Unfinished Business: Mike Teti Returns with Olympic Qualification on the Line
December 19, 2011
No one knew for sure what the problem was.
The only certainty was that there was one. For the very first time, the United States had failed to qualify the men’s eight for an upcoming Olympics at the preceding world championships.
The men’s eight that had gone to Bled, Slovenia, with what most believed was a real chance to medal after finishing fourth at the final world cup stop in Lucerne only weeks before, had failed to make the A final and then finished eighth overall, missing the last qualifying spot for 2012 Olympic Games in London.
And something drastic had to be done. While the men had qualified the four, the quad and the pair, and men’s head coach Tim McLaren was accomplishing what he had been asked to do when he was hired – to develop competitive smaller boats – the eight’s historic failure to qualify sent the rowing community back in the states into a frenzy.
Phones were ringing off the hook on both sides of the world.
“To be honest, I was shocked when they failed to make it into the A final because of the trajectory we had been following,” said USRowing chief executive officer Glenn Merry. “We had reasonable expectations based on their Henley performance and world cup performance that they were on track to be fourth pace, third place maybe. We were expecting them to be in the hunt for the medals.
“When they didn’t make the A final, we knew there was a problem and didn’t know exactly what it was at that point. The guys in that boat, they’re top guys, they had a top coach, all the logistics, more money invested in them than ever. But we knew there was a problem.”
“And as soon as they went to the B final, we started a discussion of ‘Okay, let’s evaluate everything that went on this year.”
Merry’s conversations with Matt Imes, USRowing’s high performance director, other members of the high performance committee, people from the National Rowing Foundation and anyone else he felt could help, began before the regatta on Lake Bled had concluded.
The answer to what happened is still unclear. There are several theories: too much focus on the small boats; a shortage of coaches; underfunding compared to other countries resulting in new, inexperienced athletes every Olympic cycle; restrictions on the selection process that kept younger talent out of the athlete pool.
But the solution, or the plan for moving forward, was simple – return Mike Teti to the team to coach the eight.
By the time Teti left USRowing following the Beijing Olympics in 2008 to coach the men at the University of California, he had led his crews to a total of 28 medals in 13 years. He coached the U.S. to nine world championships, including a three-year streak from 1997 to 1999, and captured gold at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, setting a world record in the heat on the way. It was the first Olympic championship for the U.S. since 1964. In his final Olympiad, Teti’s eight brought home a bronze.
And it is apparent that he has not lost his touch. In his time at Cal, Teti has won a Pac-10 championship and an IRA championship. Last summer, Teti coached the under 23 team for the U.S. men, taking gold in the eight and setting an under 23 world record in the event.
In short, the solution was to bring the most decorated eight’s coach in the history of USRowing back to coach the eight, and return them to the Olympics and the podium. Teti is serving as an assistant coach to McLaren, who will continue to focus on the smaller boats, particularly the four and quad that did qualify by finishing fourth in Bled.
“It was pretty clear there was a problem in the structure that we had,” Merry said. “Mike is a super accomplished eights coach. He works well with Tim, and it was an easy conclusion to come to. We knew that before they came back from world championships.”
Today, three months after the Lake Bled disaster, Teti and McLaren are deep into their work. Following a fall speed order held on both the East and West coasts that served as an early selection event for the men, Teti has a group of some 20 athletes with him in Berkeley at Cal, and McLaren has a group of about the same size at the USRowing Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif.
Despite Teti’s success as a coach, his friendship with McLaren, his respect for the Australian-born head coach and his confidence in his abilities, as well as those of the athletes in his camp, Teti is not one to guarantee anything except his best effort and a positive outlook.
“I’m supportive of the team,” Teti said. “And I’m supportive of what they are doing. So when I saw the results (from Bled) and when I talked to Tim, I said ‘what I would do, first thing is think, okay it’s behind us; let’s not panic. Let’s find a way to make it better.’
“I said, ‘Tim, you’ve won medals in every Olympics, at least all the ones you’ve coached in, you’ve come home with medals. So if I can be helpful, just let me know’,” Teti said.
