They train 3,000 miles and three time zones apart. Yet in the early mornings and evenings, for six hours each day, Xeno Müller and Jamie Koven are slowly, rhythmically, muscling toward the same vision. They row at Newport Beach, California, and Boston, Massachusetts, but before them they see the waters off Sydney, Australia, the city that next year will host the Games of the XXVII Olympiad.
Müller and Koven are royalty in the world of competitive rowing, a sport so overlooked by the media that the joke among oarsmen is that, if you want to get on television, stand beside the women gymnasts. Both men have won gold in top international events, but each man dreams of the prize ahead: the Olympic 2000 gold medal for the best single sculler in the world. There are, however, many men whose ambition is to stop them, for the single scull is widely seen as the rower's ultimate proving ground. As Christopher Wood, one of rowing's top scullers in the 1980s, told author David Halberstam: "You could be on a championship eight that won all its races, but you might be only the fifty-fifth best oarsman in the country. But the single sculler is the best, and everyone in the world of rowing knows it." So many aspire to be the best that single sculling may be the sport's most competitive event. At the World Championship held in August at St. Catharines, Ontario, for example, thirty-two men entered the single sculls competition; six were former Olympic or world champions.
Though Müller '95 and Koven '95 are each an obstacle to the other's ambitions, the two were close friends at Brown. Both rowed on the University's historic crew of 1993, which was arguably the greatest heavyweight boat in U.S. intercollegiate rowing history. After graduation, Müller won, for Switzerland, the singles gold medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, and Koven took the World Championship for the United States the following year in France. Whatever their relationship six years ago, they are competitors today. Between them and the 2000 Olympics is a series of wars, and in the wars of the single scullers, no prisoners are taken.
Though Müller and Koven differ profoundly in personal history and outlook, their obsession overlaps around the word commitment, around how they got it and around the complex way they must now maintain it. Like their fellow champions, they battle distractions for a world-class training schedule, but unlike many of their competitors, they are simultaneously preparing themselves for lives as husbands, fathers, and businessmen - life after rowing.
Their companions are no longer teammates but wives and, in Müller's case, children. Müller's wife, Erin, a graduate of the University of California at Irvine, was working as paralegal in immigration work when Xeno met her at the Newport, California, Aquatic Center, where he trains. They married five months later, and now Erin cares for their children: Georgia, who is almost two, and Xeno Jr., who is a mere six months old. Müller, an international-relations concentrator at Brown, sees himself increasingly as his family's provider. Of his wife, Müller, who still retains his Swiss citizenship, says, "If she has to work to support my rowing, I will quit." For his part, Koven, an engineering concentrator who is now a financial analyst at Boston's State Street Capital Corporation, stepped toward his future when he married Sophie Coquillette '97 in February. A project analyst at the Boston law firm of Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky & Popeo, she is, like Jamie, emotional and hard-working. At their wedding, Coquillette's former campus roommate Brook Gomez '97 described her to a New York Times reporter as "very disciplined. There's nothing that will alter her everyday regimen."
The lives of Müller and Koven are certainly more complex now than they were in 1992 and 1993, when there appeared at Brown what sportswriters love to crown a dynasty - a team overrun with talent, both in the present and for years to come. Not considered in that optimistic judgment, unfortunately, is that injuries and defections change teams without notice.
Coach Steve Gladstone's 1993 varsity eight was such a dynasty. Four oarsmen had international-championship experience, and the four others were only slightly less talented. The crew rowed through everyone they met. They broke records while winning all the head-of-the-river races in the fall of 1992 as well as the dual races the next spring. They became the first crew ever to win, in the same season, America's triple crown of rowing: the Eastern Sprints, the Intercollegiate Rowing Association Championship, and the National Championship. As if that were not enough, the varsity-eight crew was invited to rowing's premier international event, England's Henley Royal Regatta, where it won the Ladies Plate Challenge Cup. Meanwhile, the Brown freshmen, coached by Scott Roop, were only slightly less successful. The squad fell one win short of an undefeated 1993 season, their one loss coming in the semifinals of the Henley's Thames Challenge Cup.
