Catch up on Life on Water (Part 1) from #TeamHeadsweats Ambassador, Hugh McAdam!
The next day of the regatta was our Rep- serious “do or die” time. The top four boats move on to the quarter finals, and the last two boats get dropped automatically. After weigh in and taking into account everything we learned and digested the day before, both Peter and myself began to get ourselves at the right level of hyped. For each athlete your state of mind is different. Getting ready to perform at maximum effort for 6 minutes requires a certain state of mind. On a scale of 1 to 10 of the “hype meter”, for me an 8 feels the best. I had our plan, and I had a better idea of what to expect from that day’s race. We warmed up on land, launched and finished our warm up on the water.
We moved into the starting blocks 5 minutes before the start of our race. I felt good, relaxed and ready to rock and roll. We were lined up against Spain, France (reigning World Champions), Greece, Chile and Russia. As we’re sitting in the starting blocks, we heard the starter poll the crews. After they announce Spain the starting lights showed red and the starter said “Attention.” All 6 crews were ready to take the first stroke of the race and all the athletes could feel the tension in the air. It was quiet, except for the wind. “Go!” and the lights turn green. Clean start and we’re off.
I’m not sure what happened next. We were ahead of Russia going through the first quarter of the race. Spain and France had built a little bit of a lead going into the half way point, we were ahead of Russia and had overlap with Chile for the last qualifying spot. I could see what was happening: Chile was starting to move away from us and to make it into the next round of racing we had to go. I communicated that to Peter, and… not a lot happened. Chile continued to move away. I tried and again, and the boat didn’t respond. Coming into the last quarter of the race I could see Russia pushing hard, and we tried to respond to it. We started to row frantically as the Russian double moved through us in the last 300 meters of the race and out sprinted us to finish almost a second ahead. They finished 5th, we finished a disappointing 6th, and were relegated to the “E final,” to race Russia again the following Saturday.
Rowing a team boat is the epitome of a team sport. The athletes have to move in the exact same way, at the exact same time, with the exact same focus and in the same mind set. Unfortunately Peter and I were not in sync in the way we needed to be. Breaking down the race afterwards, I don’t think we were in the same mindset. We attacked the hell out of the first half of the race and really didn’t leave anything for the second half- a pretty clear sign of not being confident, and ultimately racing with fear. We came off the water devastated, demoralized and frustrated. We saw our most basic goal evaporate before our eyes, and came to the very hard realization that we were not the crew we thought we were, at least not for this regatta. We knew that we were a very new combination, and that our event is probably the most competitive event to race at the World Championships, and we so badly wanted to prove that we belonged. Perhaps we wanted it too much, and because of that we trained scared and never built up the confidence to do well. I think that it showed in all three of us- myself, Peter, and Coach Judith, and we all could have done much better in that first week to make the Championships a better experience. While it was a really hard and frustrating, we learned a lot of valuable lessons from those two days of racing.
Our regatta wasn’t over- we still had to race the Russians again at the end of the week, and we had four days to get ready to do it. So back to practice we went. That next day was a recovery day, just a long, low-intensity run, trying to row well, which didn’t happen. The feelings of stress, frustration, anger, and resentment were intense, and it showed in how the two of us rowed that day, but also in the body language of all three of us outside of the boat (low hanging heads, lack of eye contact, etc). We were in a negative spiral, and we were all feeding off of each other. This might have been the lowest point of the trip and we had a choice to make as a group: Should we continue with this attitude, pity ourselves for the situation we put ourselves in OR learn from the experience, change our expectations, and adjust our goals? I’m not sure why I, as the athlete, needed to bridge this topic, but for whatever reason it fell to me, and that was a very hard conversation to have especially with our coach. There was a lot that I noticed, but the thing that bothered me the most was the negative language that were coming from each of us. Part of me blamed myself for the way things occurred. I felt that I let myself, and the team down and ultimately let us fail. Opening up this conversation was a way for me to make up for the mistakes that I had made during the first part of the trip. Negativity filled the air whenever we talked about our rowing, performances in both practice and racing. The way we were talking, and the effect it was having on the boat was not sustainable and ultimately was not going to help us beat the Russians. So after that row, 4 days before our last sprint race of the season, we had a really hard conversation.
