Early morning in central New Jersey. On the hushed, gothic campus of Princeton University, the last days of the school year are unfolding in Ivy League splendor: Professors wearing bow ties mutter as bubbly undergrads in pastel polo shirts scurry to pack their bags and head to jobs on Wall Street. Down at the tan-stuccoed boathouse, along the reed-covered shores of Carnegie Lake, there’s another placid scene, or so it seems: tall, sublimely muscled young men hoisting shells and oars and working the kinks out of their quadriceps. But look closer, and feel the palpable, barely contained tension. For these young men are here to suffer and worry through the Selection Camp for the heavyweight members of the U.S. Men’s National Rowing Team. Only a few days into the routine of training and tryouts, the men are moaning, as if they wished somebody would put them out of their misery. No such luck. At stake is a shot at this summer’s World Rowing Championships, and beyond, the dream of rowing on the 2000 Olympic Team in Sydneyùgoals for which these men have persevered through fractured ribs, dislocated shoulders, and thousands of hours of mind-blowing training. But there’s another reason the young athletes persist in torturing themselves, and he’s just arrived. Standing in the cement yard outside the boathouse, Mike Teti, the loud, unbending, tyrannical czar of U.S. amateur rowing, is screaming his head off at them.
Teti was scowling the minute he emerged from the belly of the damp boathouse, shaking his head in disapproval because he overheard a couple of guys shooting the breeze about the new Austin Powers movie. Inside the boathouse, he’d even glared at the boats, stacked in the dark on wooden beams like carefully placed, exquisite teacups. In fact, for Teti this isn’t a particularly bad mood. Moreover, he’s earned the right to be this way. This tall 43-year-old with a glowering perma-stare, this hardass boot-camp-style coach from the streets of Philadelphia is perhaps the most respected guru in a sport whose image is still trapped in a nostalgic world of Ivy League gentlemen plying glassy dawn water. Teti never simply shouts, “Pull!” He yells things such as, “Pull like you’re the biggest, baddest motherfucker in a bar, and everybody in the bar knows it!” The strange thing is, it works.
On this morning in early June, 40 of the country’s best oarsmen listen with equal parts respect and fear as Teti rages at them. They’ve been invited to Teti’s Selection Camp to compete for one of 18 spots on the U.S. men’s heavyweight team that will compete at the annual World Rowing Championships in St. Catharines, Ontario, from August 22û29. Selection Camp officially got under way on June 1st. In two months, 22 men will be gone.
Teti has to fill four boats: an eight, two fours and a pair, but if a rower has made it to Princeton, he’s more than likely got his eye set on the eight. In the United States, rowing eights is considered to be the holiest of all the rowing disciplines, and if one of these candidates makes the eight boat, quite simply, he is one of the supreme rowers in the world. “Everything else is secondary,” one aspirant says. “Everybody here wants to make the eight because it’s the best boat.” At this year’s World Championships the U.S. heavyweight eight will attempt to grab their third straight victory.
The essence of rowing eights is to create a crew so unified, so synchronous, so perfectly in tune that its members no longer function as individuals but as a single, seamless unit. That image, however, belies the specialties within, as each seat conforms to a particular set of skills; the stroke man, for instance, who sits at the front of the boat, sets the cadence. Though all positions are potentially up for grabs this summer, Teti, who knows that toying with his winning combination can create lethal ripple effects, seems comfortable with most of his crew from the Worlds last year. All except for one. From the first day of Selection Camp, the ?ercest struggle has been for the fifth seat, in a section of the boat known as the engine room, because it houses the biggest and most powerful men. Last year, it was filled by a 26-year-old Wisconsinite named Michael Wherley, and he rowed the fifth seat better than anyone ever dreamed he could.
But this year there’s serious competition from a newcomer. This summer, things might change.
