This year, heavyweight rower Clark Dean had traded in his sophomore year for the chance of a lifetime: the opportunity to row at the Tokyo Olympics.
Prior to making this decision, Dean had plenty of highlights since he started taking the sport seriously in the eighth grade. He won sculling in both 2017 and 2018 at the World Junior Championships, which prompted his selection for U.S. Rowing Junior National Athlete of the Year two years in a row. The following year, he rowed for the United States senior team.
After receiving recruitment offers from many top-tier schools, Dean decided to attend Harvard because he considered it the intersection of fantastic rowing and great academics.
“It’s very lucky for the rowers how the top rowing schools are also the top academic schools,” Dean said.
ROWING AT HARVARD
While Dean clearly demonstrated his prowess for sculling (rowing in a boat for a single rower) in his high school years, his freshman year at Harvard highlighted his talent for rowing in a crew. He stroked the varsity eight at many big regattas, including the race against Yale, IRA National Championships, and Eastern Sprints. When asked whether he prefers rowing or sculling, Dean hesitated before offering his thoughts.
“It’s a good question,” he said. “[Sculling] is very straightforward and very simple to train… [Rowing in an eight] is bigger, it's faster, and you're surrounded by your friends… There are pros and cons to each.”
By early 2019, however, Dean announced that he would not be returning to Harvard in the fall; instead, he would be withdrawing from the College in the 2019-2020 academic year to vie for a spot to row in a U.S. boat at the Tokyo Olympics. This was not a new idea, but rather, it was an aspiration that had been percolating in his head from a relatively young age that increasingly became more realistic with time. He said that he has “always kept that option open,” so he was mentally prepared to possibly graduate with a different class when he began freshman year. Although Clark is an invaluable member of the Harvard men’s heavyweight crew team, he received plenty of encouragement from his coaches to pursue his goals.
“The coaches here are totally supportive of the athletes in whatever they want to do,” Clark said. “It's about developing their athletes not only as rowers but as people. They were more than supportive.”
When the 2019-2020 academic year rolled around, Dean hit the ground running. The year kicked off with the 2019 World Championships at the end of the summer, which carried more significance in a pre-Olympic year by determining which boats qualify for the Olympics. Dean raced in a straight four, and the team successfully placed in the top-eight finishers and qualified the American boat for Tokyo. The American eight also qualified.
Although Dean was a large contributor to the American straight four’s success, there’s a catch: while Dean and his three boatmates qualified that specific boat type at the Olympics for the United States, he does not have a guaranteed spot in that boat. In order to earn that spot, Dean would have to train at the National Team Training Center in Oakland, Calif., with all of the other elite rowers who were competing for spots in the straight four and the eight. While it may help Dean’s case that he raced in one of the qualifying boats, he would still have to train and compete until final decisions on the boats were made in June of 2020.
TIME AT THE NATIONAL TEAM TRAINING CENTER
When the year began, Dean moved into an apartment in Oakland that was a minute’s walk away from the training center. He lived with two older rowers who had just graduated from Cornell University and the University of Washington respectively. While none of them had been teammates at school, they were all familiar after having raced against each other in the past.
A typical day for Dean while training in Oakland looked like this: he would wake up at 5:45 a.m. and have breakfast, and by 6:20 a.m., he would be launched for a morning row. At approximately 9:00 a.m., he would finish his row, shower, and start working remotely for a job he had started in the spring of 2019. Then, between 3:00 and 6:00 p.m., Dean would go to the boathouse again for either an individual workout or another row. At around 7:00-8:00 p.m., he would have dinner with his “rotating dinner club” consisting of his roommates and other members of the team. That schedule would repeat itself every weekday, and on the weekends, they would have a long row on Saturday morning and the rest of the weekend off.
AN EARLY START TO THE OFF-SEASON
When news broke that the Tokyo Olympics would be postponed to 2021 and that the National Team Training Center had to close, there were only 18 rowers left in the camp. Dean was the youngest rower by far; he had turned 20 years old this past February, and the youngest rowers after him were 23 or 24 years old. He said the average age at the camp was approximately 27-28 years old, and that some of them were just over 30 years old. Some of the older athletes were planning on retiring after the 2020 Olympics if they were selected to compete, so they are now facing the decision of whether they should continue training for another year. Understandably, Dean was disappointed by the cancelation, but he had more empathy for his older teammates.
“I definitely got off the easiest because I have school to go back to; I am now going to graduate right before the pre-Olympic Worlds to qualify for the next one, and it's absolutely not the end of the road for me,” Dean said. “A lot of people are in way tougher positions than I am.”
Needless to say, Dean’s training schedule has completely changed since the Olympics were officially postponed. While he was a couple of short months away from peaking, he now has to reverse his training schedule and essentially begin his off-season.
Dean is currently staying at his home in Sarasota, Fla., and the other rowers also went home until further notice. In order to take a break from the high-impact, repetitive motion of rowing, Dean is focusing on cross-training for now and is mostly running and biking. While it is unclear when he will begin rowing again, he has concluded that it “depends on what happens countrywide with the virus.”
From here, it is only natural to wonder about Dean’s next step: will he take another year off from Harvard to train for Tokyo, or will he return to school? The answer is that he is hoping to return to school to graduate with the Class of 2023. If Dean took another year off, then he would lose a season at Harvard, because he is only granted five years for four seasons, and now he has three years left for three remaining seasons.
“Harvard as a school, the rowing program, the coaches, and the team have already done so much for me that I definitely owe it to them to get my remaining three years of racing done,” Dean said.
Although it is now more difficult for Dean to qualify for the 2021 Olympics, his hopes are not completely dashed. “[The chance of qualifying for Tokyo is] definitely a lot smaller than it would have been this year, but it's not zero. I [also] have 2024, so it's not like this is my last run at it.”
Dean also looks forward to the prospect of potentially being back on campus again with his teammates and his friends, and he is excited to get his sophomore year back.
The Games are currently rescheduled for July 23–Aug. 8, 2021, but uncertainty remains as the questions of logistics and the rest of the COVID-19 pandemic loom.
— Staff writer Alex Wilson can be reached at alexandra.wilson@thecrimson.