Of such success are dynasties born, sustained, and often lost.
Koven and Müller were key members of both those uniquely successful crew teams, whose coaches know the talents of the two men as well as anyone. Today Gladstone is the head coach at the University of California at Berkeley, and Roop has succeeded him at Brown. Roop has also been Koven's personal coach during his transition to single sculling, and because of this he is now reluctant to compare his two competing friends. Gladstone, however, willingly speaks out. "Jamie has about the strongest attitude towards the team of anyone I've known," Gladstone told U.S. Rowing in 1997 after Koven had surprised everyone, including himself, by winning the World singles title in his first attempt. "Jamie is physically gifted, very driven to win. He appears to be laconic, but he really isn't. Behind his few words is someone who sees the big picture in rowing. He knows how to win."
"Xeno is training, always, to be the best in the world," Gladstone says. "He is the real thing, real quality, never disguises his feelings. He is a sweet, gentle human being, but when he suggests that any medal is a good medal, I repeat: he is training to be the best in the world. The gold matters."
It was Müller who broke the Brown varsity-eight dynasty, however, when in 1993 he decided to return to single sculling. It was a decision Gladstone did his best to discourage. "He disappointed me tremendously," the coach says. "I told him it was a big mistake; he owed it to the crew and his teammates to row another year with them. I told him he would be sorry if he went it alone."
Gladstone pauses, then adds, "He proved me wrong. Absolutely and positively dead wrong."
Brown's crew continued to do well in two succeeding years, just as Müller had predicted it would, but he was now training on the Seekonk River in a single out of the Narragansett Boat Club. Müller rowed the same river as the Brown varsity crew for the next two years. But it wasn't the same. Like him or not - and a few at the time did not - Müller's exuberance, articulateness, experience, and natural team leadership, to say nothing of his tremendous talent, proved impossible to replace.
For experienced rowers, the difference between competing in the single and as part of a heavyweight crew is both technical and mental. Mostly it's the latter. The single scull Müller grew up with and Koven later adopted is made of a variety of composites, such as carbon, Kevlar, and fiberglass. It weighs at least thirty pounds and is between twenty-two and twenty-six feet long. An eight-oared heavyweight shell, by contrast, is about sixty feet long and, though made of the same materials as a single scull, it weighs about 200 pounds.PICK A DAY WHEN IT'S CALM
Training in a single scull can be tedious and painful, but, according to Xeno Müller, it can also be beautiful, as in this memory of rowing along the Seekonk River.
"There's a lighthouse around Barrington, and from the boathouse on the Seekonk, it's an hour out and an hour back - two hours of rowing," he recalls. "Pick a day when it's calm. You go out there and glide along, and every stroke you take propels you as if you're on an enormous ice rink. You get into a groove, sort of a trance. Your heart rate is 75 to 80 percent of maximum. Somehow, you start to think about other things, about rowing...I want to be the best...I want to be the best and be happy. I want harmony. I want freedom in my life, not the rat race.
"As I am thinking, I hear the quietness. I feel the loneliness on the water. You think about the Rocky movies, Sylvester Stallone exuberant and competitive. He is a guy with a goal to be a champion. Can he do it?
"If you can row in such a way that you are oiling each of the parts of your body's engine, the shell will go smoothly. The blade catches the water with not much of a splash. You have a nice draw in the water - an arrhythmic rating of a stroke every twenty-three seconds. You are breathing rowing. You are breathing life around you, a sea gull here, an occasional sea lion there. It is a wonder."
HOW THEY MATCH UP
Over the past year or so, the international competition in the single sculls has been so fierce that no one has emerged as a dominant champion. The top rowers are so closely matched that who wins the gold at a particular competition often depends on who feels best that day.
