For rower Michael DiSanto, winning his sport’s Olympic trials meant only a muted celebration.
No champagne. No celebratory jump overboard.
That’s because it didn’t make him an Olympian.
Before DiSanto (Harvard 2012) and his crewmates on the U.S. men’s eight can go to Rio, they must first make it out of Lucerne, Switzerland, site of the Final Olympic Qualification Regatta.
For the U.S. and nearly 400 athletes from 46 other countries, it’s a last-ditch chance to qualify for the Summer Games.
In rowing circles, it’s known as the Regatta of Death.
Hyperbole? Not if you ask U.S. men’s eight coach Luke McGee, a 2001 Brown graduate.
“It’s absolutely true,” said McGee, days before the U.S. team’s four crews — each of which failed to qualify their boats at the 2015 world championships last summer — were scheduled to leave team headquarters in Princeton, N.J. Sunday for the Sunday-through-Tuesday regatta. “It’s like high stakes, like Vegas. We’re all in. Just pushed all the chips to the middle of the table.”
Bryan Volpenhein, U.S. men’s head coach, is a three-time Olympian and two-time medalist, winning 2004 gold and 2008 bronze with the men’s eight. Volpenhein never experienced the final qualification regatta as a competitor. But in 2012, he did as a coach of the lightweight men’s four, which qualified their Olympic spot there.
Volpenhein said it is a regatta like no other.
“You see people going crazy,” said Volpenhein, and “you see people sitting under a tree, hands on their face, devastated. There’s no in-between.”
This is the second-straight time the U.S. men’s eight — the marquee race in rowing and popularized recently by the bestselling book, “The Boys in the Boat” — has had to take this agonizing route to an Olympic berth.
After winning in Lucerne in 2012 qualifying, the U.S. finished fourth in London, just three-tenths of a second from bronze.
Volpenhein said the high stakes and relatively small field make the regatta more pressure filled than the Olympics themselves. For many athletes, just making the Olympic team is a lifelong dream.
“For a lot of these athletes in other countries, that means money,” Volpenhein said. “It means they can row for another four years. It’s like life-sustaining. Then you have people where it’s just devastating. They miss it by two-tenths of a second and you’re not going to the Olympics. And that boat that you just lost to by two-tenths of a second might win a medal at the Olympics. So you’re thinking to yourself, ‘Man, maybe I could’ve won a medal.’”
History, too, is bearing down on this U.S. eight crew. Failing to qualify means it would be the first time in 104 years the U.S. eight missed an Olympics.
Four years ago, as his lightweight four crew closed in on the finish line in qualifying position, Volpenhein abandoned coaching decorum. Coaches aren’t supposed to act like crazed fans. But he couldn’t help it, running the final 250 meters along the water’s edge with the boat.
“I just went crazy,” Volpenhein said. “I don’t normally cheer like that much because it’s a little bit rude, because you’re beating people, there’s other coaches. You just can’t control yourself. Because it means everything: It’s your job, everything you worked for.”
The lightweight men’s four wound up finishing eighth at the London Olympics, but Princeton alum Robin Prendes will never forget Lucerne.
Crossing the finish line was “an emotion unlike anything I’ve ever felt,” said Prendes, who avoided the death regatta in 2016 by qualifying his lightweight pair boat at the 2015 world championships. “There was a lot of adrenaline. Ecstatic. There was chemical going through my body I don’t think I ever experienced.”
It also was a relief.
“The weight was gone,” said Prendes, expected to be named to the 2016 Olympic team when the list is official June 20.
Besides the eight, U.S. rowers will try to qualify the men’s single, double and quad sculls in Lucerne this year. All U.S. women’s boats have qualified.
Considered one of elite rowing’s fairest venues, Lucerne is the go-to site for final Olympic qualification because the Rotsee, the natural rowing lake there, has little current and is protected from crosswinds by surrounding hills. The site is set amid a Swiss tableau of rolling hills, cows and cowbells.
