Is It Worth It? A US Perspective.

 After reading “Is it Worth It,”I contacted RowGlobal to offer an article from the US perspective. It is important that all the “myths” about recruiting and rowing in the US are put to rest. In my own experience working with international athletes, there is one common theme ­­– they are very invested and proactive in determining their academic futures. They are talented athletes that want to challenge themselves both academically and physically. It is important for all athletes, whether domestic or international, to find what they consider a “good fit”.

As a consultant for Sparks Consulting, my goal is to help student athletes find the best fit. The ergometer score is still king, but for international recruiting in the US, academics determine whether a US college or university will be able to recruit an athlete. If the athlete does not have the grades or SAT scores, then there is not much a US coach can do to bring the athlete overseas.

What is the debate really about?

 Recruitment through athletics is already very competitive among US domestic athletes. There are recruiting services available to help increase visibility to US coaches in many different sports. Therefore, if a very small handful of international rowers are only exploring their options in another country, what exactly is the controversy? If US colleges and universities were recruiting every top international rower exclusively, and UK coaches had no control or say in how they were being trained and treated, it would make more sense. I was fortunate to interview different US coaches of very successful collegiate rowing programs, whose job is to produce the fastest teams that will compete for their national or league championships. US coaches want their international athletes to compete for their own country.

“We’d love to have that problem more regularly,” says William Manning  and Marty Crotty of Princeton University. “Whether it is here or elsewhere, every program is really happy when an Olympic year rolls around and a student is in a position to take a year off out from school and try to make the team. I think every rowing coach in the country would be incredibly very supportive of that. We have a couple of recent graduates that are going to the Olympics… and you can bet we will push them out the door to pursue their dream.”

 If US coaches are supportive of their international athletes’ success at U23’s, the World Championships, and Olympics Games, then perhaps there is more to US recruiting than what is being written and debated.

Why come to the US?

According to US coaches, the answer is that international athletes are seeking opportunities they might not have in their own country. Whether pursuing a particular major of study or greater level of rowing training and competition, an athlete is trying to find a school that meet all of their criteria – location, student to instructor ratio, alumni support, graduate opportunities and rowing. If the athlete happens to have a very competitive ergometer score then they may even be offered an athletic scholarship. This is very difficult to pass up. It is not a lure, rather an opportunity that US coaches are happy to offer.

“There is nothing like when I am about to contact a prospect for the first time… I am about to offer this person an opportunity of a lifetime. It is literally going to change their life,” says Andy Teitelbaum of Ohio State University. “If someone walked up to me my senior year, and said I am going to give you a scholarship to row in France or Sydney for four years, and we’ll cover the majority of all of that so you can experience a different culture, get an education, and experience a new level of rowing, that would have been incredibly life changing.

This is a powerful statement that demonstrates recruiting is more than just asking an athlete to commit to training and competing for four years. It is personal. Most of the recruiting process and relationships must be initiated and maintained by athletes and their parents. There are hundreds of other athletes that they are competing with, and US coaches only have time to work with athletes that stay with the process until the end. Unfortunately, many international athletes never know they have these opportunities because they fail to reach out.

US coaches are resources

Choosing a school just for the name or the rowing program is a big risk for both the athlete and the US coach. This why contacting and speaking with coaches is so important. Athletes learn what different rowing programs offer and determine whether it is worth pursuing at the next level.

“It’s not really unlike recruiting domestically.” says Nicholaus Baker of Drexel University. “You are just trying to inform them how your school is different from the schools they are looking at. Give them as much information as you can so they can make the educated decision that is right for them…I think I finish every email with ‘What other questions do you have?’ To all the recruits, that’s what I want to be; a source of information.

In speaking with US coaches, international athletes are able to weigh the pros and cons of attending a US school because they are able to ask about the things they cannot find online. US coaches paint a larger picture of what rowing at the collegiate level entails and being a college student.

“We want our team to reflect the diversity of the school,” adds Paul Savell. “When they do arrive, we don’t assign them roommates, but we do encourage them to pick someone local so they have a family away from home. We do the same thing with guys from California…”

 Athletes are not at school only to train and compete. They attend college to learn and grow as individuals. International athletes need to gauge whether they will fit into the culture of the campus, and as well as the rowing team.