In the World Championships held at the end of August in St. Catharines, Ontario, for example, New Zealander Rob Waddell strengthened his claim as the best by setting a new senior world's record while capturing the gold medal and ensuring that Xeno Müller, who finished more than four seconds behind him, would have to settle for the silver. Unfortunately, Jamie Koven finished fifth in his final, well out of the running for a medal, and capturing the eleventh - and last - qualifying spot for the 2000 Olympics. (Also competing in Ontario was Nikola Stojic '97, who, despite winning is C final, finished fifty seconds slower than Müller and so did not qualify for Sydney.)
How do Müller and Koven match up in head-to-head competition? Müller has the definite edge, but it's still early. Koven only began competing in the single sculls in 1997, the year he created a sensation by winning the World Championships and the same year that Müller took a break from competition after winning the gold in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
That means that the two men have only been competing against each other for two years, and they don't always enter the same races. Over the past two years, for example, Koven has finished either first or second in the Diamond Challenge Sculls at the Henley Royal Regatta, a competition Müller skips. In 1998, though, the two men did face off in the World Championships and the World Cups. In the World Championships, Koven finished eighth overall, and Müller won the silver behind Rob Waddell. In the World Cup, Koven again only made the B final, where he finished second, while Müller this time won the gold and Waddell the silver. In this year's World Cup Championships, which were held in Müller's native Switzerland, neither man won a medal, but Müller finished second and Koven fourth in their B final. - Norman Boucher
The single sculler rows with two oars, while each crew member of a heavyweight shell pulls one. In both craft, the oarsmen face the stern; what they see is where they've been and what crews are behind them. The heavyweight eight has a coxswain, who steers the boat and sets the pace based on his view of the others in the race. In a single you're on your own. If there are buoys and lanes, row in them. If not, look over your shoulder now and then.
The real contrast between these two competitive forms of rowing is mental. A heavyweight crew is a chamber orchestra of eight players, all playing from the same music sheet with the coxswain as conductor. There can be no soloists, no discordant notes. To belong to a crew is to give up your individual identity, to act as one. Win or lose, you are part of a collective; one learns to share everything, especially victory and defeat.
The single sculler is an aquatic cowboy, a virtuoso. When you take it up, it's yours alone. You own the victory or the defeat. You have no teammates to blame, no crewmates with which to celebrate or mourn. The long hours of training are yours alone. There are no scheduled practices except the ones you set for yourself. You set your own alarm clock for early morning, for late afternoon and evening, and you determine how many more hours of agony you can withstand in the gym, on the pavement, or on the water. Daily.
When Müller arrived at Brown in 1991, he brought with him a European education and experience, as well as early success in a single. Born in Zürich, Müller attended schools in Switzerland, France, Spain, and Germany before coming to the United States. He eventually learned four languages. His mother was a competitive tennis player, but her young son couldn't stop bashing the ball out of the court. Then some kid told Müller his hands were so big he could row a shell without the oars.
Müller is quick to say that his parents did not demand success from him, though his father explained to his son's Swiss rowing coach that "Xeno is an uncut diamond, and don't tell me otherwise. He is going to be good." When Müller was sixteen, he had been training for only two years, but his father, a manager in an international business, suggested he enter the Swiss national singles championship in his age group. Müller finished an astonishing second.
In 1989, Müller attended the Junior World Championships in Szeged, Hungary. He was intrigued by the American junior eight-oared crew - how the eighteen-year-olds were moving off the dock, how the coxswain ordered his rowers, and how they all spoke the specialized language of rowing. "I wanted to connect with them," Müller recalls today. By chance, Müller took a shuttle back to his hotel that day and sat down beside an American. Müller decided to try out his English on the man, who turned out to be Val Ferme '84, the freshman crew coach at Brown.
"We chatted about rowing," Müller recalls, "and I think he looked at me and saw someone who was six-foot-three, 200 pounds, interested in rowing, and hoping to come to America. As we got off the bus, I quickly wrote my name and address on his airline boarding pass and thought I would never hear from him again."
