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The women's pair of Megan Kalmoe and Tracy Eisser earned the last two spots on the 202One US Olympic team today with a strong win over a strong field this morning; While the winning pair had gotten in the boat together in April. The other three crews came together very just this week after the end of selection for the camp boats, and gave strong pursuit early in the race before Eisser and Kalmoe put a patch of open water behind them in the third 500, then pulled away steadily from the field.
Kalmoe and Eisser The pair raced together in the 2019 Worlds, where they qualified the pair for the United States, and this will be the second time the duo have raced together at the Olympics, having raced in the quad in Rio in 2016.
Kalmoe in particular marked a massive milestone as she became USA rowing's first-ever four-time Olympian; Kalmoe raced in the double in 2008, placing fifth; in the quad in 2012, winning bronze; and in the quad again in 2016, placing fifth.
Eisser won the pairs trial with Kristine O'Brien in early 2020 before Covid-19 hit, so had earned the right to try to qualify for the pair by racing at a World Cup, but ultimately the duo decided not to do so; O'Brien wanted most to try for the eight - to which she was named this week - and Eisser and Kalmoe had talked about renewing their partnership in the pair and heading straight for trials - which brings us to today's result.
We spoke to Eisser and Kalmoe after the racing; following are lightly edited transcripts of our talks.
row2k: You've become something of a pair expert; what is it that you like about this boat?
Tracy Eisser: Well, I think one of the things I like about it is how hard it is. And for a really long time I was really bad at it. Before 2016 I was probably consistently in the bottom half of the group in terms of pair rowing, and it really wasn't until 2017 when I got in the pair with Kalmoe that I really started to feel like I was making consistent progress and getting better. And then once I started getting better at it, I thought, "Wow, this is really fun."
row2k: Yeah. Has she ever acknowledged that the student has passed the master? Because now you get in with different people and it goes - although she does the same.
Eisser: Absolutely not (laughs). She is very good, has been one of the top starboards in the group in the pair pretty consistently this whole quadrennial. So I definitely do not feel like I have surpassed her at all, but I hope that I've gotten better enough that maybe now I can help other people sometimes - or at least have some more confidence getting back in the pair than I did sometimes in the 2016 cycle.
row2k: For this regatta, it seems really brutal; the last seats on the team in the last trials, in a single race. How do you approach it, do you have any tricks, anything you've learned that you might tell, say, your 2014 self on how to deal with this last ditch, almost death regatta.
Eisser: Death regatta! For us, we made this choice a month and a half ago, to commit to coming to trials knowing that it's sort of do or die, and taking ourselves out of big boat camp before it was over. For me that choice was made a little easier in knowing that like this is the event that's going to make me the happiest, and that I am most passionate about. I know that going to the Olympics, it's going to be really hard. The field is very competitive; the speed at the top is really fast.
But for us, to make that choice knowing that there's no guarantee that we're going to get there, it felt worth it because, again, it's the thing I'm most passionate about. I knew that going in, pursuing this 100% no matter what happened, I would be okay with the outcome if we win or if we didn't win. Eisser and Kalmoe in 2019
Obviously if we didn't win I would be sad, but I made the choice knowing what the risk was, and just saying "Okay, like this is what I really want to do. This is where my heart is." Just to go after it and if I fail, I fail. But if I fail trying to do something that I love, then I've done the best I can do.
row2k: If a younger rower asked "What is it like at the starting line of an event like this? And how do you either settle yourself, or psych yourself out, or not let yourself get psyched out?
Eisser: Obviously in the back of my mind, I understand that if I don't win this race, my Olympic campaign is over. I know that. But I think choosing to dwell on that and think about only what this race means is not helpful for me. So I try to stay more focused on the process. "Okay, this is how the start is going to go, and this is what I'm going to be thinking about when we lengthen. At the 500 we're going to do this." Thinking just about, how am I going to go through the race? What are my focus points while I'm actually rowing?