“I want to say I wasn’t surprised that I was asked (to coach the eight),” Teti said. “I coached the under 23 team this summer, so I’m still involved with the organization, and I want to be supportive of the team. I wasn’t surprised, but at the same time, I don’t want to be a bull in a china shop. I want to work within the system. I want to work with Tim.
“I think he’s really knowledgeable, and I think he’s a really good coach, so I just want to try and help the team reach their goals.”
The original plan was to get the athletes separated and into two groups by January. But that changed with the decision to make the fall speed orders an early selection point. Now the groups are separated and into the selection process with the goal of identifying a smaller group by January and then to start training towards a final selection and the Olympic Qualification Regatta May 20-23 in Lucerne.
Both McLaren and Teti are rowing in fours and eights right now and the two coaches talk every day and share the results of their workouts. Certain athletes are in the selection process for the four and some for the eight. Other athletes are moving between the groups based on how they are performing in certain situations.
Right now, Teti doesn’t know what kind of boat he will have. In Lucerne the eight finished fourth in 5:45.55, ahead of Canada and Poland. Germany won in 5:43.52.
In Bled, the U.S. finished second in the heat in a time of 5:35.48 behind Great Britain that finished in 5:34.75. In the semifinal, the U.S. finished fourth in 5:34.07 and was relegated to the B final, with one last shot at qualifying. Only the top seven boats gain entry to the Olympics.
They had the speed, judging by the times in the previous races, but they fell short, rowing to second in 5:38.93, yielding the last Olympic spot to Ukraine. Teti must now find the right athletes, put them in the right combinations and get them to be faster consistently.
“Right now I don’t know what the speed is,” Teti said. “If I knew we were coming down the course in five minutes and 19 seconds or five minutes and 20 seconds on a consistent basis, I wouldn’t be worried about the qualifier. But I certainly respect the competition. I’m looking at all the countries that could come up with a good eight quickly, and there are a number of them. So I’m concerned about it.
“I don’t want to use the word worried, but we have to get faster than what we are,” he said. “Even in the first couple of weeks. I think the guys are improving, but I don’t know who would be in it right now. But in general, on the positive side, I think we have a lot of really good intangibles.
“There are two things,” he said. “All the guys that are there all want to be there and all the guys that are there feel like they’ve got something to prove. And I think that’s a good thing. Now they’re going to have the opportunity to prove it.”
When he was hired to replace Teti, McLaren had rowed in or coached in six Olympics. He won a silver medal rowing in a quad in 1984 and was involved in five medals as a coach. According to Merry, USRowing was tasked by the United States Olympic Committee to win medals in more events than just the eight. They wanted development in the four and in sculling.
Merry asked McLaren to do that, and he has. But sculling in the U.S. is secondary to the eight in both high school and college, so the United States does not have a large pool of accomplished scullers.
McLaren had to teach them. The other challenge that the United States has to deal with consistently is funding. Other countries fund their rowing teams to the point that the athletes can make a living doing it and stay in it longer. The budget for the national team last year was between $3 and $4 million for the United States, according to Merry where, for example Britain spends around $52 million on its team over the four-year cycle.
The tendency is for U.S. athletes to live on meager stipends and then leave because they have to start careers and make money. The result for McLaren at the beginning of this Olympic cycle was a team of young and inexperienced men. In 2010, there were two rowers, Dan Walsh and Jason Read, who had medaled in the Olympics on the team. Only Walsh was in Bled.
Teti believes the focus on the smaller boats and the experience level of McLaren’s athlete pool hurt the team.
“I think Tim is in a difficult situation, and I know because I’ve been in it before,” he said. “If you have to develop all these boats, across the board, and you have a lot of new guys, it’s tough. A lot of them did progress pretty well. And I do think that there is talent in there for two to three really solid boats, really solid medal contenders.
“But if they are spread across six boats, it’s going to be really hard. You need four really good guys to win the four, you need nine really good guys to win the eight, and you need two really good guys to win the pair.
