The Row Warrior
Cambridge rower Michelle Guerette hopes to become the first American woman to take Olympic gold in her sport’s marquee event. Like Bobby Fischer, the U.S. hockey team, and Rocky before her, there’s just one thing standing in her way: a dominant (some say unbeatable) champion from the former Soviet bloc.
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.
On a rainy Sunday in April, Guerette strolls into the deserted Weld Boathouse on the Charles River to prepare for the second of her three daily training rows. The surface of the river is glassy, and the red beacons that mark each bridge glow bright in the gloomy weather. Guerette is home from California for some technical fine-tuning with her personal coach, Charley Butt, who pulls up in his launch wearing a Red Sox hat, L. L. Bean boots, and wool gloves. Guerette joins him on the river, pushing her yellow German-made shell off the dock. She ties her feet into the shoes mounted in the bottom of the boat and begins to row. The faces of her blades—red, white, and blue—plop into the river with symmetrical splashes. The boat jumps forward impossibly fast, surging almost out of the water.
With the college crews at rest for the day and pleasure boaters scared off by the rain, Guerette has the river to herself, her thoughts of Karsten-Khodotovich interrupted periodically by Butt’s instruction. “Good,” he says. “Keep your elbows wide even as the power comes on.” Guerette’s cheeks puff with exertion as she exhales at the end of each stroke. Butt likes the fact that Beijing will likely be hot, with flat water—conditions that will make the Olympics more a battle of strength than technique. In that type of race, Guerette is at her best. Along with power, endurance is her greatest attribute. Her baseline training is 25 miles a day, a distance that staggers even Butt.
Guerette rows past the Genzyme building, the old Polaroid headquarters, Boston University, and the Citgo sign. She heads toward the Harvard Bridge, with the Boston skyline behind her, doing “builds” that have her increasing her pace while concentrating on keeping her blade work clean and efficient. The stroke never changes. Like a gymnast on the beam, Guerette maintains her exquisite balance, holding the boat steady as the blades drop into the water and her massive legs drive the shell forward.
Growing up in a Polish family in a blue-collar community of Bristol, Connecticut, Guerette excelled in school and from an early age displayed an unusually strong competitive streak. She was accepted at Harvard, thrilling her mother, Bonnie, a first-generation Polish American. Bonnie always encouraged her three children to take a wide view of the world—to believe that whatever they wanted was close at hand rather than a distant fantasy. That may have had something to do with Guerette’s decision while jogging along the Charles River one day to wander uninvited into Weld Boathouse. Inside, she met the Radcliffe rowing team coaching staff. Impressed with the freshman’s size, they urged her to give the sport a try. When they got her on a rowing machine for her first erg test, they were amazed by her score: She had beaten not only all the other freshmen, but also nearly all of Radcliffe’s varsity rowers.
In January 1999, the Radcliffe rowing team traveled to Gainesville, Florida, for training. Coach Liz O’Leary assigned Guerette and the rest of the inexperienced freshmen to a four-person sweep boat. Always motivated by a challenge, Guerette was relentless, determined to figure out this new sport. The actual act of rowing, though, was not natural for her: Her long arms and legs at this point proved to be her enemy, making it hard to keep her balance. She was all knees as she came up the boat’s slide on her moving seat. She had trouble getting her oar into the water as she reached out over her oarlock. But her power was shocking. She was so unbelievably strong that, despite her poor mechanics, she could make her boat surge forward like no athlete O’Leary had ever seen. Guerette became one of the first freshmen O’Leary ever put in Radcliffe’s varsity boat.
As Guerette struggled to harness her horsepower, eventually even the national team was forced to take notice of her potential. She began competing internationally—though her coaches would sometimes sit their prodigy out during the biggest races—in just her second year of rowing.
With the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens approaching, the American coaches were determined to make a mark in international sculling. They began evaluating their sweep rowers to find the best candidates for conversion. As the most powerful athlete on the team, Guerette was certainly an attractive option. But her prospects with two oars were far from certain. In the eight-person boats in which she’d been competing, many individual sins are hidden. In a single, the water provides instant feedback: You’re either moving forward, or you’re swimming. As the experiment began, Guerette ended more than one day with a call to her father to report that she’d flipped her boat.
Within a few weeks, though, Guerette began to realize the benefits of her new discipline. She grew accustomed to rowing with two oars, and realized it actually gave her added balance, since in sculling the body moves directly forward and back, rather than rotating sideways at the “catch,” when the blade enters the water. It wasn’t long before Guerette was no longer flipping her boat. Still, she remained what rowers call a “hammer,” depending on strength rather than finesse to move the boat. Guerette was obsessed with improving, but the same drive that had always served her so well led her to do too much too quickly. She overworked her body, breaking her own ribs. For two agonizing months leading up to the 2004 Olympic trials, she was forced to limit her training to lifting weights and riding a stationary bike.
In the meantime, the American coaches had decided to make their Olympic priority the quadruple scull, an event they believed offered the best shot at a medal, as it tends to attract a weaker field than the more glamorous single. Amazingly, they chose to put the inexperienced, recently injured Guerette in the boat. Two of her boat mates had rowed the quad at the 2000 Olympics; the other had been sculling since she was 11. “What Michelle did was remarkable,” says Chris Wilson, then assistant Olympic coach. “She was a novice sculler racing at the Olympics.” The coaches’ bet paid off: Guerette helped her team qualify for the quad finals and then take fifth place—a major accomplishment for American rowing—in the championship race.