As the thin fog lifts over the pine trees and off the lake, Teti begins today’s practice session with his version of a pep talk. “For the past two weeks, I’ve been really flexible with your work hours,” he announces, his voice scratchy from weeks of shouting through a bullhorn. His face is tan and windburned from 18 years of flying up and down narrow channels of water with a clock in his hand. “I’ve been really flexible with your relationships. I have been really flexible with your academics. Well, I’m through being flexible. I’m going to the World Championships to win. Anyone who requires maintenance, you are not welcome here. I will provide the coaching, the equipment, and the expertise to those who want to go to the Olympic Games and win a fucking gold medal. Anything that gets in the way of that, I’m gonna run it the fuck over. Some of you guys are severely on the bubble, and most of you here will not make the Olympic Team.”
Winning the gold, Teti knows, isn’t entirely about patriotic glory. USRowing, which came into existence to help the United States regain its lost dominance in world rowing events, and now governs the sport, is a nonprofit organization. To survive and to pay an 18-member staff, it must please big donors, like the Power Ten. Taking its name from a common race strategy, the Power Ten was founded in 1981 by a group of New York executivesùmost of them graduates of Ivy League schoolsùlooking to create a business network of rowers and former rowers. It cares about two things: strokes and stocks. The members include Richard M. Cashin, president of Citicorp Venture Capital, and Michael Bloomberg, the founder and CEO of Bloomberg Financial. The members of the Power Ten have donated millions of dollars to USRowing, and if the U.S. eight wins the Worlds and the 2000 Olympics, the Power Ten will continue to be generous to Teti and his men. Teti has already brought home the gold from the last two Worlds, in ’97 and ’98, but he knows all too well that no eight has won three consecutive Worlds since Germany did so some ten years agoùand that an American team hasn’t won Olympic gold since 1964. It’s been a long 35 years, and Teti’s butt, like those of his rowers, is on the line.
Which may explain, in part, why he governs his men with such Machiavellian ruthlessness: Muscles burn, yes, but the mind games are even fiercer. He tells his rowers that he picks the eight largely based on ergometer scores and physiological potential. “How I pick the eight may look arbitrary to you,” he says. “And to a certain extent it is, and I may make mistakes. But I am the coach.”
It’s a message that Michael Wherley, the 6-foot-7 blond veteran of the fifth seat, knows well. With a midwesterner’s guilt-ridden knack for working hard and long, Wherley has attained hero status among his fellow rowers; and with his pointed nose, pronounced Adam’s apple, and gangly frame, he’s also earned the nickname Wherley Bird.
Wherley’s been in the last two Worlds-winning boats, and even Teti gives him much of the credit for the U.S. eight’s gold medals. It’s not that he is the quickest or most graceful with an oar, but that he possesses an uncanny gift: When Wherley steps into a boat, that boat goes fasterùeven faster than it does when a larger, stronger rower is there. Wherley is something of a spiritual leader, too, and this is part of the mysterious alchemy that makes rowing more than a science, less than an art, and a sport whose secrets are accessible only to those, like Teti, who intuitively grasp its peculiar blend of elegant calculation and raw pain.
After the U.S. team won the Worlds two years ago against such powerhouses as Great Britain, Australia, and Russia, Wherley entered a post-medal dreamland and stayed there for one week. He never took off his gold medal; he wore it to sleep, in the shower, under his tux during his wedding, even on his wedding night. He saw it as a gold for both himself and his wife, Janet, who had recently beaten Hodgkin’s disease. “It was a moment,” Janet says now, “when the planets were aligned perfectly.”
But this year, even after last year’s repeat victory, Wherley is vulnerable. He trains in Princeton year-round, and since last season he has managed to squeeze in hundreds of hours on the water before and after putting in full days at his job as a computer programmer for Dow Jones. Yet among the four starboard rowers from the 1998 championship boat, he has the lowest erg score, and he’s never been considered to be a genetically gifted rower. On paper, he is the one weak link in the boat, and Teti, never one to let loyalty get in the way of his goals, is always looking to upgrade his engines.
