February 10, 2009

Q&A With Coach Todd Pearson

Feb. 10, 2009

Q: At what point did you realize crew was going to turn into more than a one-year commitment for you?

PEARSON: The turning point for me was my freshman year - I was the ninth lightweight on the freshman team, and was fighting my way into a seat. Fortunately for me, a sophomore quit the varsity team, so Sully was a rower short for his 2nd varsity lightweight boat. I took that spot, but it was only supposed to be a one-week deal. The next week I would have a chance to seat race for the freshman lightweight boat. I spent that week rowing with Sully and the upperclassmen and it was great: it was the first two thousand meter race of my life. We beat Coast Guard's 2nd lightweights by four seats and I was hooked. I showed up at practice the next Monday and said to Sully, "If it's okay with you guys on the team, I'm happy where I am, I don't care about trying to get into that freshman boat." Sully talked to the guys on the team, and the upperclassmen were overwhelmingly positive about it, so that's what I did. I spent the whole year rowing with that 2nd varsity lightweight boat. We won a lot of races and we ended up making the petite final of the 2nd varsity heavyweight 8 at The Champion International Collegiate Regatta [now known as The ECAC National Invitational Collegiate Regatta]. It sort of all goes back to that moment where I just decided to stay in that 2nd varsity boat.

Q: What was your most memorable race, either as a rower or a coach?

PEARSON: As a rower, that first Coast Guard race was pretty cool. A couple other races that stick out are from my senior year (1998): The final at The Champion International Collegiate Regatta in the lightweight 8, where we rowed side-by-side with Boston College down the whole length of the lake and ended up losing by a bow ball in a photo-finish. We both ended up shattering the previous lightweight course record for that regatta, and they remained the two fastest times at that regatta until just recently. The next weekend, we rowed at the Eastern Sprints in a varsity level event (Varsity Lightweight Eight) for the first time in the school's history. We let nerves get the better of us in the morning heat - we just did terribly in the heat. However, we came back that afternoon and we ended up finishing 10th, and we were in contact with the boats that finished 8th and 9th. It was just an intense race. That was really the first time where we felt like we might actually belong at that level. As a coach, the year (2002) that now Assistant Coach Eddie Evans was a freshman was quite memorable. The 2nd Novice Eight, which Eddie was in, won their event at the New England's that year. On that day, I just knew they would not be denied. That crew found a gear, and it just clicked. In addition to the 2nd Novice eight, my 1st Novice Eight made the grand final at the New England's for the first time since 1994 on that day. To cap it all off, our Varsity eight won their event and the Men's team won the team trophy. I only worked with walk-on rowers in my time as the freshman coach, which is much different then what we have today.

Q: What about as a coach?

PEARSON: As a coach, you have a much greater sense of ownership in their success, taking them from true novices and getting them to the point where they are winning shirts and medals. For all those reasons, the 2002 New England Rowing Championship was a very satisfying day. What is the one thing you learned in your rowing career that you wish to instill in your athletes? I want my rowers to learn that there is no excuse that justifies quitting. When I was a freshman, my coach liked to say "if you pull hard, and you really tire yourself out, you're not going to die... you'll pass out before you die. Just because it hurts, it doesn't mean its going to kill you." Put more succinctly by Lance Armstrong, "suffering is temporary, but quitting lasts forever." So I think about that all the time. It's natural when you are pushing yourself to have that question pop into your head: "should I give into this pain, or find a way to push through it?" The one thing I want my oarsmen to do is push through that pain and to answer that challenge by not backing down. I think if you do that in a boat race or an erg piece, when you're faced with a challenge in other aspects of your life, you also won't back down from that situation.

Q: That leads us to another one of our questions, why do you enjoy running 50 miles, and what do you think about when you run for 8 hours?

PEARSON: First and foremost, I love being outside. I love the time I get to spend on the water as a rower and coach and I love being out in the woods. Most ultramarathons are raced on trails and the idea of spending a day on trails in beautiful places has always appealed to me. It was on a backpacking adventure with my wife, Annie, where I first thought that running 50 miles in one day was something that I could do and might find enjoyable. In another sense, running is how I handle my competitive instincts. Once college rowing is over, the outlet for your competitive instinct is gone, but the competitive instinct itself is not. Early in your athletic career, the coach will present you with a race or an erg piece to complete and you are forced into a situation that tests your will. When you are in the middle of it, you have that question come up: "how am I going to handle this? Am I going to back down or not?" I think many athletes eventually start seeking out things that challenge them on their own, and that's certainly the case for me. I seek out tests of my will. This year at the Vermont 50 Mile Ultramarathon, there were times where I was hurting - you can't run 50 miles and not hurt - and the question would pop into my head, "well, I haven't trained as much as I would have liked to, should I just drop out?" As soon as that question would pop in, it would be immediately answered with: "no way am I quitting this. How on earth can I come back to my team, whom I'm trying to teach to not back down in the face of a challenge, and have backed down myself?" There was no option for me - I had to finish the race this year. Ultimately, ultramarathon races are a reaffirmation of the competitor within me every time I get out there.

