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Ahead of National Learn to Row Day, Olympian Jamie Schroeder recalls rapid rise

Jamie Schroeder, an Olympic rower in Athens (2004) and Beijing (2008) hasn't had much time for the sport since he retired and began medical school, but the Roland Park resident will be back around the sport Saturday at National Learn to Row day.

The event, held at the Baltimore Yacht Club, gives him some rare time back by the water, where he'll be around potential rowers who are at the same level he was when his late-career ascent to Olympian status began.

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Schroeder, who is now finishing his residency at Johns Hopkins, spoke with The Baltimore Sun about his rowing, his rapid rise from the club level in college to the national team, and what type of person can succeed at the sport the way he did.

Learn to Row Day, something for beginners, is not the type of event people would connect an Olympian to. But you weren't a lifelong rower and ended up in the Olympics. How does a novice end up getting to that point?

I was a novice at the age of 19 at Northwestern University when I walked on the team there, and picked up rowing pretty much during my sophomore year of college. It's a sport, I think, definitely rewards people that can try it at any age. There's not a huge advantage to starting earlier. Younger kids have higher propensity for injury, in any case, and it's a better sport for when you're fully grown, in my opinion.

What type of person typically — outside of the tall and muscular — is able to pick it up at that point in their lives, when they're a little older?

To be successful, height does help. But it's not really so much just height, it's a racing sport and it's a sport that's based on power, power output. You really want to have a good power-to-weight ratio. Some of the fastest crews in history have actually been lightweight crews. If you look at the world record timing for straight four, for example. The straight four of Denmark had a world record that was only a tenth of a second off of the heavyweight world record, and that's just kind of an example of a group of ten guys, maybe around 5-foot-8 to 5-foot-10, weighing maybe 150 pounds, basically setting world records for speed. That just shows that with a good power-to-weight ratio, it doesn't matter if you're the tallest or biggest. It's just a matter of training hard and honing your ability to row and take a powerful stroke.

You say most people come to it later, but are rises like yours common? You went to two Olympics — are there a lot of people who started as late as you?

Absolutely. I think in my first Olympics, 2004, we looked at the eight and of the eight people, four had started in college. Bryan Volpenhein was a college rower, a college walk-on who never tried [the] sport in high school. He was probably one of the best rowers in that Olympic cycle. Wyatt Allen, I believe, came to the sport late. I think there are number of people who came to the sport late. There are people who were junior national team or did it as a high school rower, but when we did a rough calculation of the 2004 team, it was about 50-50.

Are all of them the type, like you are, who take to things very quickly? I saw you learned to play the tuba in high school just because you were the only one big enough to hold it.

I don't think I learned particularly quicker than anyone else. I think I took to the sport quicker because I had some natural advantages in my size (6 feet 8), and my particular path. I had a lot of slow-twitch muscles. I was a hiker and not a very good athlete, and I was very aware of my non-athleticism and very eager to correct it so I saw a route to do that by training really hard. It was a lot of positive reinforcement to do well at it. There were a lot of factors that led me to take to the sport quickly, but in general, the best predictor of someone who's going to do well in rowing is someone who's really willing to work hard and really wants to improve their cardiovascular fitness.

But how does someone who's coming at it later and walking onto a college team go from that to the Olympics in a relatively short time?

It pretty much goes by way of a machine called an ergometer. It's a wheel attached to a chain and you pull on the wheel that tells you how much power you're giving, and there's a little monitor that converts that into how fast your boat's moving. There's a virtual boat on the screen. There's something called an Erg Test, where you try to see how fast you can do 2,000 meters, which is the distance for the Olympics. On the basis of that number, you can get invited to try out for the national team.

Anyone has access to these rowing machines, and in fact they've become a lot more popular in the last five years because they are one of the core elements of crossfit. The crossfit phenomenon does it in these short pieces, one-minute or 500-meter pieces that intersperse with their lifting and cardio-vascular workout routines. So ergometers are actually quite prevalent now at just about any major gym you'd go to. So anyone can sit down on one of these machines and practice at it and try to get their score as fast as possible. If you get a certain score, you'll be invited almost automatically, regardless of your rowing experience, to come try out for some of these national team camps and various rowing clubs around the country. The magic number for heavyweight men is six minutes. If you go 2,000 meters in six minutes and you're a young guy that shows potential, they will say, "come and try out."