“The town loves us,” said Volpenhein.
In single sculls, two-time Olympian Ken Jurkowski (Cornell 2003), will need a top-three finish in the field of 16 boats. He finished 21st at worlds.
“Everybody talks about (the Lucerne regatta) in fear with this term, ‘Regatta of Death,’” Jurkowski said. “I think that is silly. I look at it as an opportunity to make the team. I prefer to look at it as the regatta of opportunity.”
The U.S. sends a deep team to Rio. So far, 10 U.S. crews, totaling 32 athletes, have already qualified by virtue of their results at last summer’s world championships and last month’s Olympic trials.
If you’ve qualified as an athlete, why do you have to qualify your boat?
In order to keep competition at a high level, the Olympics often require athletes to do more than win their nation’s Olympic trials. You have to qualify your weight class, division or team by succeeding at certain level in international competition.
For athletes like DiSanto and big-boat teammates Glenn Ochal (Princeton 2008), Stephen Kasprzyk (Drexel, 2000) and Alex Karwoski (Cornell 2012), not qualifying their boats at worlds meant eight long months knowing another step remained once they succeeded at trials.
The men’s eight is short on final qualification experience. But a trio of big-meet veterans will help.
Kasprzyk returns from the 2012 London men’s eight. Ochal won 2012 bronze in the men’s four and Karwoski was part of last year’s world championship team that finished seventh, two spots from automatically qualifying and avoiding Lucerne altogether.
Avoiding the do-or-die waters of Lucerne would have been great. But DiSanto, 26 and trying for his first Olympics, said competitors are built to relish races like this.
“You don’t get those moments too often,” he said. “We do a lot of racing. But you really appreciate the big races. That’s when you really hope to elevate your level.
“I can’t think of too many more times you’ll be in that position where it’s uncomfortable in some respects, but in other respects you know you’re about to do something special. That’s a pretty cool feeling.”
In other words, it might take a regatta of death to bring someone’s Olympic potential to life.
“There’s a lot of times where the people that come out of that regatta end up getting a medal at the Olympics,” Volpenhein said. “You’re getting forged in the furnace, the pressure of trial by fire, where it can make you stronger and it can make you better if you embrace it.”
End of the Olympic road for Rexroad Williams
Kelly Rexroad Williams of Flowery Branch, Ga., said it would take a “miracle” for her to make the 2016 U.S. Olympic team.
The miracle did not happen. Williams, a two-time national champion and graduate of Kennesaw State, managed the third-best snatch (71 kg) in the 48kg division at the U.S. women’s Olympic weightlifting trials, but was unable to complete her 89kg lift in the clean-and-jerk, finishing 17th of 18 competitors.
Morghan King, winner of the division, was named to one of two remaining spots on the Olympic team. Sarah Robles, competing in the +75kg class was named to the other, joining automatic qualifier Jenny Arthur in the 75kg division.
Williams, at 38, was the oldest to compete in her division. Representing Coffee’s Gym, Williams was a long shot to make the Olympic team and said she planned to retire after the meet, ending a career that began at age 15.
Rugby player Doyle back in action
With little more than three months before women’s rugby makes its Aug. 6 Olympic debut in Rio, Eastern Illinois University’s Lauren Doyle joined the 20-player women’s rugby sevens residency program at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif. in early May.
The squad is making its final training and competitive push before the Games. Doyle, among the team’s handful of veterans, is returning from injury that forced her to miss playing time.
“I’m excited and I hope they are too,” said coach Richie Walker of the squad, saying team members will be together from now until Rio.
The team’s next competition is the HSBC World Rugby Women’s Sevens Series final leg round in Clermont-Ferrand, France May 28-29. The U.S. women are currently in seventh place in the series.
Above: Mike DiSanto and his teammates must pass the Regatta of Death before celebrating a trip to Rio. (Courtesy U.S. Rowing)