Saturday, October 12, 2019

Hitting a wall - what do you do?

"Recognition of Dawn, 10.11.19", watercolor on paper, 18 x 24", by David O. Smith, 2019.
Worked from memory, view from thestern in between race pace pieces

Today marked the first time this fall's training of hitting a complete "wall" - feeling my body have as close to nothing left as it does while still conscious - with 4k remaining of a 5k race piece.

In this situation we really have a choice to make - do we cave and give into the feeling, whatever feeling it is, and let the situation overtake us? Or do we decide to not let that happen, and go down fighting?

I'll let you mediate on how you can respond to these situations, but it most likely comes down to one answer or the other, no matter how you qualify it.  Today was a good situation to be in - it's hard just to GET to that place, where the body is beginning to fail at the task you've set out for it, and I also believe that effective training (infrequently) touches on this zone, one of extreme discomfort and uncertainty, and allows us to have the opportunity to choose how we react, what do we decide to do?

If we do not put ourselves in situations like this in practice, where stopping or changing the rules is not an option, and our body is failing us, but we must keep going, then we'll never know what might happen in a race scenario if something isn't going our way.

I'd like to think, if nothing else, aside from going fast, from feeling good, from rowing well, or any of the superficial things... I at least made a conscious choice today to stay aggressive and wage war on my body rather than give in and fold.  Let's not call it heroic by any means, just a choice.  There have been plenty of times in the past, especially before joining up with Seattle Scullers, when I would have made the opposite choice (fold) or not even had the initiative to put myself in this place of choice to begin with!

This week was a hard week!  Each day, Monday-Saturday, was a "high-torque" practice of some kind, in addition to being the heaviest loading week for weights progressions, 3 x 12, 16, 14 reps for each exercise I do.  We did race pieces yesterday, then backed that up with more today.  I'm grateful to be able to go through these kinds of practices with no way out, only a choice of how to respond to the demands of the piece, in the moment, and develop the SKILL of racing hard even when the body is not at all wanting for additional GO...

Go anyways.  You might as well, and it's easier for the rest of your day to know that at least you gave your legitimate best on the day, and died trying.

Have a happy, restful weekend, everyone.


Friday, October 11, 2019

What was ONE SECOND difference between my best EVER head race and last weekend's race?

As I dug through Regatta Central's 2016 results page for Tail of the Lake (my best ever head race), I braced to be once again irritated to the core by my performance in relation to the past, looking back at how fast I USED to be, instead of where I was now... and wondering how far I'd have to go to even get back to where I was... as I mentioned in the previous post - I'd had to stop during last Sunday's piece to avoid a collision, in addition to having a bit of a bumpy performance (but no excuses, I did everything I could, on the day, and was beaten fair and square!)

The time difference between my best ever head race (2016 Tail of the Lake by my subjective estimation) and last weekend's performance at Tail of the Lake 2019?

1.4 seconds.

Over 15 minutes of all-out head racing.  Over the same course.  In identical conditions.

Have I been training a lot to prepare for this, as hard or more than in 2016?  No, actually, about half as much.  What is the difference?  How does yesteryear's superlative become today's mediocre?

The difference is in the experience, the environment, the preparation.

I have finally, finally started to work with a coach, a coach who has helped to guide the preparations for racing in the single.

It should be... obvious... to most anyone that working with a coach makes your game improve.  I knew this intuitively, but I also know the amount of trust and faith it can take to outsource your training to someone else!

Last fall, after looking around at Worlds 2018 I noticed a big difference between the A-Finalist worlds-medaling lightweight scullers and myself (never made an A-Final in sculling at Worlds, let alone a medal).  The difference between those athletes and myself wasn't necessarily technique or mindset, but was mostly in the shoulders, biceps, quads and cores.  These guys were... tremendously strong.  I decided my aerobic and anaerobic fitnesses were decent, but I simply did not have the power, the strength, or the raw physicality of the better scullers in the World.  On the sweep side I've done ok, including a bronze medal in lightweight men's eight in 2015, and a bronze in the light pair in 2018 (but we did finish 3 out of 3... ha!) ... but the two-blades-per-athlete strength required for sculling was beyond what I currently possessed.

I've always loved the weight room.  Since first training with weights in high school, I could feel the difference new strength made on the erg and on the water.  However, since about 2010 until, well, last fall, some of the best numbers I'd ever hit on the iron hadn't really changed that much year to year.  My deadlift lifetime best ever was 325lbs for one rep, back in 2011 or 2010 (I can't even remember, although I do have all of my notes from those years, since 2006 to the present day...), weighing probably 165 or 167 lbs (a bit of grad school chunk! my natural bodyweight floats back to 160lbs, where I am at right now).

In more recent years, Fall 2015 to Fall 2018, I had only approached the 300 lb mark a few times, and always at risk of injury to my lower back, specifically.  I wondered, does my over-30 year old body just not have the capacity, physiologically, to lift that heavy anymore?  Is it not even worth the attempt?  What do I really "gain" by lifting those weights, other than an increased risk of injury and potential missed water practices?

