Aug. 5, 2012
Pete Cipollone rowed for Cal in the early 1990s, helping the Bears capture a Pac-10 title as a senior in 1994. Soon after, he graduated to the national team and served as a coxswain on USA Olympic eights in both 2000 and '04, capturing a gold medal at the 2004 Games in Athens. Earlier this week, Pete, now a member of the Board of Directors for USRowing, sat down with CalBears.com blogger Jenny Simon-O'Neill for a brief Q&A session from the '12 Olympics in London.
Jenny Simon-O'Neill: Please tell us about your experience coming to Cal as a student:
<>Pete Cipollone: Coming all the way across the country to go to college - I'm originally from Pennsylvania - it was like being in a different country. I was an amazing experience to come and find that OK, they speak English. But I learned this whole new culture that is California. It's still the wild west. I loved the academics. It was really cool to be able to dig in at a much higher level than high school. I guess that's what college is for. But I enjoyed that.
JSON: Talk about your experience rowing for the Bears:
PC: We were not too good back then. It was almost like the dark ages. My freshman year, we were winning a race, which was a big deal then because we hadn't done much of that, and an oar broke, which never happens. That's when I said, this might not work out that well. However, the friendships I made in rowing are probably the most enduring thing. To tell you the truth, after getting my butt kicked in college, maybe I learned how to lose with grace, and it actually made a big difference in my national team career.
JSON: How did you transition from college to the national team?
JSON: On working with Mike Teti, now Cal's head coach, while he coached you on the national team:
PC: I was on the junior national team the summer between high school and college, so I got my first taste of international competition there. In 1991, which was after my sophomore year, I randomly made the Pan Am Games team. And I said, `maybe I can hang at this senior level.' I tried to make the Olympic team in 1992 and didn't make it. Once I graduated, I went straight to the national team. From 1994 until 2004, I was in a couple of different boats. I was in the coxed four the first two years, which is the last stop before you get into the eight, which is the Olympic event. In 1996, I came oh so close [to being on the Olympic team], but didn't make it. In 1997, I took over as the coxswain of the eight and stayed there for a while.
Mike is an awesome coach. The thing about Mike is that he can read people and knows how to push their buttons and really get the most out of them. Even years later, I'll be riding in the launch with Mike to watch a practice, and he'll say something and the hair on the back of my neck will stand up. Mike is really good at getting every last ounce of performance out of you. He builds tough racers.
JSON: How was your experience in Athens when the USA eight won the gold medal?
JC: 2004 was my second time around, and you can't mention 2004 without mentioning Sydney [in 2000]. We were heavily favored to win. We hadn't lost a race in three years. And we just blew up and didn't get a medal. There were three of us from that Sydney crew that made it back in 2004, and this random generation of new athletes - they were maybe two years out of college - just matured that year. We had all these young guys in the boat, but they were amazingly good. We got to Athens, and we knew we were fast. We didn't know how fast. It was also a loose, confident bunch, so it was very easy to cox those guys.
We went out in the heat and had drawn the No. 1 seed - the Canadians, who hadn't lost a race in a couple of years - and there was a raging tailwind. We both just took off and dropped everybody else. We went side-by-side the whole way down the course. We came out on top in the heat and set the world record. We beat the No. 1 seed (which I think got into their heads), and it got into our heads in a good way. The final was like a magical day. Everybody got a good night's sleep and was looking bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in the morning. We went down and our parents and girlfriends were waiting for us, so we got to see them before we took off. Right before we were about to launch, one of the assistant coaches comes running like hell and says wait, this guy wants to talk to you. And we look, and it's Carl Lewis. So Carl Lewis gives us this great pre-race talk. I can see in a couple of guys where there had been a little bit of tension and maybe a little bit of nerves, it melted away. Carl Lewis had us primed. We went out super-loose and super-relaxed. We were sitting at the starting line joking with each other. When the horn sounded, we took off. I wasn't expecting to get the lead until maybe the end of the race. We got the lead about a minute in, and at the halfway point, we had a three-second lead. I looked to my left and I looked to my right and I thought, if we don't screw up, we're going to win this race. You can't say that to the crew, but it was amazing. We got away from everybody. With a minute to go, the Dutch made a charge at us, and I just said to the guys, `You're one minute away from an Olympic gold medal.' And they just took off, like that was all they needed to hear. All the bad memories of Sydney were kind of erased when we crossed the finish line first.
JSON: Now in 2012, what is it like to be on the other side as a spectator and a leader of US Rowing and to watch the U.S. eight and its coxswain Zach Vlahos, another Cal alum?
PC: I was so excited for Zach. He's a young guy, but he's really got his act together. If he chooses to stick around, I think he could be in that seat for a while, which is awesome. Go Bears! As a spectator, it's hard to watch, because you get all the emotions when you're watching crews come down. Your hands are shaking and you're freaking out. Coaches often talk about that moment when they shove the crew off to go race and there's this sense of utter helplessness. I think we, who are involved in a support capacity, we feel a little bit of that, too.
JSON: Did you get a chance to talk to Zach or give him any advice before the Olympics?
PC:I did talk to him. I tried not to give him too much advice because first of all, he's a smart dude - and a lot of the stuff you figure out on your own. But the other thing is it's rowing. It's not like they change the rules or anything. As much as I like to give people free advice, I try to restrain myself from saying too much to Zach.
JSON: Please talk about your role with USRowing and what it means for you for the coming years:
PC: I'm the southwest regional board representative and the board elects a chairman each year, so I'm the chair right now. It's a volunteer position. My main job is to liaise between the board and the CEO. As far as a vision, for the next couple of years, what I would like to work on is finding a way to bring rowing to communities that haven't really been served by rowing in the past. We've had a couple of successful inner-city rowing programs. I want to find a way for USRowing to foster that in many more places. You look at the friendships that we talked about a little earlier and the life lessons that you learn about teamwork and putting in immense amounts of really hard work to only get to race twice in a year. There are all these great lessons that rowing teaches people. We need to get that out to more people.