Jul 17 Nichols: Engineering a Route to Gold

By Doug Williams | July 17, 2012, 11 a.m. (ET)
Julie Nichols

The left side of the brain is all about analysis, logic and organization, so it’s no wonder rower Julie Nichols jokes that her gray matter is a little “lopsided.”

Nichols, who left her California home Monday for the London 2012 Olympic Games, has a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and a master’s degree in mechanical engineering — a subject in which she’s also begun work toward a doctorate.

So when Nichols rows, her mind is in overdrive. The left side of her cranium is busy. She can’t help it.

“Yeah, it’s kind of my general mode of operation, kind of in any part of my life,” she says, laughing. “Really, I’m just trying to set myself up well to do the best I can, probably across the board. Schoolwork, engineering, rowing.”

That analytical approach helped Nichols earn a long-sought spot on the U.S. Olympic Team in London, where she will compete with Kristin Hedstrom in the lightweight women’s double sculls.

Nichols, 34, who just missed qualifying for the 2004 and 2008 Games, narrowly earned her spot with Hedstrom, 26, in May when the duo finished fourth at the Samsung World Rowing Cup in Lucerne, Switzerland. 

Initially, the race for fourth place — the spot Nichols and Hedstrom needed to qualify for the Games — was too close to call between the Americans and the boat from Great Britain. The Americans had to sit and watch the replay on the giant video board and wait for the official call that they had edged out the British crew by .09 of a second in a seven-minute race.

The British boat, said Nichols, had beaten them in a previous regatta in Serbia and had finished ahead of the Americans all four times they raced in 2011. So not only had they claimed their spot, but they’d finally overcome a rival.

After working so long to go to the Olympic Games — she began rowing for the national team in 2003 after a standout career at Cal — it’s been gratifying to finally qualify for London.

“I was second in Olympic Trials in ’04 and ’08, and I was alternate in ’08 so I’ve been right on the doorstep the past two, so this is great,” she said. “Especially because I had considered retiring after ’08 and going off to grad school and kind of went and moved on with my life a little bit.”

But Nichols said she “hadn’t fully let go” of her passion for rowing. So about two years ago, she resumed full-time training. 

“Now, looking back, I’m really glad I did,” she said. The reality that she’s actually going to London has been hard for Nichols to grasp. As she prepared to pack for her flight to London last week at her home in the Bay Area, she said, “It’s starting to feel real.”

Earning a spot on the Olympic Team is the culmination of two very strong years of work for Nichols and Hedstrom, who became a team in 2011. The duo medaled last year in all three World Cup regattas — a gold and two bronze medals — and became the first U.S. crew to win the points trophy in its class. Nichols and Hedstrom also finished fourth in the World Rowing Championships and qualified the United States for a spot in the Olympic Games in their class.

Still, Nichols — who was selected US Rowing’s Female Athlete of the Year for 2011 — said she and Hedstrom knew they had plenty of work to do to earn the right to row the lightweight double sculls boat. She and Hedstrom, a former University of Wisconsin rower, clicked as teammates last year without really knowing why.

“We’d only been rowing together a few weeks when we went off to do the international World Cup circuit,” Nichols said. “So at that point it was just trying to get the best we could out of the situation, but nothing was optimally set up for us.”

Since last year, the two have been able to spend more time training, analyzing and improving. The result, Nichols said, is a team that not only works better together, but also knows why it works better together.

“We’ve gotten more coordinated and I think we’re more aware of what we do now as a team, whereas before we wouldn’t quite know why it was working and everyone was just afraid to mess with us,” Nichols said. “Now I think we’ve been able to hone in on what those nuances are and we can call on them when we need them. We’ve become a more fine-tuned machine.”

Nichols said their success last year and the progress they’ve made this year have them excited about their chances when the first heats are held on July 28 at the Olympic venue at Eton Dorney Rowing Center at Dorney Lake, about 30 minutes west of London. The field, she said, is very competitive but their results have shown “that we’re in the ballpark with everybody else."

“On any given day anything can happen, but that means the odds can swing in our favor, too,” she said.

That happened when they qualified in May. And perhaps, it will again in London. Now, with the countdown on for her long-awaited Olympic Games, Nichols said she can look back and see that she and Hedstrom have meshed as a team.

“We try to be smart about a lot of things,” Nichols said. “Planning. Planning our workouts. Really setting ourselves up to do well. Being prepared for races all across the board. With our training, with our weight, with the logistics. We try to set it up so as few things can catch us off guard as possible. Just stacking odds in our favor and going into things with a plan.”

Sounds like an analysis straight from the left side of an engineer’s brain.

Story courtesy Red Line Editorial, Inc. Doug Williams is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies. 

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