Our performances and our jobs are not us. They are what we do, but do not define us. One of the most challenging aspects of this conversation for me was the hurt that I saw in Judith’s face when I suggest that what we were doing wasn’t working. All three of us are so wrapped up in our roles as athlete or coach that it’s had to separate out the individual from the job. We dedicate so much of ourselves to one specific goal, and any feedback can easily be seen as an attack on the core of the person. That was not my goal at all, however I think that’s what happened. But here again, there was a choice- continue down the same road we were on, into a deeper place of frustration and pity, or try to elevate ourselves out of it, learn, and enjoy the time we had left. While the conversation was extremely difficult, it seemed to make an impact. From then on, we made a lot of productive changes. We changed our mindset and started looking at this last race as whole different event- even an opportunity to have some fun. It showed in our rowing. We starting rowing better the next day, and then continued to improve from then on.
So, what mental changes did we make? We changed our goals from external placement in the field to a more internal personal goals. We treated that last race like a whole different regatta- a fresh start. Lastly, we tried to acknowledge a couple of positive things every day. These positives were not necessarily related to rowing, but just general practices of gratitude. (Thank you Brooke Austin for the suggestion!).
Race day finally rolled around after 4 days of training, and our showdown with the Russians was scheduled for that afternoon. We were feeling the right amount of good after a few productive training sessions, plus a good hard run up Youth Hill, the biggest hill in Plovdiv. We also had a few more team conversations to make sure we were staying on the same page- in a positive mind set.
As always, we didn’t have a problem with the weigh in and land warm up. However for our water water up I lost track of our start time (huge mental oversight on my part), and because of that it earned us yellow card. As a result of this mistake, the boat relaxed. I felt pressure to perform better, but accepted what had happened.
We got into the blocks, the boot went up, and the starter makes their announcements. Green light and we’re off. Five strokes into the race I look over, and we had a half a length on the Russian crew. Turns out that relaxation transferred to a quick start and we jumped out with a lead. With our race plan in mind we started working our way down the race course. Through the first quarter of the race we continued to build our lead over the Russians. Because we had raced earlier in the week, going in to this last race, we knew that the Russians would attack the second half of the race and they could sprint to the finish line. At the half way point they decided to start going for it. We could see them and for every move they took, we answered back. As they brought the stroke rate up, so did we. We managed to keep the same margin for another 500 meters, and then they started to close, but not fast enough. With about 250 meters to go, they upped their rate one last time in an attempt to catch us, and it worked. Pounding into the last 150 meters, I wasn’t sure if there was anything else we could do, but we had to try something. There was a lot of pride on the line- no way were we going to lose to the Russians again. Watching them inch closer I thought there was more race course left and called one last sprint, and 3 strokes into that last move we hear the finishing horn and a split second later see the bubbles of the finish line. We managed to hold off the Russian sprint and finish 1.6 seconds ahead of them! We had also achieved another goal: we wanted to race ourselves and try to throw down our best time of the regatta, which we did that by about 3 seconds! All in all, even though it was the E-final, we had our best race of the regatta. All three of us were able to walk out of the race stadium that afternoon with our heads held high.
There are a few ways to look at my World Championship experience. The whole reason for qualifying and racing this year was to learn- to see the field and what the standard is. Did we want to finish better than 25th? Of course. But when looking at everything through the lens of the bigger picture (qualifying, traveling internationally, losing but then finishing strong)- it was a rewarding experience, and helpful to my athletic goals. I learned a lot and will be better prepared for next year to once again make the lightweight double, qualify for World’s, and then ultimately represent the United States at the Olympics in 2020. I am grateful for the ups and the downs.