One of the hardest things about our sport is the "we would have" stories. You know -- that season that the team was doing so well, and then that one guy fell down the stairs and broke his leg and you didn't even make the final. Or the race where there was a miscommunication about which move would happen where, and the boat finished just outside the medals. You swap those stories and inevitably someone says, "Come on, you know that if things had been different, you would have won."
The thing is: they weren't different. The crew that won, won. Our sport, just like every other, is affected by freak acts of nature, mistakes, health problems, and plain bad luck. Just like every other sport, the crew that wins the race is the fastest over that particular course, on that particular day. You train not just to be the fastest, fittest rower, but also the one best able to recover from a bobble, the one healthy enough not to get sick easily, the one who can anticipate not just the expected but also the unexpected.
In our final at the Lucerne World Cup last Sunday, we were in fourth place coming into the final few hundred meters. We called our final sprint... and seconds later, I heard a sickly crunching sound and the boat pulled hard to the side. Looking over my shoulder, I saw something I've never seen before in my career -- a teammate's oar sticking directly up, jammed in the oarlock. We responded as practiced rowers do to a crab: (1) get the oar un-stuck! (2) everyone okay? (3) get back in the race! But as we started step 3, the oar snapped completely in half.
It was not a happy feeling for us, nor for any competitive athlete, to paddle across the finish line, make a U-turn, and then row past the medal docks, past every spectator on the course, back up to the dock and the boatyard. We'd all just spent the last several months training for a race that we did not get to finish. Having the opportunity to race taken from you is a feeling worse than losing.
We all took a bit of time to calm down, cool down, and then headed to the grandstand to cheer on the rest of our team -- in what turned out to be the United States' best World Cup ever. As we watched our teammates make history, we committed to coming back to our next race with this one as fuel for the fire -- to channel our anger and frustration into boat speed.
The next day, someone emailed me the World Cup points tally -- the listing of every country's performance across all events. The United States sat at the top, just two points ahead of New Zealand. Tracing my finger down to the women's quad, I saw that for finishing our race -- instead of U-turning and taking the broken oar back to the dock -- we'd earned our team... two points.
The rest of Team USA set a very high bar at Lucerne, and we are back to training hard and rising to that challenge. For now, lots of miles, more selection, and working every practice to earn the results we want in South Korea. Getting back on the horse is a lot easier when you know exactly where you want to go on it.