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The wake from the Russians pounded the bow as the hearts of the four-man American crew pumped to the brink. In synch, the oars swiftly and powerfully ripped through the water. Engorged arm, back, and quad muscles pulled and pushed past ordinary limits, quickening the pace towards the finish line. Russia held the lead, with Canada close behind. The Americans rowed neck in neck with New Zealand, battling for third place. Two thousand meters blinked into two hundred. The Russian wake still crushed the American boat, as four years of preparation smashed into reality. In the final strokes, New Zealand nipped the United States bow by point seven seconds to clinch third place – a small sliver in rowing. John and Peter Graves, brothers representing the US national rowing team, and the rest of the quad would not be booking a flight to Rio.
At the time, fourth place mattered no more than third, where New Zealand stood. Only the top two finishers of the qualification regatta in Lucerne, Switzerland advanced to the 2016 Olympics. But two weeks later, the Russian boat failed a drug test for doping. The International Olympic Committee stripped Russia of first place and New Zealand slid into second, leaving the United States as first loser. “In the moment, it didn’t matter if you were third or last. The last 20 strokes of the race maybe we could’ve gone faster,” says John. “The Russians changed the whole race dynamics.” The Americans appealed the race, but were denied from Rio. “If you’re really far ahead, you start to wake the other boats,” says John. “In the lane next to Russia, we got crushed by their wake. Russia being in the race compromised the whole process.” It’s assumed doping is rare in the sport. With little money in rowing, athletes aren’t under the same scrutiny or expectations and pressures as in other sports. After a runaway victory at the US trials, the Olympic bid of the Americans would stop at Lucerne.
Growing up, John Graves never wanted to row. He stuck to soccer and basketball. His two older brothers rowed and he shied away. “I wanted to do my own thing,” he says. Even though John didn’t start rowing until late in college, the relentless training of his older brothers, Pete and Tom, inspired him early on. “We were always active, challenging each other in all sports,” says John. He played soccer at Trinity College, where both of his brothers rowed a few years prior. In the summer of 2009, John trained as a rower in Craftsbury, Vermont where he crossed paths with Nordic skiers and other endurance athletes. The elite atmosphere transformed his perspective. After watching his brothers win the prestigious college race at Henley, and later make the national team, John jumped into the boat full time.
Right out of college, John competed as a lightweight at 155 pounds. Naturally 175, John trained around hungry nights and a cutthroat diet. Burnt out, he almost quit. “I chose lightweight at first because of the perception of heavyweight being more difficult for a six-foot guy,” says John. Ditching the extreme cuts, he packed on pounds and competed as a heavyweight. He won his first single trial and hasn’t lost since. Running with the success in the upper weight class, he hasn’t forgotten his lightweight days. “I learned a lot about the body and depths of the mind, and how to struggle,” admits John.
Heading up to Craftsbury, Vermont, John trained with the Green Racing Project from 2012 through 2016. He worked around the center in exchange for meals, lodging, and coaching. The first summer at Craftsbury, John watched his brother Pete make the Olympic squad in London. After a disappointing finish, Pete didn’t row for the better part of a year. Not staying in shape, he drifted far from the boat. John watched his brother claw back to peak form, and didn’t want to suffer the same setbacks after Lucerne. “I’m lucky to have the experience of my brother Peter in the Olympics, but I didn’t want to get out of shape,” he says. “I kept moving.” John took a step back from organized training but lifted his endurance with cross-country skiing and soccer. “Instead of feeling broken down and melted away on water, skiing seems to have the effect of balancing and building up my body,” he says. When John isn’t carving the slopes or the water, he works for an investment fund started by a former national team rower. Engaging clients without sacrificing physical preparation, he can fully build up for races. “I’m very lucky,” says John. “I have the flexibility to train how I need to.”
With Tokyo on the horizon in 2020, John will emphasize balance and technique. “It’s easier to get stronger on one side of the body,” he says. “I want to do things slowly and well.” Dissecting body movement, John will row in a single until his partner, Ben Davison, returns from the University of Washington. Having rowed in the same boat at Lucerne, they will compete as a double at the championships in Florida later this year. Three years out from Tokyo, the duo has not mapped out their training yet. When John lost in the last chance qualifier at Lucerne, he vowed to solidify a spot the year before the next Olympics. The US had a chance to do so before Lucerne but missed the cut. “We don’t really have a plan yet,” says John, “Other than being good enough to qualify the year before Tokyo.”
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