Each year, as part of this strategy, Teti brings in a new boy and touts him as the saviorùthis guy is the future of rowing, he is a beast, the old crew will hear. The rumors start flying early. He’s an outsider from Ohio whose erg scores are off the charts. Or, he’s ten feet tall and solid muscle. This summer is no different. Teti has found a ringer in a silent, bald, ripped Canadian. He’s 6-foot-5, 22 years old, and looks a bit like the Russian villain played by Dolph Lundgren in Rocky IV. His name is Jake Wetzel.
As Teti rattles off the lineups for the day, the tension ratchets higher. He loads Wetzel, his golden boy, into the five seat of last year’s World Championship eight and dumps Wherley into a second-string eight full of talented hopefuls. As the crews tighten their feet in the foot stretchers and nervously slide back and forth on the seats, the coxswain in Wherley’s boat whispers just loud enough to be heard, “I think there’s going to be some wham-bam, ass-to-ankles racing today. It’s time.”
A few minutes later, out on the water on this Thursday, June 10th, Teti is still wound tight. “See this clock?” he asks, holding up a digital stopwatch under his square, dimpled jaw while he steers the white USRowing launch with the other hand. “Ever since I took this job, this is my religion.” We’re cruising alongside the two eights, heading to the top of the channel, where the boats will spin around and begin a three-mile race back toward the boathouse. During practice, Wednesdays and Saturdays are normally for high-intensity racing (the other days are spent doing a variety of drills, technique polishing, and endurance tests). But Teti has changed the schedule because he is anxious to test Wetzel and Wherley. On race days, every man knows he is under a microscope.
Teti gives no breaks because he got none himself. He grew up in the Upper Darby suburb of Philadelphia, the second of ten children in a working-poor, Catholic family. He turned to rowing in his junior year of high school as a way to get in shape for football; he was terrible at first, but his high-school coach worked with him privately on Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River, and Teti quickly developed into one of the best young rowers in the country, if not one of the best students. Because of his poor grades, he didn’t bother applying to the University of Pennsylvania, which had long had an elite rowing program. Instead, he accepted a rowing scholarship to attend nearby St. Joseph’s University. In his sophomore year, the school downgraded rowing to a club sport, but Teti continued to train on Boathouse Row on the Schuylkill. In 1984, he earned a spot as an alternate on the U.S. Olympic Team, and the following year he made the U.S. eight, which won bronze at the Worldsùthen gold in 1987. In 1988 he made the Olympic eight, and capped a brilliant career by winning his first and only Olympic medal (the bronze) when the United States came in third behind West Germany and Russia in Seoul, South Korea.
Meanwhile, Teti had been coaching since 1981, first as an assistant at Temple University and then at Princeton, where he guided the freshman team to four collegiate national championships. (According to Teti, Princeton’s athletic director told him, “You’re crude, you’re loud, you’re the antithesis of Ivy League rowing, but we have you here because we think you can create a winning crew.”) Teti, who had volunteered for USRowing in 1995, was hired on a part-time basis to coach a lightweight four in 1996. He thought if his crew earned an Olympic medal, he would be a hero; they won the bronze in Atlanta, and USRowing fired men’s head coach Mike Spracklen. Spracklen had been perceived by many as a holdover from the old-school, elitist days of rowingùand in any case, he failed to bring home a medal from Atlanta. Teti got his job. It was exactly where Teti wanted to be, and he has never let his ascendancy tempt him to forget the articles of faith that got him there: Rowers are interchangeable parts of a machine. And medals are what matter.
The sun is beginning to shine out on the lake, and Teti alternates standing and sitting while he steers with his right hand. We pull alongside Wetzel’s boat, and Teti tries to calm the newcomer, who looks nervous. “Relax, Jake,” he counsels. “Relax.”
Everyone is feeling the competitive anxiety that Teti strives to foster and intensify by never formally setting the eight until he has to. This year, it will be on August 4th, the day his lineups for the Worlds are due. The way the rowers see it, it’s a sadistic but not uncommon way of exacerbating their discomfortùso that in addition to two daily practices, the killing three-mile races, and the sessions at the rowing machine that leave their breakfasts spilled on the floor, they won’t know for weeks if they’ve made the goddamn boat. The way Teti sees it, if he leaves the door open for change, it injects a healthy paranoia into the camp; paranoia fuels competition, and competition makes for faster boats.
