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Peter Mallory's Blog

By pmallory - Posted on 12 August 2013

14 July 2103

With the Tour de France ending on le Mont Ventoux today, I am thinking of my son, Philip. Here is a photo (sadly missing from this archive) of the two of us on the summit of the Giant of Provence in 2002 on the day before that year's Tour came through. (Between our waists that's a tractor trailer bringing up the finish line paraphenalia for the race the next day.)

Appropriately, the following is a guest blog from my grown-up son, LTJG Philip Mallory USN, rowing coach at Granby High School in Norfolk, VA:

Coaching is not easy. I want to say it’s harder than being an athlete. The comparison is apples and oranges, but decisions that I make as a coach are ones that we all have to swallow, athletes included.

This year at Granby there were a few boats that did well, and one boat that did very well. It was our Women’s Junior Varsity Double (a scholastic category open to students in the 11th grade or lower). Now, they weren’t breaking any erg records, and at least one of them was over-trained, but they row well together even though they weigh very nearly the same despite an 8-inch difference in their heights.

They have the fire that you look for in young athletes. They work hard, and they can row beautifully most of the time.

All year we have worked very hard at getting our obvious speed at low rating / low pressure to carry over to high rating / high-pressure environments. In many of their early races they were even at the 500 meter mark, and then over the next thousand they would develop a lead of twenty to thirty seconds.

At the Virginia Scholastic Championships at Occoquan, our Jayvee Double raced in the Varsity category and drew a difficult heat. They were well behind the leaders at the half way mark but eventually battled back and won by half a length. They said they didn’t have a very good race, but I wasn’t concerned. They always rowed better in the second race of the day after getting some of their nervous energy out. Plus, even though I didn’t get to watch the race, I was confident because our heat was eight seconds faster than either of the other two heats.

Still I was nervous, very nervous, as I stood with their parents to watch them come down the course in the final. Peeking around the corner past the throng of spectators, they were definitely not in the lead. “That’s okay,” I thought, “They have a very good sprint.” And they do, but alas, it was not enough. They came in second.

We had mounted onto the bow a camera with a fish-eye lens that gave me fantastic insight into what had actually happened. They surrendered at least a couple of lengths of open water at the start because they settled too early (after the 5th or 6th stroke), and although they clawed their way back, it was plain and simple too much distance to overcome.

Prior to this they hadn’t been pressured AT ALL in any race, so this was a new experience for them . . . and for me.

“Fix our start, and we will fix our fortunes!” I thought. A bit late in the season to be figuring this out, but at least the start was fixable.

“Going easy in heats could be the answer to doing well in finals!” I thought. The eventual State Champions had been able to coast through their heat as they won by 15 seconds. Our habit of handing everyone a few lengths and then seeing how hard we could come back was physically and mentally taxing. What if we had been just a bit fresher?

Two weeks later, on to Scholastic Rowing Association of America National Championships in Camden, New Jersey.

Day 1, Heats:

We felt confident despite never having faced a single crew in our event. Twelve boats. Two heats, each with three to advance to finals the next day. Easy.

Our strategy was to apply our hard-won lesson from States, go out, gauge our competition, then ease off and come in second. That would also earn us Lane 2 in our final. Day 2 weather was calling for a strong crosswind, and I figured that Lane 2 would have better water than Lane 4, the lane we would be assigned if we won.

As my Dad said over the phone: “balls-y.”

The girls had an uninspired race (in their minds) after taking an immediate lead with their vastly improved start. They dropped to 32 versus their normal 36-37, watched one boat go by, and then held an easy length lead on the third-place boat. We advanced in a walk, a length of open water back from the heat winner.

The other heat was won in a time two seconds faster than our heat. No worries. My girls thought they could have easily gone that fast and much more. So at least in theory it looked encouraging for the next day.

That night we ate a meal with Lawrence Walsh, a former teammate of my father’s at Penn. He told us that fifty years ago that very day, he had won his second straight SRAA Championship in the men's doubles. I stupidly asked if he had won. Larry said, “Well, yea, of course!”

Day 2, Final:

I don’t intend to draw out this story or to wallow in my own pity more than I have already before writing this, so I will just tell you that the weather had gotten so bad overnight that they cancelled all doubles and singles racing the next day, including our final. Under the circumstances, SRAA rules say just take the times everyone posted in their heats and hand out medals accordingly. Based on our cruise in our heat, we were classified fourth. Regatta over. Season over. Load the boats. Go home. Ruminate.

My stomach dropped. I felt sick. This had been a real opportunity for our tiny Granby Crew. Never before in our history had we had a shot at a national medal, let alone a Gold. Never before had we even made a final!

It was heartbreaking that we were not able to showcase our potential. Would we have won? Well, that’s why we race. You never really know until the finish line.

My colleague at Granby went over to congratulate the winning crew’s coach. I will admit to being too angry at the weather to do so myself. He said that their strategy had been to kill it in the heats because they knew that the final could be cancelled.

In my desire to find a silver lining, I try to think about what lessons I can learn from this. I am not against the gamesmanship aspect of taking it easy in heats to go faster in finals – it makes psychological and physiological sense – but I will say that in retrospect it does seem bad moral policy to go out and do less than your best, doesn’t it? My dad says that rowing a race at less than your best is good practice for rowing a race at less than your best.

“We do not rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training."
-Archilochus, Greek Soldier & Poet, 650 B.C.

Maybe we should do our best every day just because our sport is so bloody difficult that if you don’t, you won’t have it when the time comes.

Harvard under Harry Parker has been well known as a crew that always goes hard – heats or finals. They are a good example of long-standing winning tradition. Have they ever lost a race in a final in the past fifty-plus years because they went too hard in the heats when they didn’t have to? We’ll never know. Though we obsess over individual races, individual placements, perhaps it’s the tradition of doing your best that we should really be obsessing over.

And this is the stress of being a coach. After having been been burned by a crew that had an easy heat at the Virginia State Championships, I told my athletes to go out and come in second in their heat when we got to the Nationals. I wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice!

And now I have a new mistake to never make again.

“Generals are notorious for their tendency to 'fight the last war' – by using the strategies and tactics of the past to achieve victory in the present. Indeed, we all do this to some extent. Life's lessons are hard won, and we like to apply them – even when they don't apply. Sadly enough, fighting the last war is often a losing proposition. Conditions change. Objectives change. Strategies change. And you must change. If you don't, you lose.”
G. Terry Madonna & Michael Young, Politically Uncorrected

My Dad suggested that I contact the winning coach of that race and ask him what life experience had led him to make his decision to have his girls go out hard. Had he been burned before? Was he just a fantastic meteorologist? Was he simply smarter and more experienced?

In any case, he does deserve a belated congratulation from me, so Bravo Zulu to the coach of the Skyline Women’s Junior Varsity Double, 2013 Scholastic National Champion. Well played, sir....