Still at training camp in Italy, Tess Gerrand hasn’t worn her Australian Green and Gold jersey on the water yet. Like the rest of her teammates, she’s kept her head down, staying focused on the grueling routine in the weeks leading up to the Olympics and spending quiet time with the eight other women in her boat.
It’s a wonder that just two months ago, the Women’s Eight Boat for the Australian Rowing Team wasn’t sure whether they’d be in the Olympics or not. Just six months ago, Tess had resigned to letting London go and began focusing on Rio 2016. According to Rowing Australia, Australia’s governing body of rowing, the Women’s Eight’s performance in Beijing, a record 6th place, just wasn’t good enough to sponsor them for more international races (though, apparently the same 6th place was enough for the Men’s Eight).
But following this decision rose a fervent and unexpected network of previous female Olympic and National rowers, who protested to Rowing Australia. “The network that kind of emerged out of the woodwork was incredible—it was across all the different states, and while things weren’t necessarily coordinated, it was still going on everywhere,” Tess explains. Soon enough, Rowing Australia gave the girls an opportunity to hit a benchmark set standard. Three pairs, or six out of the eight that would eventually fill the Olympic boat, did. But Rowing Australia required another test until all eight hit the marks that were set. Finally, they were allowed to be sent to the Olympic Qualification regatta—which they won. Tess says, “Suddenly, from nowhere, we were going to the Olympics.”
Just days before she heads off to the Olympic Village in London, I ask Tess how she was feeling. She pauses, then she says in the same, calm voice that began our conversation, “We’re definitely excited, but I think we’ve just gone through the last month with our heads underground, training really hard. This week, we started tapering a little, and we’re all feeling fresher. There’s a few more smiles now than last month.”
Tess’s events are the first week of the Games, from July 29 to August 2. Having stayed in Italy in the lead-up to the Olympics, Tess has stayed shielded from the distractions surrounding the Village. “We’re still training in regular training gear,” she says, “and we’re still in the regular slog of things. We’ve been through a tough couple months of training. In Italy, we’re in our little bubble, but there’ll be a bit more nerves and distractions once we move into the Village.” Then, she adds, “I think everyone’s in a good place, though.”
It’s a special thing that the Australian Women’s Eight have the chemistry that they do: While most National level boats train for years together, these women have only spent a few months on the same boat. “Half of us are younger athletes and newcomers,” Tess adds. “But we have a really good mix of experience, determination, and raw power that meant that we started going fast, really quickly. That’s what got us qualified.”
As a child, Tess watched her mom row in regattas. She was surrounded by rowers as she spent weekends at the boat park, and was soon asked to be a coxswain (the non-rower in the boat, who’s in charge of navigation) by a club member. But as she described, laughing, she soon “got too big to be one,” so she jumped in the rowing seat of the boat. At 15, she went to her first National Championships. And then at 18, she was faced with a difficult decision: to leave the Australian rowing scene or to attend University in America. Tess describes:
Before I even decided to go to Yale, I knew I would be coming away from the Australian rowing system, and it would be a sacrifice because I would be putting myself in a back foot for my Olympic dreams. Australia didn’t take too kindly to athletes leaving the country. It was a tough decision. I wanted to get a good degree, but I wanted to go row for Australia. So instead, I did the cocky thing and thought I would be able to handle it all.”
She laughs and then continues .
Luckily, it worked out. Yale was just a phenomenal experience. It challenged me in every aspect of my life. It was hard. Freshman year, I kept thinking, ‘Oh, dear, I definitely, don’t deserve to be here.’ Then you manage. You manage to do your training, and studying, and sometimes, you go out on a Saturday night, and you think…wow. But you don’t manage to sleep too much.”
Ironically, another Yale rower the same year as Tess, American Taylor Ritzel, will be representing the United States’ Women’s Eight Boat in London. When I asked Tess what it was like to be competing against a former teammate , she says,
Well, we’re really good friends, and we stay in touch. I’m excited to see her again. It’s going to be different racing each other at that kind of level, but I’m excited to do it. There’s no anxiety—we’re not going to pull any less hard because we’re rowing against a friend. In the end, we’re doing it for fun, so no one’s life depends on who wins or who loses.”
She pauses and then continues, “But I’d still like to beat her if I can. You see, the Australian boat is still a bit of an underdog, and I like it that way. The Americans are the favorites right now.”
When I ask her when she decided that the Olympics were her dream, Tess responds,
I can’t remember exactly when I decided this, but I feel like once I started rowing, the desire was always there. I never thought of doing anything else. For me, the Olympics are the pinnacle of the sporting world. Some Americans would disagree. I’ve had so many arguments with the male football players in the training room at Yale who would argue that the NFL is the top level of sport .”
We both laugh.
With a degree in economics from Yale and having spent some time working at the Australian Prudential Regulatory Authority, Tess found herself working different jobs than her academic training prepared for her after graduation. She’s been doing odd jobs to pay the bills for time on the water, since following another full-time career path wouldn’t allow her enough flexibility. But all this changed once she was selected to the National Team, and while she doesn’t seem to be making the salary she could make working a different job, she’s happy that Rowing Australia can pay for her basic living and travel allowances.
Soon, it occurred to me that for Tess, the difficulty of the next few years is not the pain of training close to 345 days a year or living on a basic stipend for a nonprofessional sport. For her, and for many female Olympians, the challenge is organizing her life—including her decision to have and raise a family—around four-year Olympic cycles. She says earnestly,
There’s a bigger clock ticking for female athletes’ life plans. In 2016, I’ll be 28. By that point, I’ll want to have a career, but then when will I have children? For men, you have the balance between the Olympic four-year cycle, your age, and your career. But for women, you have the four-year cycle, your age, your job, and children. Every non-athlete thinks about career and family, but suddenly, another limiting factor are these four year increments that are, well, arbitrary to the rest of your life.”
“But maybe I should get through the next couple of weeks before I spend too much time thinking about all this,” she adds.
Throughout the rest of our conversation about careers and motherhood , I can hear the voices of Australia’s rowers in the background of the hallway in the training center. Tess’s calm demeanor never wavers. Once in a while, I hear the whistling or humming of someone walking by. If I didn’t know better, it would be hard to tell that these athletes were training for one of the biggest moments of their lives—a moment that could change the rest of their careers and set precedent to Australia’s role in the rowing world. But in Italy, as Tess says, they were still shielded from the Olympic nerves, miles away from the Village, watching the clock tick.
Well, Tess, I hope to see you out on the water for the competition. Best of luck and enjoy every single second of London.
Watch Tess and the Australian Women's Eight Boat compete July 29-August 2.