Wetzel, who was born in Saskatchewan (his father is American and his mother Swedish), seems oblivious to all this. He keeps to himself at training sessions, and because he’s so tall and pale, stands out like a ghostly exclamation point on the docks. He started out as a mountain biker, but after a series of disappointing finishes, he took up rowing, inspired by the 1996 Olympics. In 1997, as a novice freshman in U.C. Berkeley’s rowing program, he went right into the freshman eight and helped it win every race. He also began rowing for the Canadian National Team, and his pair came in seventh at the ’98 Worlds. But he feared that his Canadian coaches weren’t going to give him a fair shot at the eight just yet, so Wetzel, who had met Teti at the ’98 Worlds, called the coach the following winter and asked for a chance to try out for the U.S. National Team. Teti, convinced he had discovered his hot new rower, helped Wetzel navigate the bureaucracy to trade in the Maple Leaf for the Stars and Stripes. After finishing the year at Berkeley, he started officially at this summer’s Selection Camp, where he arrives on his bike each morning for practice. And right now, he appears stronger than Wherley.
In a way, Wetzel, like Teti and Wherley, represents the new face of rowing. Nearly 200 years after the first rowing races pitted London ferrymen against one another for cash prizes, and 148 years after Harvard and Yale faced off in the first competition between eight-man boats in the United States, rowing has moved beyond the provincial Ivy League lakes and into places like Lincoln, Nebraska, and Chicago’s Southwest Side. Middle-class suburban high-school athletic programs are rushing to add rowing to their sports offerings, the number of participants is exploding, and there are now about 80,000 amateur rowers nationwide. Meanwhile, the NCAA is working overtime to promote women’s crew, programs that teach inner-city kids how to handle an oar are popping up all over, and health clubs are incorporating ergometers into their fitness classes. This, of course, is a coach’s dream. It raises the profile of an obscure sport, brings attention to his rowers, and boosts acclaim and financial support, all of which Teti needs and wants. It also raises the pressure on Teti to produce resultsùto bring home the gold.
What it boils down to is the performance of the rowers themselves. When all eight rowers are in unison, the boat slices through the water in long, fluid strides. A rowing genius like Mike Wherley, however, doesn’t merely row hard; he listens and feels for misfirings and timing glitches and corrects them with his long, arcing stroke, maintaining the boat’s smooth rhythm. “Wherley Bird transmits the boat’s aura,” a fellow rower says of Wherley’s prowess in the five seat. “He’s the bridge between the bow and stern.”
But this morning, as the boats creep up to the starting line marked by stainless steel bleachers on the lake’s right bank, Wherley looks awkward. His arms are so long that he has trained himself to match his teammates’ stroke lengths by not fully compressing his legs when he slides his seat forward. Because he rows short, his blade sends a tiny spray of water toward the stern instead of cleanly submerging. In 1998, one of Teti’s predecessors looked at Wherley’s technique and urged the coach to get him out of the boat. Teti placed his bet on that uncanny Wherley alchemy and left him in, and Wherley’s eight won the gold that year.
“I don’t have all fucking day!” Teti screams. “Line up.” His plan is to send the boats into the three-mile course single-file down lane one, only a few seconds apart, hugging the timber on the right side of the lake. The rules are simple: The race ends at a small stone bridge just before the boathouse, and the fastest boat wins. “Reaaaaaaaaady,” Teti shouts. “Row!”
Wetzel’s boat is the first off the mark. He stabs his blade into the water and pushes back on his seat, wrenching the oar handle, staring coldly through the stroke. He is not immune to the agony, but he continues to churn water for those flashes when he feels like ten men, when his power and technique are in sync and he feels like he can row foreverùthat’s what carries him. Wetzel takes a deep breath and flies toward the catch again.