Q: Going back to coaching, what did you learn from Tom Sullivan about coaching?

PEARSON: I learned almost everything that I know about coaching from him. I've been fortunate that the two coaches I've worked with in my career are perhaps two of the best: Sully and Scott Armstrong. What Sully has that I've not seen anywhere else, is an incredible eye for the stroke. He sees things that most other people miss. Through his coaching and mentorship, I hope that it's improved my eye, so that I am able to spot things that will help make boats go faster. Additionally, he's an exceptionally good motivator and team builder. Just being a coach of the stroke is not enough to make crews go fast. A good coach will earn the athletes trust in him and also get the team to believe in each other, and Sully's very good at doing that. He's the best, no question.

Q: What are the goals for the team this year, both in what you hope to instill in the team and also actual race results?

PEARSON: It's much easier to talk about generic goals for the team, and that is to race fearlessly. What I mean by that is to push ourselves hard, and when we get to that point where we wonder, "can I do this or not?" to not be afraid to find out. If you get up to that line, and you're thinking, "this really hurts and I don't know if I can keep it up," and then you back down, then you've caved into the fear. If you get up to the line, and you say, "I don't know what's going to happen if I keep going and I push myself a little harder, but I'm going to try anyway," that's racing fearlessly to me and that's what I want our team to do. If we do that, I think our season will be a success. In terms of results, I think for regular season races, we have a new cup race this year, against George Washington University. It was donated by the Holy Cross Class of 2008 and has been named in honor of Sully. I'd certainly love to win that cup. Finally, I'd like to do well enough at the Eastern Sprints to earn the right to go out to Sacramento to race at the IRA National Championship with as much of the squad as possible. I think if that happens, then we've had a pretty successful year.

Q: Looking long term, if you look at where the program was ten years ago, competing at the New England Rowing Championships and ECAC Invitational Collegiate Regatta, to where we are now, racing at the Eastern Sprints, what do you hope to see in the next ten years?

PEARSON: In the spring of 1999, there was just a lightweight eight and a varsity four and we were competing at the New England's. To see the team grow from that point, to a full heavyweight squad racing at the Eastern Sprints, has been unreal. All the credit goes to Sully and his vision for the program and I am happy that I have been able to play a small part in our program's success. Ten years from now, I want to be a team that is year in and year out in the top 10-12 at the Eastern Sprints in every event that we race. I want to be a team that is in the mix for sneaking into the grand final. If you look at the list of schools that have won or medaled at the Eastern Sprints, it's a very select group. I had my eyes opened about the competitiveness of the Eastern Sprints when I first started coaching at Dartmouth. As I acquainted myself with the team, I went back and looked at their results at the Eastern Sprints over the past several years. Dartmouth is one of the few heavyweight teams that can actually call themselves Eastern Sprints medalists in the past couple of decades, yet the Dartmouth varsity heavyweight eight has been in the 3rd level final more often than the grand final. That just tells you something about the depth and strength of this league. It tells you just how hard you need to work to be successful at this level.

Q: We'll end on this question, what is your favorite quote or moment of Sully from your years rowing or coaching with him?

PEARSON: One of my first memories of him coaching was from my freshman year. As I said, I spent most of the spring of my freshman year rowing with the varsity, so I interacted with Sully on a daily basis. As you probably know, he likes to come up with nicknames for his athletes. In my case, I was "Okemo" for the better part of my freshman and sophomore years, because I grew up in the town in Vermont where Okemo Mountain is located. When I first introduced myself to Sully in the spring of my freshman year, he asked where I was from and he knew the town because he had been up to Okemo several times to go skiing. So, I was "Okemo" for the first two years of my rowing career. In fact, some of the guys from the Class of 1995, who were seniors during my freshman year, still call me "Okemo". You know, just classic Sully.