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Kathryn Phelan

Narrow Margins: Olympic hopefuls explore the agony of ‘almost’

by Kathryn Phelan

For each Olympic selection that is definitive or even obvious, another is determined by a delicate margin: a decisecond, a half point, an uncharacteristic performance. A buoy. A bad dinner. Part of the beauty of the Olympics is its straightforwardness: it does not bend with empathy, so the best on the day are the best in the world. Athletes on every level can recognize the implications of this pressure, and the inevitable truth that – for better or worse – it may not yield an honest apex every time, because sometimes one shot is not enough.

‘The Olympics does not bend with empathy, so the best on the day are the best in the world. It may not yield an honest apex every time, because sometimes one shot is not enough’

But one shot is more than most athletes ever get, and the rousing coverage of Olympic triumph and loss sidesteps thousands of hopefuls who missed Rio by fractions. These athletes, despite having made the same sacrifices as their Olympian teammates, are ultimately left anonymous, watching opening ceremonies from their sofas and nursing muscles and moods through post-taper atrophy. The dramatic concentration of their energies fades without the spurts of fanfare and support that in many ways vindicate an athletic career. That the world largely ignored these athletes during the sixteen days of the Olympic competition, for which they had spent years training, is only part of what makes their journeys so interesting.

row360_narrowmarginsJames Foad
29, bronze medallist in the men’s eight in London
James Foad, 29, British bronze medallist in the men’s eight in London and gold medallist at the European Rowing Championships in Poznan in 2015, was sidelined for the Olympics late in the game. Having undergone a major back surgery after London, Foad returned to training for GB with his eyes on the world championships, and with metal rods supporting his back. ‘I was scrambling to hold on to the rest of the squad [after rehab]. It was a bit of a fight to stay in it. But I felt pretty confident that I could do what I needed to do to earn a spot,’ he says.

‘It’s a big fall from grace. Or, it’s a different kind of grace.’

The continued rowing load and rotation eventually caused the screws in his back to break. ‘It really poked its head up,’ he says, in late 2014 on altitude camp in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in Spain – a dry, land-based centre that he describes as being ‘a bit like a dungeon’. A back spasm while squatting with free weights relegated him to all fours, believing he was going to be sick. The sudden culmination of nerve compression had implications for his rowing career, but more immediately, for his Rio aspirations. He underwent a second surgery in early 2016, but was only able to return to the erg for an easy 1000m during the couple of weeks preceding Rio, which hit home the chasm between healthy rowing and his physical reality.

James Foad (left), a British bronze medallist in the men’s eight in London 2012, was sidelined for the Olympics late in the game.

James Foad (left), a British bronze medallist in the men’s eight in London 2012, was sidelined for the Olympics late in the game.

On the morning I spoke to Foad, his teammates were boarding the plane to Rio. They told him it wouldn’t be the same without him, which, he said, was ‘great to hear, but made it that much harder. [Missing Rio] caused massive mixed emotions. A large part of me feels really unsatisfied to finish my rowing career like this. There’s still a huge hunger to go back, but I don’t know if my body’s going to be able to cope with it.’

The corresponding mental impact, he says, varies from day to day. ‘Some days I’m fine about it,’ he says. ‘It’s one of those things that happens, and I’ve got to move on, and find something else to do with my life, and explore. You’re not in the same grind day in and day out anymore – but then on the other hand, rowing is all I’ve ever done, so it’s a huge change,’ he says. ‘It’s hard to explain.’

Watching the Olympics, then, was a bittersweet proposition. Friends of Foad’s qualified in multiple events, and he wanted to see them succeed. ‘I’ll probably hide in a corner somewhere at work and try to watch the final of the eight,’ he says with a laugh – and what a result he had to see.
For now, Foad has applied for a job in the police force and entered the lottery for the London Marathon in April (‘If I hate running,’ he says, ‘then I should probably do it’). He has one daughter and another on the way. ‘It’s a big fall from grace,’ he says of surrendering his international athletic ambitions, but then catches himself – ‘or, it’s a different kind of grace.’

row360_narrowmargins2Sarah McIlduff
29, fourth in the US pair in London
After Sarah McIlduff, 29, finished fourth in the USA pair by 0.2 seconds in London in 2012, she and pair partner Sara Lombardi (née Hendershot) agreed to give Rio a crack. The decision wasn’t made until late in the game, but McIlduff and Lombardi took training at pace: a climate chase sent them to Sarasota, Florida; Folsom, California; Boston and San Diego, as well as Cambridge, New Zealand. They began their training outside the bounds of the official USA national team camp, a risk they hoped would enable personalisation to their own bodies and needs. ‘We basically wanted to train on the water the whole year [leading to Rio] so we could stay in touch with the boat and each other,’ McIlduff recalls. ‘We only took three days to see our families over Christmas.’

