Perseverance his ticket to Olympics
Nick LaCava and his three boat mates spent countless hours in training, exerting the energy they had stored up in their muscular bodies.
Standing between the crew and an opportunity to represent United States Rowing in the XXX Olympiad was a daunting 1.2-mile stretch of water at the Olympic Qualification Regatta in Lucerne, Switzerland, last May.
The 2,000-meter event so pressure-filled and unforgiving that LaCava and others in the sport referred to it as "the regatta of death."
The crew needed a second-place finish or better to qualify -- anything less and their Olympic dreams would be shattered.
"It's pretty nerve-wracking because all the time you spent trying to get to the Olympics, if one thing goes wrong and you don't do well in the final or you don't make it to the final, you're not going to the Olympics. There's no second chance," LaCava said last week.
As it turned out, one chance was enough.
LaCava, a 25-year-old Weston native and Columbia University alumnus, and boat mates Anthony Fahden, of Lafayette, Calif.; William Newell, of Weston, Mass.; and Robin Prendes, of Miami, took to the water against stiff competition from other countries in the lightweight men's four and punched their ticket to the Summer Games in London with a first-place finish.
The crew conquered the course in 6:01.85, narrowly edging a formidable Netherlands squad (6:01.99).
At long last, with the chase to qualify finally squared away, LaCava let out a sigh of relief.
"(The regatta) was a great experience, but definitely it was something that I'd rather not go through again," he said jokingly.
A first-time Olympian, LaCava, along with his boat mates, will compete in the lightweight four preliminary heats on July 28 at the Eton Dorney Rowing Centre at Dorney Lake with an eye on reaching the finals on Aug. 2.
"It was definitely a big relief to qualify," he said. "We were really glad that we were able to go through that. Hopefully, we got some good experience from there, racing other crews, and hopefully, we get that later this summer."
`HE WASN'T A NATURAL'
Well before LaCava first stepped into a boat for the U.S. National Team, he was like many other youths, dipping his toes in a multitude of sports. He tried many -- baseball, basketball and lacrosse -- before finding his niche when he was 13 with the help of his mother, Zizi, who was a master rower at the Saugatuck Rowing Club in Westport.
Knowing that Nick had shown a sincere interest in the sport while attending races regularly with his younger brother, Lukas, Zizi signed Nick up for a beginner's program at Saugatuck with his friends from middle school.
He immediately grew fond of what the sport had to offer.
"Once I tried it, I really fell in love with it. I've been rowing ever since," he said.
But while the 6-foot-3, 160-pound LaCava has since catapulted himself to the pinnacle of the sport -- the Olympics -- his transition to rowing more than a decade ago wasn't necessarily smooth. Like many others, he took his share of spills in the water as a beginner.
"He was really a stick figure. He hadn't grown into his body. Some of the other kids were more mature and stronger. He wasn't a natural at it," Zizi said.
"It wasn't immediately like, `Oh my God, this kid is so talented and amazing, and he's going to go the Olympics.' No, it wasn't like that at all."
In fact, Zizi, who has been a member of Saugatuck Rowing for 16 years, recalled that when Nick was first allowed to test the waters in a single, he flipped the boat.
"It's like getting on a bicycle for the first time. He flipped by himself and he was hanging onto the boat for half an hour, and then I drove up," she said.
Undeterred, LaCava refined his skill set over the years under the guidance of his coach at Saugatuck, James Mangan, and remained in Weston through eighth grade, before attending Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, N.H., through high school.
There, while strengthening his physique, he continued rowing.
In his late teens, he joined the OARS (Olympic Athletes Rowing at Saugatuck) elite development program, where he was again coached by Mangan.
LaCava persevered, and set himself apart from the competition.
"He had to work really, really hard. He did it, not with this kind of obsessive quality, but he did it with a lot of joy. He loved it. He just loved it," Zizi said.
"If he didn't win, if he got knocked down or if something didn't work out for him or he had a disappointment, he would sort of pick himself up and dust himself off."
