If you’re watching the men’s crew races at this week’s Olympics in Rio, you’ll see a Connecticut native rowing his heart out on Team USA.
Andrew Campbell went to elementary school in Darien, but he didn’t fall in love with the water until he moved to Illinois for middle school. That’s where he learned to sail. A few years later, when his family moved back to Connecticut, he couldn’t find a sailing team in his new home town of New Canaan.
“And so I ended up trying rowing because I thought it would be similar to sailing,” Campbell said, “As it turns out, it’s nothing like sailing. There’s a big difference between moving via wind power and via human power.”
He learned the sport on the Norwalk River, at the Maritime Rowing Club, which was run by a married couple.
“Jan was a meat man at a local grocery store, and Olga his wife was a maid. They started from nothing. Came over to the U.S. with a kid, two suitcases and just a little bit of money,” he said. “Eventually founded their own rowing program with one boat, and have built it up to be this powerhouse- a nationwide powerhouse in sculling.”
In college, Campbell wound up rowing for Harvard University, where he had a lot of success. But he basically dropped out of school in the second semester of his junior year. He wasn’t in any kind of trouble. He did it because he was busy trying to qualify for the 2012 London Olympics. He and his partner in a two-person crew boat managed to qualify for a single race that could have sent them to the Games.
“People call it the regatta of death,” Campell said.
And it was a tough one. In the end, they came in third. They missed qualifying by just a few feet.
“And so that was, like, that was a really hard experience, training all that time, dedicating my whole life, leaving my friends at school to go and do this, and then coming up just short was definitely heartbreaking.”
A week later, at his coach’s urging, he was back in a boat. Campbell loves rowing, despite its challenges.
“It’s incredibly painful and the training can be very dull," he said. "It can be very repetitive. And there are often moments where I am thinking to myself, ‘Why am I doing this? And I think what has driven me the most is trying to be a little bit better than the yesterday version of myself.”
That drive eventually led him to a race this May in Sarasota, Florida, in a boat with new partner Josh Konieczny, and a second shot at going to the Olympics.
In a TV broadcast, an NBC announcer pointed out to viewers that he just missed qualifying in 2012. "So you have to know that is going through his mind in the last couple strokes," she said. "He wants to punch his ticket, he does not want to come up short once again."
And he didn’t. Campbell and Konieczny qualified to go to Rio.
“I got out of the boat, vomited from exhaustion," Campbell said. "It was a nasty, nasty race. And it took everything in me to get that qualification.”
And now they’re training for the real thing. Campbell and Konieczny use the power of their legs, shoulders and back to pull oars in perfect unison, propelling their boat down the Charles River towards downtown Boston.
Their coach, Scott Roop, holds a cone to his mouth and calls out to them.
Campbell and Konieczny aren’t what you might picture from Olympians, in that they’re not huge. They’re both 5’10” and weigh in the 150s, so they row in the lightweight category – which the U.S. hasn’t had a great record in recently. The last time we qualified to even send a boat in the men’s lightweight doubles was 2004.
“So the fact that they’re going is some evidence that they’re quite good," said Roop. "And they’re just trying creep in there. You know, get closer and closer. That’s what you do.”
As their boat speeds along towards Boston, the river widens, the wind picks up, and the water gets choppier. They took a rest near the Museum of Science. “It’s a bit bouncy here in the basin,” Campbell called out.
That choppiness is something they’re used to by now, and they’ve developed a unique way of dealing with it. It’s something Campbell picked up in a Harvard class on Chinese philosophy -Taoism.
“And the way of the Tao is strength through suppleness. And we’ve improved a lot by just relaxing, letting the boat move under us, and trying to make the best of the situation on top of the water.”
“How it works typically is the boat will get a little bit unstable, and then either Andy or I will just say ‘Tao,’ and then we just relax a little bit more and get into the groove,” said Konieczny.
Campbell said on a great day, he feels like they can make it to the podium in Rio. So now, as they put in hour after hour of practice on the Charles, he said, it’s all about trying to make great days a much more common occurrence.