Friday, February 12, 2010
A Carlisle rower looks back on his Olympic days
An All-State lacrosse player in high school, Kent Smack of Red Pine Drive assumed he’d continue with the sport at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. But it didn’t take more than one day of tryouts to discover that Division 1 college play might not be his milieu. When a defender shattered his stick as Smack shot on goal, he decided to find a new sport.
His sister, a rower at Skidmore, suggested he try crew. Following her advice turned out to be a good move on Smack’s part: not only did it lead him to his wife Amy, also a rower at Hobart, but it would eventually land him a seat on the U.S. National rowing team at the 2004 Summer Olympic Games in Athens.
Over the next few years, Smack, now 34, discovered he had plenty of talent for sculling, both two-man and four-man competition. “In my first year at Hobart, I was among the top three on our team,” Smack recalled. “Athletes who make it into the Olympics tend to find their niche in a particular sport. I was lucky to find one where I really clicked.”
He went on to Rutgers University to work on a master’s degree in business and decided to continue with competitive rowing there. A Division 3 school, Rutgers’ program introduced him to different methods of training than he had experienced at Hobart. After completing his MBA in 1999, he went out to Vail, Colorado, to ski and learn about high-altitude training. It was there, amidst the other high-intensity athletes at the Vail Athletic Club, that he began to seriously consider setting his sights on the 2004 Athens Olympic Games.
Accordingly, he changed his focus to full-time training, and that turned out to be a mistake. “Ironically, that year while training in Colorado and then in Virginia, I was performing the worst I’d ever performed,” he said. “The problem was one of putting all my eggs in one basket. At that level, you create such pressure to be in topnotch shape and to be successful. It was an unhealthy balance for me.”
So Smack relocated to Massachusetts. A new job at a strategy consulting company, getting married and renovating a condo in Cambridge along with training part-time at the Riverside Boat Club in Cambridge provided the balance he had been missing previously. “At that point I started performing really well,” Smack said.
His coach at Riverside matched him up with a rowing partner and encouraged them to enter competitions at the national training center in Princeton, New Jersey. The two met with success so quickly that Smack literally didn’t know what happened. “I crossed the finish line with my rowing partner and said to him, “Wait, what did we just win?” The answer, he would soon find out, was a trial that gave them a place on the U.S. National Team and meant that they were bound for the 2001 World Rowing Championships in Lucerne.
They finished in eleventh place, which set them on a course for several more international competitions. A disappointing loss happened close to home in 2003, when Smack missed a first-place win at the Head of the Charles Regatta due to a technical violation concerning a misplaced buoy. Despite the loss, he caught the attention of national team coaches who wooed him back to the training center in Princeton and from there out to the Olympic Training Center near San Diego, where everyone was practicing full steam for the 2004 Olympic Games.
Smack’s attitude as he headed for the Olympic Training Center was still casual. “I thought it would be great to one day be able to tell my children I trained with Olympians,” he recalled, still not believing he would in fact be part of that team. “My attitude made it truly a no-pressure situation. I was happily married; I had a great job; I was very content with life in Boston and just thought this would be a fun adventure. But within a week in California, I was the top-performing sculler in the U.S. I clicked with the team and with other the rowers, which is so important in this sport; rowing involves so much synergy with the boat and with the other athletes.”
Smack believes it wasn’t just his physical strength that made him a valuable team member. “I brought a lot of flow to the boats I was in. I sat in the stroke seat, which is in the stern of the boat, where you set the rhythm for all the other rowers. I give my parents credit for all the music classes they sent me to when I was growing up. Eight years of studying violin, piano and drums taught me a lot of syncopation and rhythm which I later brought to the boat.”
Finally, just one month before the start of the 2004 Summer Olympic Games, Smack and his rowing partners headed back to Lucerne for the qualifier that would send them on to Athens in the quadruple sculls. “This time we finished second and were one of the first boats named to the Olympic team,” Smack said. “Besides getting married, that was one of the greatest highs of my life. It was an amazing experience to cross the finish line feeling drained and empty, and know I’d accomplished something I hadn’t even considered a year earlier.”
In Athens, the men’s quad neither won nor expected to win any medals, but it didn’t matter to Smack, who said being at the Olympics was every bit as phenomenal an experience as he imagined it would be. At moments such as standing in line to receive team clothing, he said, “everyone is put on the same playing field,” metaphorically speaking. “Andy Roddick or Michael Phelps might be standing right next to you and you’re peers, relating as one athlete to another. There’s a palpable sense of mutual respect because you’ve all made it to this point in your career. It’s awe-inspiring.”
Returning from Athens, Smack had already resolved that his days of intensive training were over. The journey from his first day of college crew to Olympic competition was 11 years long; he was 29 and ready to settle down. The couple moved to Carlisle in 2005, their daughter Madeleine was born that year, and their second two years after that.
Smack still participates in the Head of the Charles Regatta. He and Amy compete occasionally as a team, too. In Vermont they won the Green Mountain Regatta, for which the prize was a jug of maple syrup. Mostly now his focus is on family and career; he still works for the same strategy consulting company in Lincoln where his career began.
He also trains regularly in a single scull on the Concord River. “Usually it’s just me and a couple dozen herons. Once I saw a moose,” he said. “Someday I hope to get into coaching, when I have the time, but right now I love the privacy of working out all by myself, just being out there first thing in the morning on the river.”
The Johnstones – Dusty, who lives with his wife, Signy, on Russell Street, and their sons – have a long history with Olympic participation.
1980 Lake Placid: Dusty volunteers as member of the timing crew at the cross country ski events
1980 Lake Placid: Hans volunteers as forejumper for the ski jumping events
1988 Calgary: Hans competes in Nordic Combined
1992 Albertville: Nancy (Hans’ wife) competes in Biathlon
1994 Lillehammer: Dusty attends as Executive Director of the US Biathlon Association. (the sport’s governing body)
2010 Vancouver: Scott will attend as Nordic Combined coach for Canada ∆
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