Risk versus reward

Even after an athlete commits to a school, there is the expectation that they will arrive on campus in shape and ready to compete. Whether an athlete is domestic or international student, US coaches can only provide them with standards to meet. It is up to the athletes to deliver.

“One of the things I say in the recruiting process is make sure when you come that you are the person we recruited…we are going to help you get better. But make sure you come, and you are that person.” says Dave O’Neill of Texas University. “You only get one chance to make a first impression…if you come and you are well prepared you are going to find yourself rowing with kids that raced at U23 World’s and All-Americans. If you come in unprepared, all of sudden you are going to find yourself rowing with a whole bunch of kids that are not prepared…”

There is a risk on both sides. Much of the debate is focused solely on whether the athlete chooses to attend school in the US or the UK, but it is the athlete who chooses whether they want to pursue training at the highest level. Coaches are only guides in the process. Athletes are responsible for pursuing their own potential.

Door of communication

Whether an athlete develops in the US or the UK should be irrelevant. The athlete will choose to row at the highest level if they want to. Coaches can only open the door and encourage the athlete to step through. This debate has stirred up a lot of talk, but not a lot of communication. Peter Sheppard  has been praised in the UK for bridging the gap for athletes returning from training in the US. However, will more UK coaches be open to the same?

“More UK coaches would be more open to their athletes attending school in the US if coaches were more transparent about their recruiting process and their training programs,” says Director of Sport at the Headington School, Ryan Demaine . “For example, I believe if there were more sculling opportunities available, UK coaches would be more encouraging.”

Perhaps US coaches are listening. In 2016, there were sculling events at the Dad Vail Regatta, ACRA Championships , and IRA Championship Regatta. Providing opportunities to compete in small boats allow athletes to maintain a high level of competitiveness and aides in their long term development. Isn’t that what international coaches want their athletes to experience – to train and race alongside the athletes they may face at U23’s, World Championships, or Olympics Games?

Is it worth it?

One cannot deny that the competition at the collegiate level in the US is very high. Training is intense because athletes train all year to prepare for dual racing during the spring and to peak at their national or league championships.  When an international athlete chooses to stay home, it may be more difficult to compete each week with other athletes from other colleges or clubs. They may have to find a job and work full time to pay for school. Without financial or academic support it may be difficult to maintain the level of competitiveness that their international coaches want. The options in the US may provide the balance needed to stay competitive and have the ability to prepare for life after rowing.

“It’s very worth it. There are some athletes that are already close to a high level of rowing and they choose to stay. Then there are those athletes who have the desire to explore, but do not want to lose the opportunity to compete for their country. It is a great opportunity…and they grow! They are challenged intellectually and physically, and after they go abroad to ‘refresh’ themselves they can come back and be a great addition to their national team.” says Zenon Babraj at the University of Southern California.

If countries are willing to invest their time and resources in developing athletes to produce success at the U23, World Championship, and Olympic level then maybe they would willing to invest further in their athletes’ freedom to grow and develop into more well-rounded individuals. Rowing at the elite level requires a level of maturity and confidence that is difficult to teach. However, it may be learned by experiencing new challenges that are not related to rowing or that are found in their own country.

“I have seen our international students really develop and create great plans for themselves by the time they graduate. For a lot of them, rowing is the only thing on their minds coming in as freshmen. Then they realise opportunities for their future careers are amazing. They may still be focused on their national team, but now they have their future plans laid out as well.”Paul Savell, Drexel University.

Countries only concerned in results  may be turning away athletes who are forced to choose between their future and the Olympic Games. Rowing doesn’t last forever, and the well-rounded athlete may be the difference between a gold medal or no medal.

Patrick Rufo is an independent writer and consultant for Sparks Consulting. He is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and USRowing coach based in Philadelphia, PA in the US. His primary goal is to promote health and wellness, and promote excellence in the sport of rowing and athletics. He is certified to use the Process Communication Model® and AthleteDISC Behavioral Profile to consult with athletes to enhance their training experience. For about Patrick Rufo, learn more at Rufo Optimal Workouts® or like him on Facebook.


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