Thirty seconds later, Teti launches Wherley’s boat. The two-time gold medalist winces at the catch as if he were heaving a piano. During the surge of the first few strokes on each boat, the coxswains’ heads jerk back ever so slightly. “Chaaaaa!” The coxswains’ exhalations punctuate each drive, luring their crews into a rhythmic cadence. “Chaaaaa!” The boats stabilize, settling into the silent, steady fury.
A few meters and still a few seconds behind, Wherley Bird sucks in the oxygen and continues to crank. “Bend that fucking oar!” Teti shouts. “That’s it. Bend and away.”
With about 500 meters left to go, it looks like Wherley’s boat may have made up some serious time on the dogleg right. Even though Teti launched Wherley’s boat after Wetzel’s, it is beginning to close the gap. Teti’s eyes flicker from his stopwatch. “This is going to be interesting,” he murmurs. Wherley’s coxswain screams, “C’mon, we’re walking!”
As they plow under the bridge, each coxswain throws up his hand, signaling for Teti to note the finish time. Unfortunately for Wherley, his boat’s last push was not enough. The race belongs to Wetzel, with a time of 12:55, eight seconds better than Wherley’s boat. If the boats had started side by side in a traditional race format, Wherley’s would have lost by open water. Streams of sweat pour off the rowers’ faces and drip onto the oar handles, and they grab for water bottles and strip off their shirts as they wheeze and pant, struggling to recover. Any margin over three seconds is a solid victory. As the boats return to the dock, Teti tells me, “Wetzel is the real deal.” Then a pause. “He’ll make the eight.”
Day after day they’ve been at it, grinding, burning, pushing, pulling, over and over again. It’s been hot out on the lake, and the rivalry between Wetzel and Wherley is simmering, but no one at camp dares to talk about it in public. Indeed, Teti would cut any rower who openly offered an opinion.
The controlled aggression and silence are not confined to the battle for the fifth seat. As Wherley points out, every rower at Selection Camp is the same: “You show up at the boathouse, tell the guy next to you to have a great day, and then go out on the water and try to kick his ass.”
For Wetzel, the fight is not so much about beating Wherleyùit’s never personalùas it is about proving to himself and to others that he can row in the best eight in the world and win. He doesn’t talk to Wherley, and he has no interest in getting to know him (he spends his one day off riding his bike or visiting his sister, a model in New York City). It would only complicate things, because in Wetzel’s mind, Wherley is an obstacle, period.
Meanwhile, Wherley plays the role of the quiet, selfless team guy. He tells me that Wetzel doesn’t bother him: “I don’t dislike the guy, but there’s no way I’m gonna have lunch with him. I’m trying to crush him.” But his wife tells me that Wherley is at least a little obsessed. “I hear about Jake,” Janet says. “First, it was, ‘This guy Jake is coming down from Canada and could be trouble.’ Then it was, ‘Jake is in town.’ ” She permits herself a small moment of resentment: “I heard someone refer to Jake as a ‘superb rowing specimen.’ I just wish he would go back to Canada.”
Teti’s incessant touting of Wetzel is driving the other rowers crazy, too. “I’m sick of hearing about Jake,” one of them tells me. “That he’s big, he’s bad, he’s bald, he’s ripped, he eats babies for breakfast.”
After the practice race on June 10th, the war of nerves continues. Teti leaves Wetzel in the lead eight for the next few practice sessions and spends most of his time on the water trying to perfect Wetzel’s technique. There are no more practice races, only the monotony of drill after drill. The other guys in the eight suspect that the boat isn’t as fast as it is when Wherley rows the five seat.
Wherley has been relegated to the four boat; he rows by his old crew each day and has almost resigned himself to the fact that he may really end up in the four, and he’s shifting his focus to make sure that it’s the fastest boat it can be.
Two weeks later, the next important duel takes place off the water, in the basement of a Princeton physician’s home. In this borrowed laboratory, Wherley is about to be subjected to a VO2 test on the ergometer.
