The Row Warrior

In rowing, and especially U.S. rowing, the open-weight single scull is the loneliest event. Long considered the sport’s glamour competition, the single in practice is a slow, grueling affair undertaken by the very best rowers in the world. Few of those tend to be Americans, who’ve never had much luck with sculling—in which each rower uses two oars—because U.S. colleges emphasize the sweep races, in which athletes use just one. No American woman has ever won the open-weight single scull at either the world championships or the Olympics, and it’s been two decades since an American woman has won an Olympic medal of any kind in the event. The U.S. men haven’t fared much better: The last to win Olympic gold in the single was Jack Kelly (father of Grace) in 1920.

Years ago, when Michelle Guerette’s father was still a smoker, his doctor asked him to take a lung capacity test. The strength of Stephen Guerette’s exhalation into the plastic tube left his doctor astounded. Oxygen supply, it turned out, was one of Stephen’s gifts to his daughter. Another was strength. Women’s Olympic coach Tom Terhaar recalls the time in 2004 when Michelle Guerette took a "max erg" test, pulling on a rowing machine as hard as she could for 60 seconds. "I thought the machine was broken," he says. "I couldn’t believe her score."

Guerette stands 5 foot 11, and her massive legs are reminiscent of those of Eric Heiden, the Olympic speed skater. Her arms and neck ripple with muscle. But that’s not what makes her unusual among rowers, who tend to be enormous. What sets Guerette apart is her extraordinarily long arms and legs, which allow her to grab more water with her oars. When you add that to the power generated by her legs and her freakish maximum oxygen capacity, the sum is an American athlete poised this month to accomplish something unprecedented. Michelle Guerette just might take the Olympic gold medal in the single scull.

The ARCO Olympic Training Center outside San Diego looks like a cluster of Howard Johnson motels. Desert hills dominate the horizon, which is perpetually abuzz with helicopters patrolling the nearby Mexican border. Guerette and her teammates train up to four hours a day on Lower Otay Lake, in a buoy-framed race course that the rowers share with anglers who float by in inner tubes.
To win the gold, Guerette will have to beat a number of Eastern Europeans selected and trained from an early age to be the latest crop of rowers from the former Soviet bloc to dominate the single scull. But she and the rest of the rowing world know that her true task is to beat just one competitor.

Ekaterina Karsten-Khodotovich of Belarus is a monster of a woman, with cannons for arms. One American rowing observer has described her as an NFL tight end in a boat. She’d be the Lance Armstrong of rowing, if Armstrong managed to pack on another 20 pounds of muscle. She has owned the single (with a brief respite to have a child) ever since winning her first Olympic gold medal 12 years ago. Throughout her reign, Karsten-Khodotovich’s strategy has been to decimate the field at the start, then cruise through the balance of the 2,000-meter race uncontested, working only as hard as winning requires. She seems as fresh after a competition as before.

Still, at 36, Karsten-Khodotovich is looking beatable. She did win another world championship last year (her fifth) in Munich—but barely. Guerette pushed her all the way down the course. For the first time, Karsten-Khodotovich was doubled over at the finish, gasping for breath. Then there was the race last October, at the Armadacup course in Switzerland, that is seen as a bellwether for Beijing. Guerette held the lead in the 150-boat field for 37 minutes, fighting off Karsten-Khodotovich until hitting a patch of weeds at the very end. The Belarusian pulled ahead and won by a nose, but the point had been made. Beijing is setting up to be the rowing equivalent of Bobby Fischer’s legendary 1972 chess match against the Soviet champion Boris Spassky.