we send you off to Rio. And in those 18 months, we want to make sure we don’t leave a medal on the table,’” Merry said.

According to Jordan, the U.S. will fund a team with whatever level of funding it receives. “We receive what we receive, and we’ve learned to be very resourceful with the amount of money we have.”

But he also believes there is more that can be done in the wider rowing community.

“USRowing has limited funds,” Jordan said. “But American rowing, the community, has unlimited funds, and one of the ways they can help increase our medal count is by getting involved. And a lot of that is already happening.”

The examples are easy to identify. They exist within clubs like Community Rowing, Inc., Riverside Boat Club and Cambridge Boat Club in Boston, at California Rowing Club, Vesper Boat Club, and the rest of the clubs on Philadelphia’s Boathouse Row. They can be found in northern Vermont at Craftsbury Sculling Center and in the Northwest at Seattle Rowing Center, among others.

“Supporting a community-based, high-performance program, and taking ownership of it is a direct way of increasing our medal performance going into 2016 and 2020.”

Other ways include giving to the NRF or joining USRowing, an organization that is demonstrating a way to develop athletes at all levels, not just the Olympics.

“Financially, clearly giving to the NRF, which is an equal supporter of ours to the USOC, is one way. That’s a simple way to support the national team.”

Then there is becoming a part of the team as a USRowing member, which increases the potential for sponsorship money.

Jordan believes that all of those elements can create an environment where athletes can win medals without worrying about rent or food or having to leave rowing to start a career. It can be their career, and the entire rowing community can be a part of and enjoy the success.

The USOC is excited about USRowing and the contributions U.S. athletes can make toward the next Olympic Games.

“We’ve got a confidence level right now that is so high with the coaching staff,” Barnett said. “We really love what Curtis and Matt Imes and the high performance teams are doing in support of the coaches and teams, and we want to get behind that at a higher level because we feel it will pay us dividends come 2016 in Rio.”

Ed Moran,

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