Months later Müller's phone rang. It was Ferme. He and Gladstone were recruiting oarsmen for Brown and hoped Müller would consider applying. Sometime later the Brown admission viewbook arrived in Switzerland. Müller saw guys running up a steep hill wearing Brown crew shirts. He studied pictures of Benefit Street and the architecture of Providence. Brown is the door to the United States, he thought.
"In America, and at Brown, I was able to be the person I wanted to be," he says. "Suddenly I was part of an athletic team in an educational institution where everyone had the same academic pressures and schedule that I did. I had changed countries so often and always felt I was an outsider. Everyone at Brown came from somewhere else. I wasn't with dumb people who rowed, or smart people not into athletics. I had both smart people and sports."
In 1993, however, Müller endured a personal crisis that almost ended his rowing career. His father, who had guided him so closely, had died the previous December. Müller was now overweight and bothered by a persistent back injury. He thought about leaving his sport altogether, but he remained with the crew for what would be the most successful Brown rowing season in history. But that was it.
"That summer after Henley," he says, "I bombed in the singles in the Czech Republic to a guy who was five years older than I was and mentally twelve years younger. It was the first time in four years that I could not qualify as a single sculler in the World Championships. My father knew he would not be alive by the 1996 Olympics and hoped I would win a medal in the 1992 games. In Switzerland, I had to again establish my superiority and repair my identity."
Money was also an issue. Without his father's income, Müller feared that his main sponsors - the Swiss Sports Foundation, an Austrian energy drink named Red Bull, and a Swiss cereal company - would drop him. The 1996 Olympics became a mission. Müller reached the pinnacle of his career thus far by winning the Olympic Gold that year. "I wasn't thinking of my father when I crossed the finish line first in Atlanta," Müller says, "but I unconsciously blew a hand kiss to the sky when it was over. It was for him."
Unlike Müller, Jamie Koven stayed with the varsity eight at Brown. In his sophomore year, he made the U.S. National heavyweight crew, which won the 1993 World Championship, but lost three years later in Atlanta. While Müller won the gold in the singles, Koven's crew finished a distant fifth. "It was my dream to win the Olympic medal then, and it still is," Koven says. "The Olympic defeat was a great disappointment. We didn't put together the best race when it mattered. It left a very bad taste in my mouth at a time when I knew I would retire from rowing eights. Singles soon became a new way for me to continue rowing."
And continue he did. He entered rowing's most competitive society in excellent physical condition and with a determination to look ahead. He also asked Scott Roop, his former Brown coach, for help; in fact, Koven gives Roop credit for helping him make the transition to single sculls so successfully. Atlanta receded into history. Koven was now having fun.
And no wonder. Success on the water has long run in the family. Koven's father and brother Charlie both rowed for Yale; his brother Gus '93 was a member of the Brown crew. In the late 1800s, Koven's great-grandfather was a "waterman" on the West Coast, a profession that required going out to meet large ships coming into port and offering whatever services the captains needed. Whoever rowed out there fastest got the business. Koven's great grandfather founded what is now Crowley Maritime, a shipping, tug, and barge operation with 5,000 employees. Crowley is also one of Koven's sponsors, along with Princeton Financial System, a subsidiary of Boston's State Street Bank.
Roop says Koven immediately took to the world of single sculling, of being on his own, of having it his way. "Jamie isn't a big talker when it's about himself," says Roop, "but he has a lot to say in most other situations. He is driven. I don't pressure him; in fact, I try to relieve the pressures sometime. He isn't a horse you have to whip to get moving."
In France, Koven told reporters he had no idea how he would do in the 1997 World Championship. He was classified a novice among single scullers, which suited him just fine: he could relax and do well. Koven had a race plan that had originated during his freshman days at Brown. At the Intercollegiate Rowing Association championships in 1992, Koven's freshman crew got a bad start in the finals, trailing a good University of Washington eight by several 'seats' at the halfway mark. At exactly 1,000 meters in the race, Koven and his teammates went into a signature Brown maneuver called The Bruno, a dramatic power move in which each oarsmen rows as fast as humanly possible for twenty strokes. At the end of the maneuver - which covered about 200 meters that day - the Brown boat not only made up the loss but was several boat lengths ahead of the Huskies. There was still open water between the crews when Brown crossed the finish line first.