And this is something that Kate (coach Kate Bertko) said; she said that racing is problem solving. And I really like that, and do that. If I'm at the thousand and I'm not where I want to be, what am I going to do to get there? Instead of thinking, "If I'm at the thousand and I'm not where I want to be, does that mean that I'm not going to go to the Olympics?"
So breaking it down and focusing on the process helped me to not get so overwhelmed with, you know, the meaning of everything. Eisser gives thumbs up in 2019
row2k: What did you talk about after crossing finish line?
Eisser: I think Kalmoe just said 'We're going to the Olympics. We're going to Tokyo'. There was a man on a fishing boat and he said, "Did you win?" And she said, "Yeah, we're going to the Olympics." And he gave us the thumbs up. And that was it really. The 2016 US women's quad
row2k: And that was it, thumbs up from the quiet dude in the fishing boat.
Eisser: Yeah, and we also know that us getting what we want means that there are three other boats who are not getting what they want, so I think like celebrating for ourselves achieving our goal was good, but trying to be respectful of the fact that for some other people who have put five years - five years! - which is one pandemic year longer than ever into trying to make the team and not making it. I understand what this means to everyone and I'm happy for myself, but I also understand that for some people this is a really hard day.
row2k: After the race you went over and visited with your parents.
Eisser: That was really nice. My family has been really supportive; Megan's mom is here from Arizona, my aunt and uncle drove out from Long Island, and it was nice to have the chance to appreciate the people who supported us, especially because they knew it was either we make it or we don't, and they would have been here no matter what. Family members with cardboard cutouts of the pair
row2k: What do you think it was like being on the shore waiting for you to race? That could be tough.
Eisser: Yes; I'm sure my mom was freaking out when I told her that this was our plan to go to trials. She said, "Wait, that's after the naming date, that means that there's no plan B." And said, "Yeah mom, there's no plan B." She just said "Okay, if this is what you want." I think especially for parents, knowing and seeing the work and the commitment that we put into doing this; I don't have kids, but I can only assume that knowing like your kid has put everything on the line and they're either going to be ecstatic or crushed is probably pretty hard and stressful when it's out of your control. So it was nice.
row2k: The obvious question is...
Megan Kalmoe: I don't know, what is it?
row2k: Four Olympics?
Kalmoe: Oh, yes, this will be my fourth Olympics.
row2k: I think you're the only one who's done that.
Kalmoe: Yes. I tried not to make a big deal about that because it's been in the back of my mind that it probably has not been done. But it's also a case of, well, let's not jinx it. Because after you get to be a certain age, injuries are a pretty real part of training and racing. I had a run in with this in 2018 and have been trying to stay on top of it since then.
So that was another voice in the back of my mind too, but Tracy has been a great partner and very accommodating. If I ever need anything from her or any flexibility in the training, she's always really great. I'm just really grateful that she wanted to go out on a limb with me and do this crazy thing, just go for it do or die at trials, which was a new experience for both of us. 2012 bronze medalist US women's quad
row2k: So this is something that I asked Tracy about; you have become somewhat pair experts. What is it about the boat that you like, and if you had to coach a young person in the pair, what would you share that you've learned about the boat?
Kalmoe: My love affair with the pair started in college, because at the University of Washington we do a lot of pair training. A lot of the winter training when I was there at least was in pairs. And you know, rowing on Lake Washington is not without its perils, like literal perils. But when you're doing it you think, "Oh yeah, this is what you do." You don't run into stuff, and you communicate with people, and you figure all that stuff out. It just makes you a very competent rowing athlete, because you just have to be aware, and you have to have athletic intelligence, and communication skills, and all that other stuff that maybe you don't realize you're learning at the time. But it's important, because you just cannot run into houseboats, and you cannot run into bridges, and you cannot get run over by sea planes and all this other stuff.
