The Row Warrior

By Tom Matlack | Boston Magazine |


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.