The ergometer almost exactly duplicates the seat and slide arrangement of a boat, but instead of grabbing an oar handle, Wherley is clenching a baton with black rubber handgrips, which is attached to a flywheel that provides the resistance. Dr. Fritz Hagerman has clipped Wherley’s nostrils shut with what looks like a metal-padded clothespin and wrapped the black band of a cardiac monitor snugly around his chest. Hagerman, a professor of physiology at Ohio University, is considered by many rowing coaches to be the world’s leading sports physiologist; he’s a keen supporter of USRowing and has been monitoring the performance of top American rowers for three decades.
Wherley waits impatiently, eyes straight ahead, listening for the signal to start rowing. Just as the test is about to get under way, Teti’s assistant coach, 32-year-old Mike Porterfield, a former national team member, comes in. Porti, as everyone calls him, is the coaching staff’s good cop. This is Porti’s first day off in weeks, but he has shuffled into the basement in flip-flops and khaki shorts to support Wherley as he faces “VO2 Day.”
Hagerman starts Wherley off with a countdown: “Three”ùWherley opens his eyes wider than normalù”two”ùhe squeezes the black rubber gripsù”one”ùhe convulsively grabs from the catch and pulls back on the handle, causing the machine to teeter and squeak. On the recovery, the flywheel whines softly. Wherley rows as if he’s possessed, exploding backward, his thigh muscles quivering, torso and back muscles clenching tight, his eyes locked on the digital readout.
His breathing and strokes are rushed until he sees the numbers 500 and 128, meaning he is pulling at a speed of 500 meters in one minute and 28 seconds.
“Right to gold medal pace!” Porti yells.
Wherley’s pace slows, and nearing 1,000 meters rises to 129. He yanks the wheel back to 128, and keeps stroking.
“You’re the man!” Porti shouts. “That’s your seat. That’s your gold medal.”
If Wherley can keep this rate up, he’ll be able to match his personal best, if not surpass the 5:55 2,000-meter erg rating that Wetzel achieved earlier.
Wherley is now a piece of machinery operating at optimum level. As he inhales, the test will later show, his lungs seize an almost superhuman amount of oxygen. While the average adult male inhales about 21 liters of oxygen per minute, and absorbs only about five, Wherley’s respiratory and circulatory systems are capturing an incredible seven liters.
Wetzel did even better, achieving an amazing VO2 count of 7.35 liters. But Wherley’s motivation today is largely being driven by the knowledge that his opponent’s genetic gifts aren’t moving the championship boat. Just last week, Teti sent Wetzel out with the eight for the crew’s first 2,000-meter race, and the B eight crushed them.
Teti’s faith in the Canadian has begun to falter. “He’s been a fucking anchor,” Teti told me. “Every boat I put him in sinks.”
Wetzel himself is struggling to understand what’s going wrong. One day on the docks after practice, he tells me that physically, he believes, “I’m on par with anybody here.” Up close, Wetzel is far less intimidating than he usually seems. His voice is soft as a whisper, and he thinks carefully before he speaks, no matter how awkward the pause may seem. With a boyish bewilderment, he offers that his rowing style may be part of the problem. At Berkeley, Wetzel’s crew rowed with more forward lean at the catch, and they turned the blade high off the water. The U.S. National Team rows shorter, more upright, and feathers a smoother, more gradual twist. Wetzel is worried that these subtle changes are killing him.
If there will ever be a time for Wherley to reclaim his seat in the boat, it might just be today, when Teti’s confidence in his new young gun has reached a low point. Wherley Bird’s personal record on the erg for 2,000 meters is 5:58, and he has decided to shoot for a 5:57, even though he thinks he is capable of a 5:56. The tiny margin almost doesn’t matter. As Teti has said over and over again, “I’m going to make some subjective decisions, and I’m just trying to get the best guys who are hot at the right time in the boat.”
With a little more than 200 meters to go, Wherley cranks onward. The pain intensifies as lactic acid saturates his muscles. His breathing is labored. His split heads in the wrong direction: 129,130… Wherley is fried. 133. It’s like he’s pulling through wet cement.