For me, learning all that, and to become independent and self-sufficient as an athlete in a small boat where it's just you and one other person making sure that you don't die, and also to try to beat all your teammates in your weekly pair race, was so cool.
To me that was always the standout experience at Washington, even as opposed to hopping in the eights or hopping in the fours. It was just so much more about you as an individual and your partner and taking on that responsibility and that accountability, really owning your performance every week.
row2k: Were you ever just really shitty at it at the beginning?
Kalmoe: Oh yes. I have a video that hopefully I will be able to share at some point if I can dig it up and get it into a format that will go on Instagram. I was very bad. I was very bad.
row2k: Did you walk on to rowing?
Kalmoe: Yes, I was a walk-on at Washington, so this was after my first year, because as a novice you do not go in pairs. A true novice does not go in pairs. But I did pairs camp after that first year, so I learned how to kind of row the pair the summer after my novice year, which would have been 2003. Doing that for a couple of years, I did get better eventually, and by the time I left I thought I was actually pretty good rowing the pair. Then I came here and it turned out I actually wasn't very good at rowing the pair; I was very bad at rowing the pair (compared to the other camp members).
So I had to go into the single, and rowing the single helped my pair rowing a lot. When I got here I was not a competitive with the senior team at all, and I switched to sculling and sculled for a long time on the team before I switched back to sweep again in 2014. And wow, the pair went really pretty well at that point, because I hopped out of the single, hopped into the pair and that was the year that Kerry (Simmonds) and I won the NSR and then a silver medal at Worlds.
So a long time sculling - like if you have eight or ten years that you can just spend sculling before you want to learn how to row the pair - that would be a great way to go for it.
row2k: Because they are similar in speed and perceived load.
Kalmoe: Yes. The pair is the slowest of the team boats, and it's actually not that different from rowing a single in terms of the speed you need to be aware of in order to pick it up and move the blade through the water. It's sort of like a big single, except you don't get to control both oars.
So the sculling actually helped my pair rowing a lot. And I had hoped that Kerry and I would be able to go to Rio in the pair. We were really excited about what we were doing in the pair in 2014, 2015. She got injured before 2016, so it ended up not working out for us; we just weren't on the pace that we needed to be at. It didn't end up happening, which was too bad.
Then when we came back, Tracy was really excited about trying the pair as an option, and we talked about it early as 2017 - "Hey, this is something we might want to do for the whole quadrennial, so let's talk about it now and then set ourselves up to to be in a place where we might be competitive in Tokyo." And then we got an extra year, which was great.
row2k: What about the dynamics of a pair? It is just two people, and you have had success with a couple different partners - and when you only have two, there's no blame to go around.
Kalmoe: Oh, there's blame to go around, but typically in our boat we blame ourselves. So Tracy is very hard on herself, I'm very hard on myself. We're not usually blaming each other. We're both very type A perfectionist people so we can be a little bit too hard on ourselves at times.
But for me, the two person boat has always been my favorite way to compete in rowing. I rowed the double for a couple of years with Ellen (Tomek, who is in the quad for Tokyo), and it was a similar approach I had with her. We had a natural chemistry out of the boat as well; we got along and are sort of on the same page socially, emotionally, that kind of stuff. So we're comfortable with each other outside of the boat. Tomek and Kalmoe in 2008
And I would say I'm a bow seat expert more than a stroke seat expert. I have not stroked the pair very much at all, and in the bow I prioritize just building any level of comfort and trust with whoever it is I'm rowing with. Whether it's giving them some weird drills - you know, something where you can almost approach it as like you're playing a little bit more in the boat instead of rigidly trying to achieve some goal or some feeling. Maybe it's more like goofing around a little bit, and you might say "Oh, that was cool,' or "That was an interesting drill, that was fun. Let's do that again." It helps bring guards down so they're willing to just kind of go with it, relax, and makes it easier for me to tune into what they're doing and back them up as best as I can.
row2k: And as I asked Tracy, how do you deal with a regatta with as stark an outcome as this one? Maybe if you were speaking to junior rowers in a cafeteria, and they ask "How do you deal with that? I would be freaking out."