After the high of Athens, Guerette began to reflect on her fledgling rowing career. Despite her success, the unease that came with being moved between the sweep and sculling events—and the frustration over the coaches’ choosing to leave her out of some major competitions—stuck in her craw. “Michelle,” her father told her, “row your own boat! They can’t throw you out of your own boat!”
Another observer who arrived at the same conclusion was Harvard men’s crew coach Charley Butt. In Athens with the men’s team, he’d watched Guerette’s race in the quad. When he got back to Boston, he ran into Guerette at a Red Sox game. He told her she ought to consider the single. After that, they kept bumping into each other at Dunkin’ Donuts. She took that as a sign.
For someone as sociable and exuberant as Guerette, it wasn’t obvious that the isolation of the single would suit her. But after just a few weeks of working with Guerette, Butt was convinced it was the right move. “It was clear to me that Michelle had a great catch,” he says. “She had a feel for the blade in the water.”
Butt believed Guerette’s potential was still largely untapped. Her astonishing strength made her better than 99 percent of athletes, but she had a stubborn streak that led her to believe she’d been successful because of her unusual stroke, not in spite of it. He decided she’d have to start over from scratch. Like Tiger Woods reinventing his golf swing, Guerette would need to remake her stroke. To help, Butt enlisted Steve Tucker, a two-time Olympic sculler.
Butt used the first day of training on the Charles River to make a point. He instructed Tucker and Guerette to row a double, rowing one minute at a slow pace followed by one minute at a quicker pace, building up to the very high cadence of 32 strokes per minute. Guerette turned red and then purple with frustration, unable to keep up. A few weeks later, Butt made her row with her seat and shoulders attached to Tucker via arrow shafts, which let her feel every motion of his stroke and gave her no choice but to mimic his form. To lighten the mood, Butt also had Guerette row while wearing a stick across her back adorned with goose feathers. “Michelle has referred to me as not a mentor,” Tucker recalls, “but a tormentor.”
But Butt’s methods worked. In her first year racing the single, Guerette beat a field of vastly more experienced scullers to become the U.S. representative at the 2005 world championships in Gifu, Japan. As usual, Karsten-Khodotovich took an early lead in that race and never looked back. But Guerette startled everyone by winning the bronze. “When the pressure was on,” Butt recalls, “she was calm.”
The enthusiasm was short-lived, however. At the world championships the following year, Guerette struggled just to make the finals. With the Olympics only two years off, the question loomed: Was that bronze medal a fluke?
Radcliffe coach Liz O’Leary, who’d remained close to Guerette, recalls the rough stretch her prodigy went through. “She comes in and sits down on the floor in our office at the boathouse and just goes on a tirade. She’s done these amazing feats out on the water, whether it’s volume of work, or the intensity, or the speed. But it’s never good enough.” The same feisty competitiveness that had taken Guerette so far now threatened to wreck her career. “I lost patience,” she admits. “I didn’t respect rowing enough. It was almost too much. That was true in the physics of the stroke and also in [the] mindset.”
To get back on track, she was going to have to tame her stubbornness, to open her mind to new methods and styles. During practice, Butt would preach the horizontal stroke emphasized by the Italians and the Australians. “Legs and more legs,” he would tell her, stressing the need to stay more upright at the conclusion of each stroke. Guerette eventually bought in. “You don’t want to believe it is all the legs,” she says, “but it is.”
The night before the 2007 world championships final in Munich, Guerette had a last outburst of defiance, screaming at Butt that everything they’d done was wrong. At the starting line the next day, she nervously talked to herself until the last moment. When the race began, Mirka Knapkova of the Czech Republic took a surprising early lead. Lurking behind, Guerette and Karsten-Khodotovich rowed stroke-for-stroke for nearly the entire course, closing steadily. Then, with 500 meters to go, a Bulgarian named Rumyana Neykova made a mad dash at the leaders. Guerette felt Neykova move past her and knew she couldn’t keep up. “I was already red-lining,” she recalls. Somehow, she found another gear. All four women came to the finish line together, with less than two seconds separating them. Karsten-Khodotovich and then Neykova crossed first, but Guerette overtook Knapkova in the last 10 feet to capture her second bronze.
Though Guerette’s coaches are confident as this month’s Olympics approach, none will offer a prediction on her chances. But the American rowing delegation’s elder statesman, Kris Korzeniowski—who will coach the men scullers in his 10th Olympic Games—is blunt in his assessment: “Mother Nature gave Michelle everything necessary to win.”
Olympic qualification standards will mean far fewer boats than at the world championships. The line before the start will be hushed. And in those last moments before the final race, and for the first time in years, Guerette will not be thinking about Karsten-Khodotovich, the legend in the next lane. Instead she will visualize the stroke that will maximize her boat speed. She’ll talk out loud to herself, and her giant legs will twitch with the memory of punishing workouts on the Charles. At last, the starter will bark, “Go!” And then it will just be Guerette, in the Beijing heat, propelling her scull across the flat water.