The pair fell short in the final of the National Selection Regatta in Princeton, New Jersey, after hitting a buoy at the 500m mark. Shortly thereafter, they joined the USA team camp in hopes of qualifying in the eight or four (an abrupt change in training methodology that McIlduff describes as ‘brutal’), but they were ultimately not selected.

row360_narrowmargins3

McIlduff (stroke) and Lombardi (bow) began their training outside the bounds of the official USA national team camp, a risk they hoped would enable personalisation to their own needs.

‘I felt like I let myself and my partner down,’ McIlduff says. ‘I felt like I should’ve done more in years prior to push my fitness. We knew in the back of our minds that we needed to pull off something huge if we were going to have a shot. It was a difficult realisation that I had made the Olympics once and I didn’t make it this time.’

When I ask whether she felt the slightest relief at not being selected for Rio – myself contemplating the immensity of sitting at the catch and waiting for the starting horn, knowing that the world is watching – she finally consents that her mother, a nurse, was relieved in the face of water quality concerns. I do not explain that this is not exactly what I meant. I can sense she is not wired this way, not looking for an out, not even able to conceptualise the release of pressure that might accompany it.

‘If you asked me if I would do it all again, knowing that I would have the same result, I absolutely would.’

‘They say, “Once an Olympian, always an Olympian,” and although I’m not a two-time Olympian, I’m still an Olympian and I still have those memories that I will always cherish,’ she says. After London she got a tattoo of the Olympic rings on her arm.

McIlduff cites her shot at Rio as the impetus for a passion in nutrition and fitness, which has led her to pursue a master’s degree in the field. ‘If you asked me if I would do it all again, knowing that I would have the same result, I absolutely would,’ she says. ‘I am grateful to have been a part of that world again.’

row360_narrowmargins4NZL M4–
3rd at Final Olympic Qualification Regatta in Lucerne
The men of the New Zealand four confronted a Rio shortfall not once, but twice. After failing to qualify in Lucerne, the crew of Drikus Conradie, Axel Dickinson, Patrick McInnes and Anthony Allen came to terms with Olympic non-appearance and took the next steps in their individual rowing careers. Conradie and Dickinson continued to train in Sursee, Switzerland, as spares for the European campaign, while McInnes and Allen headed away – McInnes to Bali with other rowers whose season had ended, Allen to New Zealand to reconnect with old friends.

When the four learned of the possibility to race at Rio in place of Russia after the news of possible FISA doping restrictions, they pulled from different geographies and mindsets to reconnect as a crew. Conradie and Dickinson continued to train as spares in Europe whilst they awaited the news; Anthony and Paddy cut their holidays short to revive their training grind in New Zealand.

The NZL M4- racing at the Final Olympic Qualification Regatta in 2016.

The NZL M4- racing at the Final Olympic Qualification Regatta in 2016.

Dickinson, three seat, says it was often difficult to block out the media noise. ‘It’s a pretty unique situation to find yourself in,’ he says. ‘Clearly there were people who knew more than we did. All we could do was sit back, do our job, and try not to get too invested in the hoopla surrounding it.’ He explains the impact of timing contingencies throughout – as when the appeals process that rendered two additional Russian rowers eligible, and enabled them to field an eight, occurred only after Olympic entries had closed, and after the Kiwi four had lost their shot. ‘Sometimes the cards don’t play in your favour,’ Dickinson says. ‘This was one of those times.’

McInnes and Allen may have had a tougher job mentally, Dickinson suggests, since they had to rise back to an Olympic level of training after three weeks away, whereas he and Conradie were still fast-twitch-sharp in their role as spares. ‘They had to train like [the Olympic race] was going to happen,’ he says. ‘You have to be invested in order to push yourself to get back into shape.’

But bowman Antony Allen says the early mornings in New Zealand were just part of the deal, which they accepted with the possibility of competing. ‘Having the chance to represent New Zealand at the highest level left no question of doubt; I was always going to be able to switch back to training for an opportunity like that,’ he says. He had kept his system ticking over with cross training whilst at home, so it ‘didn’t take long to get back into it, just the hands were a bit fresh.’

Both Dickinson and Allen attribute their ability to focus to their coaches and Rowing New Zealand being ‘switched on’ to the situation; the overarching feeling of being in good hands let them get on with training.

‘It’s just another chapter in the book. And the start to the next chapter has now begun.’

‘We had to block everything out and control what we could,’ Allen says. ‘I decided that it was an opportunity and we gave it our best shot, and I learnt a lot about how I cope with an unusual situation. It helped me take a step back and enjoy watching the rest of the New Zealand team. Not getting a crack at your dream is always going to be tough, and when we got that final decision it was hard; it will be another four years to get the same opportunity.’

It has motivated them to work harder, he says, to avoid being in the same situation again. ‘It’s just another chapter in the book,’ he says. ‘And the start to the next chapter has now begun.’

This article first appeared in Row360 Issue 13 // © Row360

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