Kalmoe: I think the nerves and the doubt, everyone feels that. If anyone tells you that they don't ever experience doubt before an experience like that, they're lying to you. Everyone has a what if, because there's no guarantees in an outdoor sport like this or in any sport. And that's really normal. You're not alone if you feel like, "Oh my God, I don't know if I can do this." That's a very, very normal thing to think. It's just up to you to decide like that's the only thing I'm going to think, or I'm also going to focus on the good things that I know that I'm able to do.
And in my case the trust that I have with someone that I've been rowing with for a very long time - and I know not everyone always has the luxury of saying, "Well, I went to Olympic trials with someone I've been running with for five years" - but any amount of trust that you can build with whoever it is that you're going to the line, whether you have one day, like some of the people in our race today, or you have five years, that's what you're going to have to fall back on if you are having those experiences of doubt. Where it's okay, I'm not by myself, I have Tracy or I have, you know, Erin (Boxberger) or Molly (Bruggeman), and we're doing this together. She's not going to bail on me. We're a team and we're focused on the same thing and want the same thing. I'm not going to let her down and she's not going to let me down.
row2k: What did you say to each other after you finished the race today?
Kalmoe: We didn't really say a whole lot. For us it was important to be aware that there were people that we care about a lot and have trained with for a long time whose Olympic journey is over. We wanted to be very respectful of that, so I just said good job and I think gave her a kiss on the head. Kalmoe and Eisser
row2k: You did. And then you went over the see your folks.
Kalmoe: We wanted to go see our parents because Tracy's parents are here and my mom and her boyfriend Mike are here. They had cardboard cutouts that USRowing printed for the golf outings; they were stand ins for the athletes at the golf outing since we were not allowed to be there (due to Covid-19). They had a second life here at Olympic trials, which was great and very funny. It was kind of a mood lightener when we went over there. But my mom has been like such a fan of the team and so supportive of me for such a long time, and since we haven't had any events for two years, and now she's not able to go to Tokyo, this is sort of her last chance to come and see me compete before I retire. I think she was pretty happy to be here. And I'm glad that she could make the trip too.
row2k: Any other thoughts you want to share?
Kalmoe: For me it's important to acknowledge that if there are people out there who want to do something different, that there can be other options besides just doing what other people expect you to do. I think a lot of people expected Tracy and me, as top athletes in the group, to just be really excited about the eight or the four. And it's not that those aren't good events, we just love the pair so much. And I think having put so much into the quadrennial and so much into this last weird Covid extra bonus year, and having struggled a lot with a lot of different things - for us to feel really good about having put that extra time in and leave rowing feeling positive, we really wanted to do something that we love a lot and care about a lot. And that's this event.
So if there are people out there that feel that way about some event, any event, if it's the single, the double, the quad, whatever it is, that's okay. And it can be cool to do something different if you're really excited about it. Even if it's really, really hard and you're not guaranteed to succeed, it doesn't mean that it's not worth doing.
row2k: The women's pair is a really hard event internationally.
Kalmoe: Oh yeah. We are extremely aware of that. And that's something we talked a lot about before we made the decision. But we have so much respect for the top boats in the event, and for us, it's almost like that's what makes it so exciting to try, because those guys are so good that if you're racing against the very, very best pairs that have ever been, that's the best opportunity that you have to see how fast you can go.
How fast are you? I think that's just the coolest part about this right now, how high the standard is and whether or not we can be in there. Also, I've known a lot of these women for a long time and have been racing with them; I consider them my friends. And there's something different about having that connection with the people that you're competing against, even if it is like a little professional when you're out on the water and, you know, you all want to beat the shit out of each other, and that's fine.
But having that connection and having raced each other so much, it adds another level to the experience, which I really value a lot.
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