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Last Boat to London

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Orinda, Calif. -- Coach Mike Teti stands up on his launch and tells the rowers in the sleek shell what lies ahead. "There's a headwind. Then it flattens out, and then there's a headwind at the end." He pauses and fixes hard on the coxswain: "Make sure your calls are accurate."

A lanky, square-jawed man with a thick sheath of dark hair and a no nonsense approach, Coach Teti is taking his crew through a final fast 2,000-meter training piece before they board a jet for Europe in the morning. Just days from now, on May 20 and 22, they will be racing in Lucerne, Switzerland against France and New Zealand. Only one boat will win this last ticket to the London Summer Games. They call it "The Regatta of Death."

The long shell glides up to the makeshift start line, and Teti says to his crew: "Find your speed in the rhythm of the boat."

The boat floats by several geese drifting by the reed-lined shore of this sprawling reservoir tucked in the tawny hills beyond the UC Berkeley campus. Though it's only 9 a.m., you can taste the dry scent of the day's rising heat.

They are about to go full out for 2,000 meters. Teti wants the men to hit the mid 5:20's -- nearly the pace of a 4-minute-mile runner -- and 500-meter splits in the low 1:20's.

"Here we go!" Teti yells, glancing at his stopwatch.

Eight oars attack the placid water, the boat surging forward in waves, the cox barking, his body tensed to avoid slinging up and back with the force of each stroke.

Teti revs the launch's motor, and we're accelerating like a car to catch up, the wind whistling around us. "A little longer!" the coach exhorts through a bullhorn, telling them to lengthen out each stroke.

The racing shell shoots ahead, a stream of deep perfectly shaped puddles floating behind on each side like puffs of exhaust, each rower compressing himself into a kinetic ball and then unfurling legs and back, driving his oar through the water in clock-like symmetry.

An hour later, I'm standing in the tin shed that passes for a boathouse on the barren shore, the men slumped on boat slings or chairs, shirtless and exhausted, modern-day Vikings with their broad chests, six packs and bulging thighs. Everyone is tall and a couple of them look like they could be forwards in the NBA, the muscles on every limb finely defined. They are America's last chance to qualify in arguably the most prestigious rowing event of the Summer Olympics Games -- the Men's 8+.

Last September in Bled Slovenia, for the first time ever, the U.S. failed to qualify a Men's 8+ boat for the Olympics. That was a nightmare scenario for U.S. Rowing, which focuses on the 8+, a marquee event it dominated from the 1920s through the 1950s (the Women's 8+ continues to excel; they took gold in Beijing, have won six straight world titles, and are the favorite in London). In the wake of the men's disaster, U.S. Rowing quickly hired the celebrated coach who brought the U.S. Men's 8+ gold in Athens and a Bronze in Beijing. Cal Berkeley's head coach, since last November Teti has been doing double duty, coaching the college rowers at dawn, and then the national team at 9 a.m. and 4 p.m., nearly every day of the week.

Teti has been to three Olympics as a rower, won gold at the World Championships, bronze at the Olympics and one year was U.S. Rowing's male athlete of the year. He rowed internationally until the age of 36. "I didn't quit," he laughs. "I was cut."

Out on his launch, he's blunt about the challenge. He's been juggling rowers and line-ups for months, searching for the alchemy of power, rhythm and grace that translates to boat speed. The goal is a boat that runs like a Formula 1 racecar, every one of its eight human pistons firing in sync. For months the men raced against one another to discover who could move the boat. A few weeks ago, Teti had a breakthrough when he settled on the critical stroke and seven and six seat. "Something in that combination was making the boat go," he says. He'd tried 14 different men in that role, including Ross James, before picking his twin brother Grant James as stroke.

"A stroke that rows long helps," says Teti of James. "Because when our bigger guys can row long that moves the boat."

But Teti knows his men face long odds. He considers both France and New Zealand dangerous, and this is hardly the ideal scenario. "Normally you want to peak at the Olympics. These guys have to be race ready next week."

Seven hundred and fifty meters into the piece, the stopwatch registers 1:59, and Teti shouts through the roaring wind, "That's good!"

He pulls hard to the left -- dead on the stern of the racing shell. It's as if we're water skiers as we cross within 5 feet of the boat, then zip up along the other side, closer than I imagined possible. We can hear the men breathe, see their shoulder and bicep muscles flex, and feel the immense power of each stroke.