Wherley’s final time: 5:59.4. For another full five minutes, Wherley must sit on the erg as Hagerman completes more tests. Wherley’s feet are on the ground, his elbows on his knees, his head in his hands, and he’s struggling to catch his breath. When he finally stands, he grabs a trash can and heads for the hallway.
“Exercise-induced vomiting,” Hagerman observes.
“I never read fiction, so I only live in reality,” Teti tells me a few days later, as his August deadline draws closer. Everything in Teti’s life revolves around rowing: His girlfriend, Kay Worthington, is an Olympic double gold medalist who rowed for Canada’s women’s team. Even when he is not on the water, his mind is, and he isn’t going to waste his time with something like a novel.
We are talking well past midnight about his ability to knowùwithout even holding a time trialùwhat effect a certain rower will have on a boat’s times, but it’s clear that Teti is brooding about the Wherley-Wetzel conundrum. I ask him about a recent argument I’d heard he had with Jeff Klepacki, the number-six man for the ’98 World Championship boat and a rower who will more than likely occupy the same seat at the Worlds this summer. Teti says he was taunting Klepacki, telling him that the U.S. National Team’s eight was going to get its ass kicked at an upcoming Independence Day Regatta on the Schuylkill.
After a heated discussion about the team’s prospects, Klepacki finally erupted, yelling, “Well, maybe you should put Wherley back in the boat!” Teti recalls, “And I said, ‘Guys get cut for saying that kind of shit. I don’t care if I have to cut every other guy in the fucking boat, I am not taking Jake Wetzel out of the eight.’ “
As he tells the story, Teti sounds far from confident, and he takes a long breath before continuing. “Don’t you see,” he says, “how every guy wants Wherley, and they think he’s the magic man? Can’t you see how the psychology of the boat is coming together?”
Three days later, at the Independence Day Regatta, an announcer’s voice booms over the PA system: “Here comes the boat that every American rower dreams about making from the time they are little boysùthe ’98 U.S. eight.” If you look carefully at the number-five position, you’ll see a giant towhead pulling some very ugly strokes. Wherley is back. Then the starting judge screams, “Ready, all! Row!” and Teti takes off running up the riverbank after his crew. At about 700 meters, Wherley’s boat is behind by four or five seats, but it increases its cadence to 38 strokes per minute and surges forward. It is a steaming-hot day, and the pace burns even more than usual, but Wherley’s eight tears through the 102-degree haze and wins by open water. Teti, who’d worried about an embarrassing defeat in front of his hometown crowd, is immensely relieved. Wetzel, who’d been downgraded to a four, watches from the sidelines.
By mid-July, Teti is convinced the eight needs Wherley to win. “If I were a betting man,” he says during our last conversation before the Worlds, “I’d bet that Wherley will be back in the eight.” He tells me that Wetzel will indeed fill Wherley’s spot in the four, and he implies that this has been his plan all along. By putting Wetzel in the top eight during practice, he had given the newcomer a chance to develop his technique in a stable boat with a good rhythmùbut even more important, he had created the championship crew’s psychological ache for Wherley. At that moment, Teti seems a rowing mastermind.
And a man with all kinds of pressure to bear. “The difference between being the coach of the eight and being in the eight,” Teti once told me, “is that if the boat loses, those guys will be really bummed, but I’ll lose my job. Their dream is to win. My job is to win.”
Still, as he went on about the science of selection, I couldn’t help but think of something else he’d told me several months earlier, sitting in a coffee shop. Teti whipped out a list of the rowers’ erg times. “Look at where everyone is,” he said. “Some of these are a tenth of a second away from being the same scores.” At this level of performance, Teti admitted, all the drills, the scores, the mind games, and manipulations can’t really help him to distinguish one athlete from the next. His choices, in the end, had to be instinctualùalmost random. “When I get a group of guys this talented,” he said, “what winds up happening is, I get to the point where I go eeny, meeny, miney, moe.”
Max Potter lives in Philadelphia. This is his first article for Outside.