At the 1997 World Championship singles final, Koven trailed early, but at 1,000 meters, he pulled himself up in the shell and began a Bruno. "When I made the move," he later told the press, "I gained an entire boat length on the field in twenty strokes. With 500 meters to go, I still thought, 'There's no way I'm going to get a medal.' With 250, I knew I had won." Koven won by 2.5 seconds, a significant margin in world-class competition. The bad taste he had acquired in Atlanta was gone from his mouth.
"When people describe James Waring Koven, the word colossal comes up over and over," wrote New York Times reporter Lois Smith Brady in her February wedding-page feature on Jamie's marriage. "He has colossal lungs, friends say, and always eats colossal meals. He travels with a gigantic duffel bag, which his teammates call the Blob. It holds everything from sweat pants to novels to Powerbars." Sam Casperson '95, a childhood friend, remembers that Koven had a colossal build even in eighth grade: six feet, 175 pounds.
Koven acknowledges the influence of Müller, who gladly helped the new freshman at Brown. Müller's longer and more varied European experience gave him a perspective that Koven tried to emulate, even as he tried to beat his teammate. As a freshman, Koven had no idea whether he had the ability to make the U.S. National crew. Müller, meanwhile, had already made the Swiss Olympic team; he encouraged Koven to get better and try out for the U.S. National boat.
Müller's shadow continues to loom large; he has finished ahead of Koven whenever they have competed over the last year. But Koven during that time has had to overcome the pain of swollen back and hip joints, caused by a congenital form of reactive arthritis. He nevertheless got back into action in February, testing his condition during a four-mile, season-opener race on the Thames near London. His back did well; he finished second. At the Royal Henley in July, Koven, the defending champion in the Diamond Sculls, finished second to German Marcel Hacker, and a week later at the World Cup in Lucerne, Switzerland, he had to settle for fourth in the B final. Xeno Müller finished second. At the World Championships in August, both men qualified to represent their respective countries in the single sculls at the 2000 Olympics, though Koven struggled while Müller captured the silver medal.
Rowing is a majestic sport that is as much cerebral as it is physical. Yet many observers, such as those those who contributed to David Halberstam's seminal 1985 book on rowing, The Amateurs, claim that big-time rowing is characterized by athletic Type A killers for whom victory is the only game in town. Koven and Müller defy that description: they are winners, not machines. Koven, for example, says that his relationship with his wife, Sophie, has helped put rowing into perspective. "Sophie gives me the inspiration to do things for her," he says. "When I come across a beautiful sunset on the river, I row on and think about her and how I can share it with her. Life and rowing are more meaningful. She's happy for me, but if I decided to quit tomorrow, she wouldn't object."
Xeno Müller's new priorities are evident on the home page of his Web site (www.xenomuller.com). There are, of course, links to various rowing-related materials and photos of Müller and of his gold medal from the Atlanta Olympics. But one close-up is of daughter Georgia and one is of son Xeno Jr.; underneath them is the caption: "Here are our two little dynamites who keep us going and going." Deeper into the site, Müller answers a number of frequently asked questions, including one about the effect of two young children on his training. "I should believe that whatever does not kill you makes you stronger," he replies, "or sleepier in this case. At the moment, it is pretty tough to wake up in the morning and go train. But I know how miserable I am going to feel...during a 2,000-meter race if I don't knuckle down and suck it up."
Pretty dangerous distractions for two champions, perhaps, but whatever their futures as rowers, Koven and Müller know they already own The Gold.
Robert A. Reichley, a former editor of this magazine, also served Brown as executive vice president and secretary.