At 1,000 meters -- halfway through the piece -- Teti calls out the time of 2:44. I can tell it's not as fast as he'd have liked. A minute later, he crosses back to the other side again, shouting with the bullhorn: "Less than 600!"

We sweep back again, just 10 feet from the rowers. "Inside 500 -- I need to see it under 120," he yells. "Under 120!"

He's standing up now, leaning forward: "You gotta go!"

The coxswain calls out the last 10 strokes, and then suddenly it's over. The coach does a double take at the time on his watch and shakes his head.

"How was it?" I ask.

"It wasn't good," he replies. "5:37."

He steers the launch near the drifting racing shell. It might as well be a Navy infirmary. Bent with pain, they cough and breathe in gulps, groaning like the wounded.

The coach gives them another 30 seconds to recover and then asks the coxswain Zach Vlahos the splits. The coach pauses dramatically, and shakes his head as if delivering a guilty verdict: "Well I got 5:37."

He turns to the rowers. "How was the piece?"

"Nothing bad," says Grant James, the stroke.

"Was it heavy?" prods the coach. "You gotta give me some information."

Bret Newlin, the big guy in the middle of the boat, says, "Nothing felt wrong."

"It was good," says Giuseppe Lanzone, the guy in the bow who looks like the model he is but is also an Olympian and U.S. Rowing's 2010 athlete of the year. "I thought it had some good punch."

Vlahos, the droll coxswain, recites some more stats, including a mid-piece stroke rate of 35.5 strokes per minute.

"Are you guys having a problem with the rate -- a couple of times I saw 35," challenges Teti. And then he delivers the punch: "I got 5:37, that's ridiculously slow."

It's quiet again, and then he rattles off some drills to the coxswain, and orders them back to the start.

"How was it?" I ask after an awkward pause.

"I'm concerned now," he says quietly.

The shell cruises back easily, the men rowing with just a single hand to practice "feathering," effortlessly releasing the blade from the water. Then they drop each blade in for just the first part of the stroke, to work on a quick, powerful "catch."

When they reach the far end near the reedy shore, Teti tells them he wants to see a speedy 1,000 meters: Nothing less than all out.

"If it comes above 1:22," he says coldly, "we're stopping the piece and starting again."

Just then a 6-foot long, thick bamboo-like reed breaks loose from under the racing shell. Dragging a reed may explain why the boat markedly slowed. But it doesn't make Teti happy. They still need to prove they can crank out a fast 1,000 meters.

The start is furious, and this time there's no doubt. They clock 2:41 for the 1,000 meters into a headwind, a good time especially after an all-out 2,000 meters. After a brief discussion, it's decided that the sluggish time for the first 2,000-meter piece was due to dragging the reed.

Coach announces he's "happy again," and orders a final piece, a 600-meter sprint.

"Last piece, guys!" he yells when they have just 350 meters to go.

He stands up on the launch and hollers through the bullhorn, "David, you're half a seat from a gold medal!"

He fires another challenge: "What do you say, Bret?"

And then he calls out the last 150 meters, and demands an even more brutal pace.

"Show me 1:16!"

There's a scream at the finish. This time Teti is nodding happily. "That was good," he snorts. "Under 1:18. It looks more lively."

He checks in one last time with the rowers. The stroke rate and time was fast, and everyone says it felt good.

He smiles at the team: "Don't get any reeds in Lucerne!"

Back in the shade of the boathouse, I meet the men. The rowers are all in their twenties, amazing physical specimens who down 7,000 calories a day to fuel their draining workouts. They have top degrees from fine universities in engineering and biology and other demanding disciplines -- and no joke -- the coxswain has a degree in organizational behavior. Rowing is grueling and the best a U.S. Rower can hope for is a small stipend that barely pays for training. Why submit to this daily regime of pain? Why put a promising career on hold?

They all have the same answer, delivered with the same intense expression: "The Olympics."

On May 22 in Lucerne Switzerland, Zach Vlahos, Grant James, David Banks, Steve Kasprzyk, Jake Cornelius, Brett Newlin, Ross James, Will Miller and Giuseppe Lanzone will find out whether they have the speed and determination to row to the London Summer Games.

Jonathan Littman is the founder of Snowball Narrative, author of the Beautiful Game and co-author of the Art of Innovation and Ten Faces of Innovation.

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