How Rowing Found Me--Olympic Medalist Edition

Rowing at the Rio Olympics is sadly over, and I'm finding re-entry into regular life to be tough sledding. (Watching water polo just ain't the same.)

So to forestall those post-Olympic rowing blahs, I took the opportunity to talk with a former Olympic rower I know--Matt Schnobrich--about his Beijing experience, how he got there, and get some advice for new rowers

Matt and I both rowed at Minneapolis Rowing Club before he hit the big time and headed out east to ply his oar with US team. When he went to the Beijing Olympics in 2008--and won a bronze medal in the Men's 8+--our club was ecstatic. He's a great rower, a great guy, and someone with a lot of great perspective on rowing and on the Summer Games.

What made you want to become a rower?

I really had no insights into rowing as a sport until fall of my freshman year at St. John’s University (Minnesota). Like many others, I had seen the poster of an 8+ with the “TEAMWORK” tagline, I had a sense that this was something people did at East Coast private schools, and I had seen images of rowers through the years. I had decided not to go out for the soccer team due to practice conflicts with all my afternoon science labs, and it left an athletic hole in my life that I was looking to fill.  My resident assistant, Matt Rose, asked me one afternoon if I was interested in coming down to practice the next morning, so I joined a long-list of other tall Midwestern first years that got hoodwinked into rowing.  But I was hooked… 

Who were your rowing favorites at this year’s Olympics?

Really this is a long list.  There still are several carry-over teammates of mine from Beijing that represented the US on both the men’s and women’s teams.  Bryan Volpenhein is a good friend and coaches the men’s heavy and light fours. Luke McGee coaches the men’s 8+.  So I find myself rooting for the coaches as much as the athletes that I either trained with or are relative newcomers. This was Megan Kalmoe’s 3rd games, so I was obviously pulling for her given our Minnesota connection.

The women’s 8+ started their current gold streak during the 2006 World Championships, which I got to witness first hand--so watching that ever-changing group continue to set the highest bar was incredible. Those individual women and others that have paved the way are truly inspirational. While the NCAA collegiate program provides an unsurpassed feeder program for the women’s national team, you’re still bound to have down years or flukes that occur. This isn’t a best of 7 event, you get one shot to deliver and anything can happen.  Eleven straight gold medals is a testament to the women in those boats, their other national team teammates who pushed them to the top, the team’s morale and training program, and really a dedication to perfection at all ends of the preparation process.  

Finally, last Saturday morning my wife Maria and I taught our two young boys how you’re supposed to cheer at a rowing race--as we shouted at the computer screen for about 5 straight minutes as Gevvie Stone made her way down the singles course to finish silver. The look on her face on the medal podium was incredible. I definitely saw exhaustion and elation, but more than that there was that unique look that conveys some combination of gratitude, fulfillment, honor, and surprise.  (Let me know if you find a word for that.)  In all of sport, that look only shows up at the Olympics.

What are the best memories you have of Beijing?

There are a lot of good ones.  Watching Dwight Howard and Chris Bosh tiptoe through a sea of women’s gymnasts comes to mind, sharing a hamburger with Usain Bolt and Asafa Powell at the McDonald’s in the Olympic Village two hours before they destroyed the 4x100m Olympic record, biking back and forth through the Chinese countryside with my teammates every day, and the Closing Ceremonies are all good ones.  But above all, our Olympic final will always be my favorite one.  Due to the physical pain, focus, and exertion, I only have limited memory of many of my biggest races.  Sitting at the starting line, the first few strokes, a couple calls from the boat.  While that still applies to the Beijing final, I have had some wonderful images and memories of that race that I will always take with me.  They might still all wind up with us losing to Canada, but I know we’ll get ‘em next time.  

Where’s your bronze medal now?!

The sock drawer--honestly.  I’ve never felt that I need to display it.  I’ve got a photo of our team in our office at home, so that’s what we have in the way of any visibility. Making the Olympic team and representing the US was the highest objective, so the “prize” is not really a tangible thing. So while there’s a medal, it doesn’t seem like it adequately does justice to the experience or the countless people that helped get me there.  

Do you have any advice for someone just starting to row?

There’s a lot of good candidate advice based on where I started and where I wound up.  Do it because you love it--half mast only gets you half way. Enjoy yourself and your teammates--there are few life experiences like splashing in the water with your friends as the sun comes up every day. Olympians can come from anywhere, everyone walks their own unique path.  But more simply, as (Minneapolis Coach) Andrew Morrow always said: “PULL HARD.”