Olympian Chris Ahrens shares his honest advice for athletes aiming for the Olympics
Chris Ahrens, 2004 USA Olympic Gold medalist
Be honest with yourself.
It’s cliché but I would say first of all just be really honest with yourself.
Be honest with yourself about what you need to do to make it and what training you need to do to improve to that level. I think many people fool themselves into thinking that ‘what I’m doing right now is sufficient’ or ‘even though this is what the national team coaches are saying, I know better’, or ‘my coach knows better’ or ‘I can get away without doing that’.
The reality is that the people who make it on to the Olympic team are people who are great technical rowers, are incredibly fit, are incredibly hard workers and are great racers. There are a lot of people who are really good in some of these things but they’re missing other things. Like they might be a great technical rower and a great racer, but they are not particularly fit relative to other people. Some people might be really fit and great technical rowers, but they’re not very good racers and they’re not mentally tough.
So if you want to make it, I think you have to focus on what your weaknesses are and improve those. Honestly look at your results and ask yourself ‘How am I doing? What do I need to change?’ And then make those changes.
The Emotional Component
The second thing is that there’s an emotional component to training for the Olympics that I think people discount. You will need the emotional capability to deal with the stress of going through the selection process. You need to be able to deal with the stress of full-time training and the things that go with that. You need to be able to go through emotional ups and downs and not allow those to overly impact what you do.
It’s really easy to get caught in kind of a downward spiral after a few bad practices. It’s easy to get in a rut you can’t get out of if your training isn’t going well. If you don’t know how to deal with that and move on it can be incredibly self-destructive.
Have confidence in yourself
It’s also important to recognize that it is possible. I think too many people come into the whole process somewhat intimidated.
It is important to respect the quality of the athletes around you, the standard of the racing that you’re going through, and the standard of the team. But at the same time I think having confidence in yourself is really important. Ultimately you have to believe that you can do this and that you individually are going to make a difference. If you show up at the camp with 50 other people and you aren’t confident about your ability to make it, you won’t make it.
It’s an Individual Team sport
I think that’s one of the things that people don’t talk about. It’s one of the things that makes national team rowing less fun than college rowing. It’s an individual sport for much of the year in the sense that you’re training in crews, but ultimately everybody’s there to make the team, and whether you make the team or not is an individual event.
Once you make the team, then it’s a team event. But that team component is a relatively small piece of the year as compared to the amount of time you spend training as part of a group. Your scores are individual and whether or not you make the team is just based on you individually. That can be very lonely.
I think you need to have the kind of self-confidence and emotional strength to make it through the periods when it isn’t going so well, so you can be aware of it and be appropriately relaxed about it.
In the end though, everybody wants to win. People want to row with people that that they think will help them win, and people that they like. So if you can be somebody that makes the boat go well and that people like, chances are you’re going to make it on to the team.
– Chris Ahrens
Chris Ahrens was a member of the USA National Rowing team, with 4 gold medals from the World Championships in 1995, 1997, 1998 and 1999. In 2000 he finished 6th at the Sydney Olympics. He took a break from rowing and then returned to the sport to race at the Athens Olympics in 2004 in the Men’s Eight, winning a gold medal and setting a world record in the process.
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