It all began in the spring of 2006. Mr. Bradley tipped off Mr. Richards, inviting him to watch sophomore Mike DiSanto wrestle. That spring, with Mr. Richards’s encouragement, DiSanto started rowing. In his first season, he rowed on the third boat. That summer, he raced his way into the Henley Eight. And, in 2007, just 15 months after he’d first grabbed an oar, DiSanto helped Belmont Hill win a national championship in the Youth Fours. After graduating from Belmont Hill, he went on to race at Harvard and Oxford. Now, he is representing the United States in the Men’s Eight at the 2016 Summer Olympics.
Mr. Richards described Mike as “tough and determined… He loved hard work and loved competing.” Such qualities would pay off in a grueling year of boat selection that would land DiSanto in the American Eight.
Selection for the boat ran throughout the entire year. The group of Olympic hopefuls first started out in pairs in the fall and then moved on to fours and eights for the winter and spring. They would seat-race 2-3 times a week. Mike described the process as almost “barbaric,” as each rower was “racing to either continue [their] rowing careers or end others.” “There was a real purpose down there,” he added, as they were best friends and even roommates racing each other for just eight spots. He said that “it was tough, and no one likes to [seatrace out a teammate], but we all knew what was on the line.” The training and selection for the US Men’s Eight was, therefore, not only physically but mentally exhausting for every rower involved. Mike, however, after winning the National Selection Regatta in the men’s pair, was able to secure a spot in the eight. Now all the boat had to do was qualify for the Olympics.
The last shot at making the Olympics came at the Final Olympic Qualification Regatta in Lucerne, Switzerland. The regatta is known to participating oarsmen as the “Regatta of Death,” as it has been where Olympic dreams were often killed off. DiSanto’s boat, however, took a different view of the regatta. They referred to it as the “Regatta of Life,” focusing on their Olympic prospects rather than the possible negative outcome. The crew had been training for this moment for months, practicing two times a day and clocking in miles on the water and erg. And finally, the moment had come.
The finals had Poland in lane 1, Italy in 2, the US in 3, Australia in 4, and Spain in 5. A dogfight for the last two spots to Rio quickly ensued. Poland led the field by just over a second and a half going into the last 500 meters. The United States was just barely in a qualifying spot, a half a second ahead of Italy with 500 to go. DiSanto commented that the boat “hadn’t been rowing well at that regatta,” and that they were either “consciously or subconsciously defensive” in their rowing. But then, something kicked in. The coxswain reminded them what they were there to do, and what was on the line. The boat surged and was able to catch Poland in the sprint. A margin of .82 seconds separated the top three crews in the incredibly tight finish. But the US Eight emerged as an Olympic crew.
The Eight then stayed in Lucerne to race in the World Cup II. In the lower stakes atmosphere, the crew found a better groove and “just had fun with it.” With this mindset, according to Mike and his crew, they were able to row a better race. The World Cup was also their first chance to race against some of their Olympic competition, and they walked away with a bronze medal behind the Netherlands and Germany. Mike said that coming out of this regatta, “they would at least be in the field” for the Olympics. Nobody would be lengths ahead or behind the US Eight, and it would surely be a battle come August.
Going forward, Mike and his crew will be training hard for the Rio Olympics. They have more than two months, or more than 120 practices, to improve upon the platform they already have. “That’s a lot of time to get better,” DiSanto said, “and we’re going to capitalize on every single one of those practices.”
Mike described qualifying for the Olympics as just a stepping stone. Though they are happy to qualify, the American Eight is by no means done yet. After months of selection, months of training, the real race is yet to come.