Road to Tokyo

Hello all,

I’m hoping this doesn’t end up being too long-winded. But this should encompass the most important aspects about my journey and what I have been working to accomplish:

It’s hard to believe, but I’ve been rowing for nearly 7 years now.  

In 2010, I walked on as a novice with Michigan State’s club rowing team. If you had asked me back then whether I would still be doing this all this time later, I would have called you absolutely crazy. I distinctly remember having a thought that first year along the lines of: “I’ll probably do this until the end of sophomore year, then call it a day.”

Rowing is an unusual sport.  Not only the act itself, but how many people go about getting their start.  It’s a sport that can be picked up at almost any age, and the concept seems fairly simple. You have an oar (or two oars), a boat, and yourself. The objective is to move your boat as fast as possible and cross the finish line first.  But there’s a saying something along the lines of “You spend the first month learning 90% of the rowing stroke, and spend the rest of your life searching for that last 10%.”

Getting into rowing was a chance happening, and to this day I still contemplate what exactly gave me that initial impulse to try. I was starting my 2nd week at Michigan State as a freshman, and was still in the process of finding my place.  In high school, I had varying levels of success in sports like baseball and track. However, there were no results or accomplishments that would indicate the potential to be an Olympian.

My novice year was a doozy.  Even though I considered myself to be an athletic person, I was in no way prepared for the physical or mental challenges that this sport presents.  My memories of that year include a lot of pain, an ungodly amount of blisters, and a sense that I was way in over my head. I wasn’t even good enough to be put in a boat to go to ACRA (club college rowing’s national championship). But….I came back the next year and I didn’t quit.

I steadily worked my way up. My sophomore year, I sat in the bow seat of the varsity eight, the top boat on the team.  Junior year, I was six seat in the varsity eight that ended up having the most successful season of any top crew in Michigan State history.  Senior year, I was able to set major PRs on the erg and earned an invitation to row at Vesper Boat Club in Philadelphia with their very competitive U23 program.

At Vesper, I again started at the low end of the totem pole.  I had the slowest erg score and was one of the few guys that learned to row in college.  But I worked my way into the coxed four that eventually represented Vesper at the 2014 U23 World Championship trials, finishing 3rd. I also ended up winning the first, non-dual race of my career at Club Nationals, beating crews from varsity programs like Washington and Wisconsin.

When that summer ended, I knew that I didn’t want to give up just yet.  I wanted to row for the United States.  After taking a few months off, I started to train again on my own and started to send out emails to clubs throughout country in hopes of trying to latch onto to a year-round program that would give me a chance.  I had improved dramatically since I had first picked up an oar, but the gap between where I was and where I needed to be to earn a spot on the national team seemed insurmountable.

In the spring of 2015, I was able to start training at Riverside Boat Club in Boston with their High Performance Group.  I secured a full-time job to support myself, and began the routine that has taken me to this point.  Wake up, row, go to work, row, go to bed.  Since then, I have spent thousands of hours in a boat, on an erg, in the weight room.  This has led me to the situation where I am now.

It’s been an extremely slow process, but I’ve found myself in a position where, with one final push, have the opportunity to be invited to the USRowing Training Center in Princeton, New Jersey.  This is where the eight and four man sweep boats are selected for international competition.  These races include the World Championships, which occur yearly in the late summer/early fall, and the Olympics.

For an athlete like myself, coming from a smaller program and less distinguished background than many of my fellow competitors, the road is a little less smooth and straightforward.  The main tool to separate yourself for selection is the erg.  USRowing has erg “standards” for every level to give an idea of the physiological makeup needed to compete and win.  For senior heavyweight men, this is 5:52 for 2000 meters and 19:00 for 6000 meters.  Since I can’t boast as many individual wins and results in big-time races, I need to achieve these scores or get as close to them as I can.

Every November, USRowing holds an event called Fall Speed Order in Princeton.  This consists of a 6000 meter erg test on Saturday, followed by a 4250 meter “head” race on Sunday in either a single scull or a pair.  While this is not an “official” selection event like trials held in the spring and summer, this is an opportunity for someone to get noticed by the national team coaches.  Last year, I was able to do well enough on the erg portion of the event to be invited to come down and practice with the Training Center over the course of three weekends in November and December.  During my last trip, I was told that I needed to drop more time off of the 6k I completed at Speed Order before I could receive a full-time invitation.  So, I stayed in Boston over the winter and continued to chip away at the goal of getting to 19:00.  In February, I pulled a personal record of 19:18, which ended up being my best time from this year.

The reason I’m reaching out for support is this: I have come to a point where, if I want to reach the level I’m striving for, I need to dedicate more time and energy to my training. Funding and monetary support in rowing and many Olympic sports in the United States is nearly non-existent until you have results on the international stage.  This leaves people who develop at a slower pace in a tough spot.  Up until now, I have been entirely self-sufficient.  But I have finally come to a point where I feel justified going all in on this opportunity and asking for help.

Starting in September, I have accepted a chance to train in Oklahoma City at one of the USOC’s designated Olympic training sites, the Devon Boathouse.  This facility provides all of the tools a rower needs and more. My priority here will be training and recovery, with part-time work fit in when I can to help pay the bills. The goal is to be in Princeton with the sweep group by the start of next year.

As a result of leaving work, I’m asking for any support you are able to provide.  I have put away money for the past two years in anticipation of taking this jump, but anything you can donate will allow me to not eat away at that savings too much. All donations will go directly to training, food, and transportation costs for the remainder of this year.    

Thank you for your consideration,

Dream big!
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Steven Pyzik 
Cambridge, MA