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2020 Vision: The Grit Behind The Glory

Posted by Zach Grossfeld on

Chest pain and tightness raise alarm for most. Add in shortness of breath, and the fear of a full-blown heart attack sinks in. Panic and sirens flood the mind of anyone unlucky enough to have suffered these warning signs. When John Graves feels the same stresses, only the finish line flashes through his mind. “It’s a heart attack on the water,” says Graves, rower for the US Men’s National Team. A self-induced flurry of muscle throbbing and lactate, racing two thousands meters on water blends the thresholds of power and endurance. No middle ground exists. Effort maxes out from stroke one. After blasting off at the start, the base rhythm takes over until the finishing sprint. “In the early minutes of the race I put myself in a massive hole,” says Graves. “I train well enough to hang on.”

To weather the hole, Graves trains year round, not peaking until the Olympics. With breaks in racing, he switches up the mode of aerobic training to rest his body from the rowing motion. He skis cross-country in the winter, and steers clear of the indoor rowing ergometer, or erg, when he can. Applying different physical and dynamic pressures than water, the erg serves best as a power feedback tool. “I’m one of the worst guys on the erg,” admits Graves. “It’s strictly quantitative. You can be fast on the water and get crushed on the erg.” In bearable weather, he always sticks to the boat. On frigid days, Graves rows 2 x 6000-meters to build endurance on the erg. He practices the 2,000-meter race sparingly, as the higher intensity wears down the body more harshly.

“In the early minutes of the race I put myself in a massive hole. I train well enough to hang on.” - John Graves

Ramping up to competition, Graves trains more rowing specific movements and energy systems. With skiing on the back burner, tests on the water dominate his schedule. Focus in the weight room shifts from pushing past strength benchmarks to staying in touch with his limits. “I go from five to ten reps of heavy weight, to circuit style training mimicking the loads of a race,” says Graves. He eats a high calorie diet year round to reap all the benefits from workouts. As a smaller guy in the heavyweight class, Graves can never eat too much. “I pack a lot of smoothies,” he says. “I top off the tank rather than fully replenish my body every time I eat.” Instead of long breaks between large meals, he keeps a steady energy level by chowing down more often.

To avoid injury and stay balanced, Graves has spent more time on mobility work this year. Once per week, he incorporates exercises antagonistic to the rowing motion for stability. He throws medicine balls for power, and uses Bosu balls to find flaws in balance. Graves spends extra time on hamstring strength and hip mobility to prevent rib and back tweaks. Never suffering a serious injury, he has been smart about backing off when his body tells him to. “I’ve been lucky to have coaches who are aware of minimizing injury,” says Graves. He received coaching, as well as food, housing, and travel accommodations from the Craftsbury Green Racing Project up in Vermont. Graves chopped wood, maintained ski slopes, and taught rowing in exchange for training time at this outdoors center. From 2012 through 2016, he called Craftsbury home.

“I’m one of the worst guys on the erg. It’s strictly quantitative. You can be fast on the water and get crushed on the erg.” - John Graves

This year, Graves has timed his training schedule around a job at an investment fund. John Chatzky, former US national team rower and founder of Swing Ventures, gave Graves the flexibility to work around rowing. Chatzky schedules his hours to coincide with races, allotting more off time in the summer. “It’s a good thing to have something different going on for me,” says Graves. “I can have options on my resumé for life after rowing, not just a void for 8 years.” The “swing” in Swing Ventures refers to the moment when the boat feels weightless, and everyone rows in perfect unison. Graves life on and off the water seems to be flowing towards a similar moment.

In a sport with limited sponsorships and income, Graves relied on his family before he landed the investment job. “Not many people are fortunate enough to pursue something like this without feeling that they’re letting their family down,” he says. “My family thinks it’s worthwhile.” Unfortunately, US Rowing does not financially support the quad boat class, which Graves falls into. The organization only funds the men’s and women’s eight-person boats, and the teams that medalled in the previous Olympics. Graves has been the fastest sculler in the US the past five years, but receives no funding having not raced in the eight-person boat. Not wanting the Olympic committee to give up on the smaller boats, he sticks with the quad, double, and single. “My dream is to earn funding for the other boat classes by placing high enough at the World Championships or Olympics,” says Graves.

In Tokyo, the 2020 Olympics will be Graves’ last. After the last race, he will step away from the sport. He taught high school history in his hometown of Cincinnati one year removed from college. Maybe he will teach again in a different aspect. After he and the boat spend some time apart, Graves wants to teach rowing as an athlete who escaped the lightweight pigeonhole. “I want to encourage people to not fall into the stereotypes of a heavyweight rower,” he says. “Let speed be the dictating factor.”

From June 12th through the 25th, 10% of your purchase of any product in our shop will go towards supporting John Graves. For olympic disciplines like rowing, funding doesn't always come easy, and elite athletes often times have to incur large personal costs to compete at a high level. The Frynge is proud to provide a platform that allows readers and customers like yourself, to have a direct impact in supporting athletes like John. So be sure to check back each week for new stories, gear and apparel!

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