A lot of them are still developing.
“The focus has been on the smaller boats. So you get all these guys that have never been in smaller boats, especially in sculling, and you’re trying to teach them. It’s hard to do,” he said.
McLaren is not one to look for excuses. And he does not shy away from responsibility. He’s the head coach and he is directly responsible for the results. This he knows.
But he also knows he has been under staffed and doing a ton of work with just one assistant, Cam Kiosoglous. Following a disappointing finish at the 2010 world championships, USRowing moved the men’s team to Chula Vista, Calif., and reassigned Kris Korzeniowski, who had been the assistant coach and in charge of the eight in New Zealand.
Then, John Parker, who was heading up the efforts at USRowing’s Oklahoma City training center, was fired, leaving McLaren down two on his staff. A national search was conducted to replace Korzeniowski but the slot could not be filled, according to Merry.
That left McLaren with more work than could be effectively dealt with.
“The reality is, we were down two coaches,” McLaren said. “It’s just a critical mass of people, and it’s a lot of work to do, development work, as well as just coach the crew to a medal.
“We put the five best ergs in the quad and the four, which I don’t think they’ve done before. We should have done a little better, that’s my responsibility,” he said.
“Now, we’ve got to do something about it. I get on well with Mike, he’s a friend of mine. For me, it’s fine. Mike’s an experienced guy in the eight. He likes it; he does a good job. He’s got a record almost second to none in the world of eights coaching and it’s positive. He’s there to support me.
“He’s been in my situation before, and I think he’ll do a great job. And I think we’ve got the people here. We’ve been shuffling around the people, some of the scullers are moving in, people are coming along, some of the guys from the under 23 eight that won are coming in. Some of the work we have done with the kids over the last four years hopefully will come to fruition this year.”
McLaren doesn’t want to keep talking about what happened, because both he and Teti feel that the only thing that matters is finding the right solution. But he does feel the small boat development is coming along.
“It’s not a question of me putting a spin on it that makes me look any better. The reality is there is a development period here. If you want to do that small boat work, there is too much inexperience in those boats to go to the world championships and say I’m going to be a star here straight away, so there’s got to be a little bit of delayed gratification here,” he said.
“There’s some development needed and we have to do it and we’ve been competitive, but not to medal standard,” he said.
“We were a bit shy and again it does fall back on me. We should have done better and it makes me angry. There have been many theories, the small boat one is one, but we do need to do that eventually. I would like to hope that a lot of these guys will continue in the next four years, and we can have a better spread across the board.
“There is nothing like a little bit of urgency to sharpen people’s focus and we have that,” he said. “We’re determined in a positive way that (Teti) will get this job done, and Mike has said the same thing. We want to get the job done; we’re going to get the job done. So we’re positive about it. But we know that there is a bit riding on it.”
More than a bit. If the eight fails to qualify, there will be fallout. Merry knows that as a fact.
“We’ll deal with the fallout when we see what the medal count is in London,” Merry said. “Our immediate fallout will be with our (National Rowing Foundation) supporters. There is no question the NRF is tied to the eight, the same way that USRowing and the American rowing community is tied to the eight. If we don’t send that boat to the Olympics, it’s going to hurt our support because people are going to wonder what’s going wrong with USRowing,” he said.
The USOC will not see it that way, however, Merry said. It wants more medals, and it does not matter to them were they come from.
“In fact, they haven’t been supporting the eight financially,” Merry said. “Their support has been toward the fours, the pair, the doubles and getting those boats up to a higher lever. And that’s what I tasked Tim with.
“It’s a horrible thing that this eight didn’t qualify, but the four is in a better position than it ever has been. And that’s what I asked Tim to do. I just made the misassumption that we wouldn’t do it at the risk of sacrificing a medal in the eight,” he said.
“Maybe this doesn’t work out with a happy ending, but I actually think we are in a pretty good position to get two medals on the men’s side. I think that the four is a legitimate medal contender, and I think we can come back from qualifying and win a medal in the eight.”