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HOW NATIONAL CHAMPIONS HAPPEN

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Always start with kids. None of that ‘I just picked up a ball last year’ stuff.

No one wants to see the Hakeem Olajuwon story repeated, the one where he plays soccer one day, picks up a basketball the next, then goes into the National Basketball Hall of Fame.

That’s career shorthand for ‘don’t make the rest of us feel like bigger losers more than we do since we’ve been shooting baskets all our lives and you haven’t.’ We don’t need someone else showing us how easy it all is. One Olajuwon Dream Shake is enough.

So start a kid in a smaller sport, non-revenue sport, a club sport on a pay to play basis. Take Crew for instance.

How can you decide if crew is for you? Jump on a stationary Erg Rowing Machine and pull for two thousand meters. Do it in eight minutes and you would’ve won the Men’s Youth single title at the US Rowing Youth National Championships last Sunday.

Do it in nine minutes and you’re finishing last in the ladies’ single B Final. You’re still rowing like a maniac, but it’s not your day. If nine minutes makes it to a national final, what time would a kid have to post to show the skills for crew?

Use time as the best measure, and you’d be wrong. First, see if a kid shows interest. Can they swim? Are they afraid of the water? Do they seem competitive?

How many young athletes have gone off the tracks after being railroaded into a sport they didn’t like? You see them in gyms across the country, people who hate sports but love to workout. One of two things happened. They got disconnected by youth sports fanatics, or shamed by overzealous gym teachers.

Hurt feelings at a certain age create lifelong pain.

A kid who shows interest in sports needs encouragement. They need to see the arc of sport from beginning to end and meet people who’ve lived the life. Rowing can be like that. Attend a regatta and you’ll see more than one Olympian, more than one kid born with a silver oar in their hands.

Once you pick one sport, the second is easier. If both sports happen in the water, one will naturally overshadow the other. Keep both sports when that happens. Add a third to avoid the over-training burnout of doing only one sport all year.

Success is a good teacher. Watch what happens after a hard competition. Both teams line up for the good sportsmanship handshake. Both teams had fun, but you can usually see the winners had more fun.

A kid who shows interest in one sport, but plays others, develops an inner drive they apply to their best sport every chance they get. The longer they’re in the sport, the more refined the inner drive. You’ll know it’s happening when they play other sports, but train for their best along the way.

Rowing workouts for soccer season? Perfect. Lifting weights for water polo? Why stop.

Another telltale sign is their clothes. They don’t fit the way they used to. The dedicated young rower gets bigger where they were small, and smaller where they were big. The sport creates a certain body type. Those born with the body type have an advantage, but dedication and hard work mold everyone else like clay.

Walk through a youth rowing competition, a regatta, and you’ll find high school kids of similar size. None of the thick and thin, short and tall, on football teams with powerful linemen, fast running backs, and spring-loaded receivers. Everyone in rowing has the same job: pull those oars.

Young athletes who settle into rowing as their primary sport bond together. They team up on boats for four and eight rowers, testing themselves and each other against muscle, water, and wind.

Coaches see who works best together and puts them in the same boat more often. If a crew qualifies for regionals it’s time to celebrate. If they qualify for nationals, it’s anyone’s game.

At nationals you work through heats. Only the top finishers make it to the finals.

There you are, at the starting line in a boat built for four, ready to race for a national championship. You might be the only one in your entire family to win a title. Your uncle once placed third in a national wrestling tournament. He says that’s the highest anyone has ever finished, but you wonder.

And you’re off. The Y Quad Cities boat jumps out early. They set the pace and keep it. You’re neck and neck with GMS Rowing with Seattle RC coming up. You and your teammates row as one, moving forward, synchronized and slicing the water with power.

But the Y Quad Cities boat keeps pulling away with each stroke, then maintains the distance. GMS Rowing begins to fade, then hits another gear. Even Seattle RC prepares to pass. But you dig in. You remember the training, the repetitions, the trip back home.

GMS Rowing noses ahead. All you want is to beat Seattle RC now. You want third as the other two boats fly along and Seattle RC gathers for the push.

Y Quad City finishes in 7:19. GMS Rowing floats in at 7:24. Seattle RC’s time is 7:29.

You power in with your teammates at 7:26. It’s the bronze medal for third place. More important, you made the podium.

The Y Quad City boat came all the way from Moline, Illinois. GMS Rowing calls Connecticut home. Both teams have Junior World Team rowers. One has a Junior World Team coach. From all appearances, American rowing is in good hands.

Your team was the only west coast team on the podium in your class. The mid-west team looks like a world beater. The east coast team carries tradition. But your team is the best in the west. That’s what you build on.

You are San Diego Rowing Club. What do you do now? If you’re a high school sophomore, you start mapping your way back to the podium with your team. You aim for the next step.

That’s how national champions happen.

(originally posted on oregonsportsnews.com)

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About David Gillaspie
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