July 12, 2012
Just about every kid dreams of standing on a podium, the National Anthem playing in the background as an Olympic medal is being draped around the neck. Every kid, that is, except California men's crew coach Mike Teti.
"My goal was never to go to the Olympics or win an Olympic medal," said the 1992 Olympic bronze medalist. "I liked rowing. It was fun. Boat House Row where we trained in Philadelphia was this historic part of Philadelphia. There were also all of these characters down there. You had all of these old guys with all of these stories about their world travels."
Teti, who was more focused on football and basketball in high school and was still playing hoops during his college years at St. John's, was lured by the tales from those characters he met after starting his rowing training at the Vesper Boat Club in Philly. The denizens of the club were members of the 1964 U.S. Olympic 8+ boat that pulled a stunning upset to win gold in Tokyo.
"The furthest I had been was the Jersey Shore," Teti recalled. "I had never been on a plane in my life. And then [after making the U.S. National Team] I am flying to Germany. I'm rowing and I'm in East Berlin, behind the Iron Curtain. Say that to kids today, they don't even know what I'm talking about."
Since that initial visit to Germany, Teti toured much of the world through globe. He was a competitor in both the 1988 Seoul Olympics and the 1992 Games in Barcelona before moving to the shore as a coach for the U.S. teams in 1996 (Atlanta), 2000 (Sydney), 2004 (Athens), 2008 (Beijing) and the upcoming Olympics in London.
Teti's first taste of the Olympics came in 1984 when he was an alternate for the U.S. squad in Los Angeles.
"As a U.S. athlete in LA, it was ridiculous," Teti said. "You were like a movie star. You were invited to parties with actual movie stars. We were treated royally."
Teti rubbed elbows with everyone from Carl Lewis to members of the Go-Go's and event attended a party at actor Robert Mitchum's estate.
Despite practicing and training in Los Angeles, Teti did not actually compete in an Olympic race until Seoul in 1988, when he won the bronze as a member of the men's eight, in what one would guess was the highlight of his rowing career.
"I was disappointed initially," he confessed.
The U.S. team had won the gold medal the previous year at the World Championships. Eight of the nine guys were the same in the 1988 Olympic boat. Expectations were high.
"The Germans were favored to win and they were leading it," Teti said. "Then right about 1,000 meters, we went into the lead. And the second part of our race was the better part of our race, so I was thinking `Oh my God, we're going to win again.' Then we took a couple of bad strokes. It happened twice, and they came back through us. We were just a little disjointed at the end. The Russians just nipped us at the line by 2/100ths or something like that."
The disappointment didn't last, however.
"When I got to the medal stand, I remember looking up at the grandstand," Teti said. "There were a couple of guys on the team who didn't medal that I knew. I felt really fortunate. This was an Olympic medal. Nearly 100 percent of the people in the world will never have one of these."
In 1996, Teti made the transition to the coaching side. The U.S. team, which hadn't won Olympic gold in the eight since his Philly boat house mentors accomplished it back in 1964, began making strides with Teti at the helm, building towards that ultimate goal. The 2004 Games looked like the U.S.'s best chance to end the drought.
"I had three eights win gold medals at the World Championships plus our U-23's won gold medals," Teti said. "When we assembled that [Olympic] boat, it was faster than any boat we had ever had - which made me nervous because I knew how good they were. This boat was a whole other level."
But he didn't want the rest of the world to know.
"You only have that element of surprise once," he chuckled.
The U.S. team skipped the World Championships, wanting to keep the speed of its boat a closely-held secret. As a result, the Americans were unseeded in the Olympics and randomly drew the toughest opponent, world-champion Canada, in the qualifying heat.
During the heat, Teti was riding alongside the course in a van with the other coaches, including Canadian head coach Mike Spracklen.
"You could cut the tension with a knife," Teti said. "Canada was leading and Italy was in second and we were in third. [Halfway through] we went through Italy, but Canada was about three-quarters of a length ahead. We started moving a little bit. Then it was half a length. Then three seats and then two seats."
And then the van stopped. With about 100 meters to go, the vehicle just came to an unexplained standstill.
"I jumped out of the van," Teti said. "I was looking. I heard the finish beep. Beep-beep. Really quick, one right after the another. I thought we lost. I couldn't really see the angle. I had this water bottle and I just slammed it on the ground. And then I heard this clicking noise. I realized I was standing right under the scoreboard. It's blank. I heard this click, click, click, click. I looked up, and the first thing it had was `One, USA. 5:19.85. World record.' I thought we lost and then we won. It's like you found $20 bucks in an old pair of jeans."
On the day of the final, the van managed to make it the entire length of the course, with Teti having the perfect vantage point to see his American team win the elusive gold medal. After watching the historical and monumental victory, Teti had held his own personal celebration.
"I jumped out of the van, turned around, grabbed my wife, went to where she was staying and went to sleep for the first time since 1998," Teti recalled with a smile. "Slept for about 12 hours."
"As an athlete and as a coach, whenever we won, I just felt content," Teti added. "It's just a tremendous sense of accomplishment. I never went to the party when we won. You can kind of feel content for about a week, and then you're right back at it."
These days, Teti's bronze medal and the two golds won by his wife, Kay Worthington - a member of Canada's four and eight boats in 1992 - as well as the Olympic torch he carried on two legs of the Torch Relay through Philadelphia leading up to the 1996 Atlanta Games, bounce between show-and-tell sessions for his nieces, nephews and the neighborhood kids. He alternates wearing one of the seven Olympic rings he has amassed, changing them out whenever one of them gets too beaten up.
There is one piece of bling, though, that he holds in especially high esteem. It is something he wears, appropriately enough, on the finger next to his wedding ring. It is a simple gold ring with a "C" on the face. Easy to overlook at first glance, it becomes clear why he treasures this piece of jewelry upon closer inspection
"This is passed down to all the head coaches of Cal," Teti said.
The nieces and nephews aren't allowed to borrow that ring for show-and-tell.