Crew is a sport where mere seconds can separate first place and sixth place, where a change in wind can mean a change in a win. It’s a sport where bodies meld together to become one machine that flies across the water for 2,000 meters.
It’s a sport in which you don’t imagine a boy from Riverton, Wyoming, growing up to become one of the best in the country.
I think what I love about Brett Newlin, 30, is that he didn’t grow up training and dreaming of the Olympics. He was in college, at Michigan State University, when on a whim he joined the club crew team. It leaves just the tiniest glimmer of hope for the rest of us, that we can still achieve greatness — perhaps we just haven’t found our sport yet.
Two weeks ago, Time wrote about Wyoming, with its small population and two Olympians, having the largest contingency per capita going to the games of any state.
The story on Jennifer Nichols, an archer from Cheyenne, and Brett Newlin, a rower from Riverton, brought national attention to the state known for producing elite winter athletes.
It turns out that while Newlin and Nichols both list Wyoming hometowns, neither actually live in the state. While it was in Cheyenne that Nichols’ father gifted the now 28-year-old with her first bow when she was 12, she now attends Texas A&M where she trains and claims her residence. Newlin, rows full time, home being where he’s training, often in California, visiting his parents, Mick and Pat Newlin, when he can in Wyoming.
Still, maybe because there are so few of us who claim Wyoming as home, there’s something special about hometown athletes representing the country, and our small state, at an event like the Olympics.
Nichols was already deep into training last week and couldn’t be reached for an interview. But I was able to talk to Newlin before he left for London — and he still has a 307 phone number.
When did you start rowing? I started rowing in 2000 when I was at Michigan State. In Riverton I swam and ran cross country. In college I didn’t think I was actually going to do a sport, but I missed the team atmosphere. I got a flyer at my dorm in the mailbox about joining crew. It turned out I was decent about it.
What did you know about rowing before you got that flyer? I was aware of the sport because I had a few cousins who rowed at Purdue, so I’d heard of it.
What did you like right away about crew? That I was good at it. They herded us to the boat house for our first practice and sat us down on the indoor rowers. I did a 2k (2,000 meters), which is a standard racing distance. I beat the assistant coach’s personal best on the first day and he said “You should probably stick with this.”
What do you think made you good at rowing? It’s a mix of strength and endurance. I attribute some of that to my swimming and running cross country. Being tall also helps. You can move the boat more with each stroke.
How tall are you? I’m 6’9”.
What is the key to a good stroke? A lot of people think it’s a big arm stroke and think we have big strong arms — which I mean we kinda do, but it’s really primarily a leg motion. We’re on a sliding seat so most of the stroke is pushing with the legs. So if anyone asks, we have bigger legs than arms.
When did you realize crew was something that could take you as far as the Olympics? My first two years my times kept getting better and my coach pulled me aside and said I might have a chance at an elite level. But he suggested I transfer to a school with a varsity program. (The program at Michigan State was a club team). So I took his advice and went to the University of Washington.
How was that experience different? The competition within the team. At MSU I had the fastest times by far. At Washington, my times weren’t even the fastest, let alone the fastest by a lot. I knew I had to get better and push myself even more if I was going to hang with these guys. The second thing was the facility those guys have — a nice boat house on the water, boats in great condition. It was nice not to have to worry about fundraising for travel and competition.
When did you actually start thinking about the Olympics? The seed was planted when my coach told me to transfer. My coach said if you transfer and succeed, you have a good chance at the 2008 Olympics.
What was your reaction when he said that? Disbelief. I never thought I could do that. Those athletes seemed untouchable. But once I got better at Washington and started beating guys and we started winning and winning at National Championships — well that gets you noticed. After I graduated (in 2005), I got a call from the National Team.
What’s it like rowing professionally? You train year round. There’s no off season. In college, it was this thing you did in addition to school. Now, it’s what you do.
Now you’ve been to the Olympics before. How did you finish? We fell short. We got ninth. We had a tough semi-final — the first, second and third in our semifinal got gold, silver and bronze.
In 2008, you went to Beijing in the four. Now you are racing in the men’s eight. How does that change the race for you? That just means there are eight rowers. The fact that it’s such a big boat, you have one little guy who actually steers the boat and he’s calling moves so all eight are moving together. It doesn’t change much in the rowing stroke. It’s a lot faster than the four. So the plan is to go fast and hold on as long as you can. With the 4, you have a longer race so you can fly and die, so there’s more pacing involved. In the eight, it’s fast and furious.
So what are your chances of bringing home a medal? There’s absolutely a chance for a medal and that’s what we’re going for. If we don’t come home with a medal, we’ll be pretty disappointed. If we didn’t’ think we were good enough, we’d be questioning why we were going. If we have our best race, there’s a chance of even making that gold. There’s a lot of boats that are right in that speed. We need our best race on the right day.
Who is your biggest competition? Germany is probably the favorite boat because they’ve won the last world championship. They’re the boat to beat. Then after them, it’s us, Canada, Great Britain, Australia and the Netherlands. Those are the ones that we have to be on the lookout for.
How is competing at the Olympics different than other competition? I’d like to say it’s just another race, but it’s bigger. Everything in the Olympics is bigger. You could be the world champions and no one’s going to care at the Olympics, it’s about what you do there.
Do you have any superstitions or rituals? I like thinking whether I do well or not is in my own hands. But on a kind of related thing, the one thing I do always bring with me is my Play Station portable. Aside from being at practice, you are just sitting your hotel room and biding your time. You have to keep your mind occupied otherwise you are stewing and thinking about the race and then your head is fried.
Do you get to see other events while there? After we are done competing, they make an assortment of tickets available to see other events. Last time I saw some volleyball, boxing and kayaking. One of the big differences from the World Championships is you are part of the whole big USA team and you get to go support your teammates in other sports.
Any events you are excited to watch or athletes you want to see? I’m always a big fan of track and field and swimming. I want to see what Phelps has left with those young guns nipping at his heels.
Has anyone in your family followed you in rowing? No, but my sister (Kristen Newlin, 27) has followed in my competitive footsteps. She plays professional basketball in Turkey. She almost made their (Olympic) team but at the last minute was replaced. Everyone was pretty upset. But she’ll be there cheering.
So you’re already an Olympian. Does the magnitude of that title ever wear off? I never thought, “Wow, I could be one of those people I saw on TV.” It’s pretty incredible. Last time was amazing. The only thing missing was the medal. And hopefully we’ll change that this time.
Check out Brett Newlin at the Olympics. Opening ceremonies are Friday and Newlin’s first race is Saturday.
— “Peaks to Plains” is a blog focusing on Wyoming’s outdoors and communities. Kelsey Dayton is a freelance writer based in Lander. She has been a journalist in Wyoming for seven years, reporting for the Jackson Hole News & Guide, Casper Star-Tribune and the Gillette News-Record. Contact Kelsey at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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