The Row Warrior
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.