FROM THE PACK
Like many freshmen in college athletics, LaCava had yet to reach his full potential when he got his start with Columbia's lightweight rowing program.
"I definitely wasn't necessarily a very good rower. Even my freshman year, I definitely wasn't the best of my freshman class," LaCava said.
"College was really a good time to develop personally and just work and get a lot better."
And work is what LaCava did.
It wasn't until his junior year -- under then-first-year men's lightweight head coach Scott Alwin -- that LaCava distinguished himself as one of the Lions' top talents and showed flashes of being special.
"His ability to train and his ability to work was seemingly automatic," Alwin said. "He's just an incredible worker."
Alwin, who rowed at the University of Wisconsin and earned a gold medal at the 1999 Intercollegiate Rowing Association Regatta in varsity four coxswain and another at the 2001 Eastern Sprints in varsity eight, explained that LaCava's ability to focus and learn were crucial in his development.
"He wasn't an automatically intuitive rower. It's not like he jumped in the boat and immediately he knew what to do with himself and knew what to do with the oars," Alwin said. "The natural skills that he has that he really uses to his advantage are his ability to focus, his ability to work hard and his cognitive ability.
"He can really process information and understand a situation, and learn quickly from a few repetitions."
LaCava made steady progress while manning the Lions' eight-man boat and saw his tireless commitment pay off in his junior year when he finished first in the collegiate lightweight division at the CRASH-B Sprints World Indoor Rowing Championships in Boston. The next year, he returned to the event and finished a mere one second off the international title (fourth overall), and caught the eye of coaches.
"That put him on the radar," Alwin said.
After graduating from Columbia in 2009 with a degree in economics, LaCava took perhaps the most crucial step in his climb as a future Olympian when he accepted an invite to U.S. Rowing's lightweight four training group.
He was thrown into the heat of international competition that same year and finished 12th in the lightweight four World Championships in Poznan, Poland. He placed two spots better than that in the same event at the 2010 World Championships in Waikato, New Zealand, and made considerable progress in the 2011 World Championships in Bled, Slovenia taking fifth in the lightweight eight.
LaCava built up a strong reputation with his teammates.
"He came to the team pretty talented and real strong. He's one of the better guys who have joined," said Fahden, who got his start with the U.S. Under-23 team in 2008. "He's probably one of the most motivated rowers I've had the opportunity to train with. ... "He expects a lot out of himself. He's one of his harshest critics."
DREAM BECOMES REALITY
Selected to represent the U.S. in the lightweight four by coach Bryan Volpenheim, who was a three-time Olympian and 2004 Gold Medalist in the men's eight, LaCava has gained the trust and admiration of his boat mates.
"We all get along pretty well," Fahden said. "The discourse when we disagree is very civil and we're just interested in trying to make the boat go fast. Nick especially is good at that. Whatever tensions sort of occur on the water, he's very quick to leave them as soon as practice is over, which makes him very easy to work with."
He's blossomed in the sport and added another notch to his list of achievements in March when he won the lightweight pair at the first National Selection Regatta in San Diego.
"Other than making it to the Olympics, that's probably the biggest accomplishment (of mine)," he said.
After spending much of his time in Oklahoma City -- the location of his club affiliation with U.S. Rowing -- and Princeton, N.J., where he trained two to three times a day for six days a week since qualifying, LaCava left for London on Monday to live out his Olympic dream.
Those closest to LaCava never could have imagined that chapter playing out.
"Unbelievable," Zizi said. "You can't even imagine. I remember his last year of college when he said to us after a race that he was thinking of trying out for the national team to see if he could make the Olympics.
"I was stunned. It was just so inconceivable."
LaCava doesn't know what to expect of the Olympic experience, but he's eager to make the most of it.
"We've done a pretty good job but we'll see," he said. "We've all been to the World Championship Regattas before, so we think it's going to be kind of like a smaller version and there's going to be less crews.
"I'm hoping it will be a good experience."
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