There's probably hundreds of people across the country that can get that number, but if you say you have interest, there's a good chance they'll find somewhere for you to continue your progress and find you coaching and keep on moving along developing you as a rower. I was very keen. I was with a group of guys on a club rowing team that was very keen to push themselves their absolute hardest, so I just kind of matched their intensity. Because of that and my size, I ended up getting to six minutes within one season.

On a club team like that, when does something like the Olympics come into mind? Was rowing a big part of your transfer to Stanford?

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I transferred schools, partly because of professionally, I wanted the Stanford collegiate experience for academics, which I think was excellent — not to say Northwestern's any slouch as far as a department, but Stanford is known for being exceptional. But it also has year-round rowing and has a varsity team. Once I made the college team, the Olympics didn't creep in my mind until I went to a pretty silly competition called an indoor rowing race, which is simply a bunch of erg machines wired together electronically and you do a virtual race to tell you who's pulling hardest on their machine. You have a big projector screen where they put all the competitors, and they try to fly in people from all over the world. They have an annual competition where they try to get everyone to compete on these machines, it's called C.R.A.S.H.-B. — unfortunately a competition that was originally started as a joke, but it's become a tongue-in-cheek serious athletic competition. The U.S. rowing team often sends several members, people that are in training full time , to just go in the competition to boost the rowing community and people that are training for it, and to show off their ability to pull hard and perform on command and be ready for a race. It's the middle of winter and there's not much rowing at that time anyway. I went to that competition my first year at Stanford and I won it. I beat all the guys who were already on the national rowing team — and they're not taking it as seriously as they are their other races — but at the same time it showed that I was at least as strong as the guys that were already on the national team. I said, "Wait a minute, maybe I should try out for this. Maybe I do have a shot."

And without getting into the incremental or the minute, is there any way to sum up two Olympic experiences as a rower?

The age between being a high school student or a college student and getting started in your career, everyone's in turmoil in your twenties. This was a very interesting way to continue on an academic path and to explore the world and to have just an incredible goal to set yourself on, to commit yourself completely to, so I felt very lucky to have a very singular focus during those years in my life and even better, to have them result in being able to go to the Olympics. It was by no means clear that I would make it as I was pursuing this, and it was made all the sweeter to have it come true and to be able to represent my country. But I was very lucky that this is a sport that's done at institutions of higher learning and I was able to continue with my academic progress as I pursued this goal. I felt very lucky for that.

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I was in medical research field, so as a college rower, I was able to get a bachelor's and master's in engineering at Stanford. I continued rowing at Oxford University in the U.K., where they have a very long tradition of rowing. Then I was able to continue working on my Ph.D. even during the Olympics. I started medical school after I retired from rowing. In medical school, the hour commitment is too crazy of a burden to support full-time training.

How have you enjoyed life in Baltimore since you retired?

I really like Baltimore a lot. I feel like I've had two entire sets of communities that I've been part of, almost three now, the first being the people that I've met through my wife who's a Baltimore native, her high school friends and family out here have made me feel at home from the time that I was first dating her, long-distance from Oxford, and dating as I was rowing and training a lot and traveling a lot. Then we got married after the Olympics, had our marriage here in Baltimore.

Just being part of meeting her friends, meeting people at her church, then of course when I started at Hopkins, there's a very interesting mix of people that are part of the Hopkins medical enterprise. Baltimore is a great city for research and medical care.

You've mentioned you don't really row as much now that you retired, but what's the rowing scene like here in Baltimore?

The rowing scene is predominantly down at the Baltimore Rowing Club. It's a perfectly nice place to row ... I did train there during the Olympics a couple times when I was based in D.C., but the Potomac River would freeze for weeks out of the year and I would come up on the weekends and row a couple practices in the Baltimore Harbor, which was not frozen and had the shipping channels where the ice would be broken up. I'd not miss a single day on the water, not even here in Maryland. They have a very passionate community of rowers.

twitter.com/JonMeoli

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