Headed to Olympus

America’s foremost sculler, Guerette has a single motivation – the Beijing Games in 2008

Michelle Guerette was a portrait of relief after earning the world bronze medal this year.
Michelle Guerette was a portrait of relief after earning the world bronze medal this year. (VLADIMIR RYS/GETTY IMAGES)

By Barbara Matson, Globe Staff

October 17, 2007

She’s out there alone on the river. Michelle Guerette checks her onboat GPS, glances at the SpeedCoach, and powers through another stroke as her scull glides through the calm early-morning water on the Charles River. The air is freshened by a breeze that feels as if it might be blowing in from the ocean.

She is rowing to Beijing.

Guerette, 27, rows with blinders on. She is the favorite in the women’s championship singles this weekend at the Head of the Charles and, moreover, the top US women’s sculler. She picked up her second World Championship bronze medal in August after falling off the podium to fifth in 2006, and now her body and her brain are trained on the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. Her schedule is packed with training sessions and competitions around the globe, but each one is just more preparation for the Olympics.

“The Head is a fun race,” said Guerette, who has been competing in the Charles River regatta since soon after she began rowing as a Harvard freshman in 1998. The novice earned a spot on the Radcliffe varsity eight in the spring season. “Everybody’s coming to town. This year, I’m really concentrating on Beijing. The top competitors have to do this race with their long-term training in mind.”

Guerette paused, then grinned as she admitted the obvious: “Of course, we’re all going after each other.”

Her strategy for the familiar course, which changes its character with each change in the weather, is simple: “Just nail the turns and get some speed.”

The Head is a 3-mile race and the Olympic Games competition is a 2,000-meter sprint. That’s why Guerette calls the Head of the Charles a training race. Her schedule is plotted to bring her to Beijing next August ready to move out fast.

Guerette lives in Central Square, rides her bike to Harvard’s Weld Boathouse three times a day for training sessions, and works several hours in the afternoon at the Watertown Home Depot, part of the Olympic Job Opportunities Program. It’s a solitary life, but Guerette chose this path. She trained last winter at the Olympic Center in San Diego with other members of the national team, but she has returned to Cambridge to tackle the preparation alone this winter. Other US team members, including the athletes in the eight, are in Princeton, N.J., working out together.

“The Princeton group, they have each other to lean on,” she said. “I’m here kind of on my own. I do miss the team aspect.”

There are, of course, people behind Guerette, much like the ubiquitous telephone company whose employees form a flying wedge behind every cellphone user in television ads. Guerette has the support of her parents and brother and sister; her coach Charley Butt; Radcliffe coach Liz O’Leary and the other Crimson coaches; occasional training partner Stephen Tucker; the rowers at Weld Boathouse and at Riverside; the Friends of Harvard and Radcliffe Rowing and the Radcliffe Association of Rowing Alumnae, who have helped provide her with a racing shell; and even the other rowers on the Charles, who give her targets to catch in her solo workouts. She has the support of US Rowing and the National Rowing Foundation. They all will be crowded into her scull when Guerette takes to the water Saturday afternoon attempting to improve on last year’s eighth-place finish in the championship singles. She won in 2005.

“You know that thing Hillary Clinton says, `It takes a village’?” said Guerette. “That’s what I feel like.”

The support group has catapulted Guerette ahead, using its combined strength to fling her down the river. And after three years in the single scull, the former captain of the Radcliffe eight, who rowed in the quadruple sculls in the 2004 Athens Games, is comfortable with the technique.

“In the eight, the challenge is trying to make the team,” she said. “In the scull, the challenge is finding out what to do. In an eight, so much of what you work on is getting them all to match. In the single, you can cater to your own body type and your racing style. Push it out to the last little reaches of speed.

“In the single, it’s really about getting your body weight down the course. It’s almost like pole-vaulting down the river.”

That image is still vivid as Guerette says, “When you’re going along, it feels a little more static. It’s very much about your core stability, holding your body still while stroking. Sometimes when I’m doing a little cross-training, like rollerblading, I get thinking about the physics of it.”

Just as Guerette slips into the water every morning, noon, and night alone, there is a sculler in Belarus working every day to get stronger, faster, and there is one in Bulgaria, and one in Germany, and one in Romania. Guerette knows they are out there, rowing in their isolated stretches of water. Sometimes she wonders what they are doing at the very moment she is launching her scull for the morning workout, or stretching after a demanding workout, or riding her bike home to Central Square. What is Ekaterina Karsten doing that I am not?

Guerette’s first bronze medal at the worlds was a bit of a surprise – even to her, she said – but the second time she was third, in August, was a thrill. She had bounced back from the disappointment of 2006; she had righted her course. She was rowing to Beijing.

“In the [world] final,” she said, “it was everybody I had dreamed about rowing and everybody I had wondered, `What are they doing today?”‘

After the Olympic Games, Guerette anticipates going to law school, or perhaps business school.

“I’ve learned a lot about myself being on my own,” she said. “Even just managing the training schedule and working with Charley and the US Rowing coaches. I am doing the decision-making for a lot of it, and the opportunity to second-guess is there.”

Guerette, however, has found her way before. She arrived at Harvard as a tennis player, captain of her high school team in Bristol, Conn., just an average scholastic athlete. There was no overt sign of the ferocious rower who soon would break out.

“Well, you should have seen the tennis,” she said. “It was definitely some scrappy tennis.”