There was not a sudden moment when Harvard heavyweight rower Clark Dean realized he could be something special — not a single race to point to, nor a random late-night realization. His potential was always growing, and this became incrementally clearer every time his efforts were tested.
By now, his prowess on the water is evident. The collegiate rower has postponed his sophomore year to train in Oakland, Calif., as part of the selection process for the United States 2020 Olympic team. However, the journey that led to him to Harvard and beyond began much earlier.
Dean grew up in Sarasota, Florida and attended The Pine View School which offered no school sports. Following the lead of some of his friends, Dean gave rowing a try in sixth grade with the Sarasota Crew team that was closeby. It wasn’t until high school that he decided to focus on rowing and give up his other interests in swimming and lacrosse.
“It got to that point where I couldn’t progress in a way that was ideal in any of the sports I was playing, if I didn’t pick one,” Dean said. “I think the things that hooked me about rowing, then, are still things I appreciate now. It’s a team sport so you get all the benefits that come with that while also getting to see how much you improve individually.”
In high school, Dean’s training took nearly 30 hours a week. His school schedule was changed to accomodate a two-hour training session in the morning and a three-hour session each afternoon. His school day typically began later than that of his peers, when he was often coming in at 9 or 10 am. By senior year, he was taking three of his classes online to compensate for his rigorous rowing schedule.
It wasn’t long before Dean reached a competitive level and was recruited to top-tier schools. In both 2017 and 2018, Dean was the junior world champion in the men’s single. This led to his selection as the US Rowing Junior National Athlete of the Year for two consecutive years. While high school athletes who have dominated on the world stage sometimes consider giving up their amateur status — which is necessary to compete collegiately — rowing is generally not a lucrative industry after graduation.
“There’s no money in the sport, and I was always planning on going to college,” Dean said. “The cool thing about rowing is that usually the most competitive programs are also the top academic schools, so it’s a great opportunity.”
The NCAA allows five official recruiting visits to high school seniors who aspire to row in college. While Dean took all five, he never saw himself rowing for any school other than Harvard.
“There’s really no other school that performs at the same standard academically and athletically that Harvard does,” Dean said. “It was pretty much my top choice all along, and after my visit I knew for sure.”
Last fall, Dean contributed immediately for the Crimson. The Sarasota native played an integral role in the top three competitions for Harvard, helping the team to a second place finish at Eastern Sprints and a third place finish at the national championship. The Crimson, with the aid of Dean, narrowly missed out on a sweep of the top three boats in the Harvard-Yale competition after the second and third Crimson boats came out ahead while Dean’s top boat lost by only four seconds.
“Every year the team seems to get better,” Dean said. “Winning those three races is definitely the goal. A few years ago we placed fifth at nationals, then fourth, and now third. To see the team grow its legacy and be a part of that is exciting.”
On a team as prolific as Harvard, rowers stepping away from the sport is not that common. Naturally, the only thing that could draw Dean away was an opportunity even more profound: the upcoming 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, Japan. Dean chose to postpone his next three years at Harvard in order to vie for a spot to represent the U.S. rowing team at the Olympics. Dean’s best shot will be in a bigger boat where there are more spots: the four or the eight. Contrary to making the team in a single, for which an official Olympic trial race is held, selections for the bigger boats is done by a coach after a rigorous process that has already begun in Oakland, California.
The selection process started this past summer with the U.S. competing at an Olympic qualifier event in Austria to be able to bring a team in each boat category. The U.S. was able to earn spots at the Olympics in all boats, and Dean contributed to the success of the four, and being a part of that team may slightly help his bid to making the Olympic team.
“Of course it’s still open to anyone in the selection process and nothing is going to be handed to anyone because of past achievements,” Dean said. “But it was obviously helpful to have been a part of success like that on such a crucial stage.”
Dean is currently living in an apartment with two other rowers trying out for the team. After spending the morning on the water, they each focus on improving their technical aspects and individual fitness. Realistically, decisions for the Olympic team will not be finalized until late spring. Until then, Dean will continue to spend each day fighting to stay in the mix, which has already dwindled down to sixteen.
“Last year when I was competing for Harvard all I thought about the whole year was how can I help our team be successful at Eastern Sprints, nationals, and Harvard-Yale,” Dean said. “It’s pretty different here because each day I have to find a way to be successful. It can be stressful.”
Although parts of the selection process are somewhat unfamiliar for Dean, this weekend he will find himself in an atmosphere he knows well. The group of Olympic contenders are in Cambridge this weekend, splitting into two eight boats for the Head of the Charles.
“I don’t know which eight I’ll be in or who else will be in my boat yet,” Dean said. “But I know I’m going to be there which is exciting.”
No matter the outcome of Dean’s Olympic quest, he will resume rowing for the Crimson next fall as a sophomore.
“Being a rower at Harvard while also getting to shoot for the Olympics is definitely an opportunity I’m grateful for,” Dean said. “Everyone has been so supportive. Chasing my goal meant stepping away temporarily but I’m definitely always proud to say I row at Harvard.”