But I knew if I wanted to compete again at Worlds in sculling, I'd have to try, somehow, to get stronger.  Staying the same wasn't an option.

One solution, however, seemed possible.  Since I moved back to Seattle I've hurt myself a few times, each time working with the same PT (Joshua Gellert out of UW Sports Medicine), and it seemed that every time he would address whatever area of my body was compromised, it would heal, balance, and come back... stronger.  Not just "unhurt" - but that area, be it ribs, back, shoulder, neck, whatever, would now be capable of a greater load, and a LOWER risk of injury.

Working with Josh had always in the physical therapy / injury healing context, not the strength context, had made me... stronger.

I knew for a fact, objectively, that on my own, despite consulting amazing, AMAZING resources like "Training For The New Alpinism" by Steve House and Scott Johnston, I was NOT getting stronger, year to year.  I asked Josh - hey - will you help me, will you be my strength coach?  If it fails and I get weaker, I won't tell anyone, and if I break through these old limits, I'll sing your praises everywhere.

He agreed, and we have been working together ever since.

What makes Josh an outstanding coach, is he does not rely on a cult of personality, previous methods, or fixed mindset to dictate a linear outcome-based strategy.  He is the consummate adaptive and curious learner, guiding and tweaking the process based on my feedback, my input, my findings, and where my body is truly at, now, not where I was, or where I believe my limit to be.

Josh doesn't set artificial limits on the people he works with.

Sounds kind of like someone else I know... Matt Z, coach of Seattle Scullers.

With Josh, I followed what he said to a T, and tried not to miss too many weights sessions due to time or other factors.  I have been lifting, most weeks, twice a week, always the same exercises, varying reps and sets and weight.  Josh had me switch from conventional straight bar deadlift to a Hex Bar deadlift, so that I can stand up with my hands at my sides, rather than hands in front with shoulders leaning back, lower back in hyper-extension at the top of the lift.  This lets me push myself without the worry of tweaking my back.

What I did not expect in working with Josh was to achieve a lifetime personal best last Spring, after looking in Brad Lewis' (Olympic Gold Medalist with Paul Enquist in the Men's Double Sculls at the LA Games 1984) training log book "Lido for Time: 14:39", that his lifetime best (or at least for that year) in the deadlift was 350lbs.  I thought, "I'm going to get that tomorrow" - and I did.

400 lbs
What I really, REALLY didn't expect, though, was that despite that increase of 25 lbs over my previous lifetime best, only a MONTH AND CHANGE later I would increase my PR again... by 50 lbs... to reach 400 lbs for the deadlift.

To recap - I'd worked with a coach - and outsourced my strength training to someone who knew exactly what they were doing, who was willing to work with me, and did exactly as they recommended, twice a week (or less) - and had taken my strength level of 2018 (about 300 lbs at BEST for this one exercise) and improved it in less than a year to 400 lbs.  That's a 33% increase in performance... in less than a year...

Imagine what you could do if you could take where you are at now, and improve it by 33% in less than a year?  If you were working on a weakness of yours with a coach you trusted, who tailored the process specifically to you, without having to spend excessive time or excessive energy strategizing and mapping out your own path to potential success, potential stagnation?  How would that feel?  Would you even consider that you could make a 33% performance increase in under a year?  I know for a fact that such a thing would have been completely and fundamentally inconceivable to me a year ago... it just shows how much I was completely stuck in a low-performance mindset, especially while training alone from September to June or so each year.

Of course, during the summers, I have had the chance to work with some of the best coaches and mentors in the world.  Steve Perry and Nick Dawe at Canadian Henley (only during the regatta itself!) in 2016 (guiding me through a lifetime on-water PR of 6:58.8 at Canadian Henley in the lightweight men's single), Matt Muffelman in 2017 (working with our USA LM4-), and Clive Cooper out of Upper Thames RC in Henley, UK, for our LM2- in 2018.  Always, always, despite whatever the results of the boats were at the races, my personal performance thrived under good coaching.


This fall, I knew Matt Z had a good thing going with his program - but I still didn't want to ask anything of anyone, and had no idea if taking on a challenge of coaching a 33 about to be 34 year old lightweight to go faster would be something he would be interested in taking on as well.  I knew I wouldn't have the same kind of time to spend training twice a day... but I had a feeling that working with him as my coach just MIGHT bring some possibilities I hadn't considered.

When Matt and I first met to discuss working together, we immediately made a connection, culturally, that is not dissimilar to the kind of connection I was able to make with Josh.  Matt's program at Seattle Scullers is based on small-boat skill and athlete accountability.  I was clear that (at least at first) I did not have the time to train more than once a day, and wanted to continue lifting.  Thus, from scheduling alone, we have been out rowing on the water 3 or 4 times a week.  That's all.  Not six days a week.  Never twice a day.  Contrast this schedule to 2016, when I was absolutely killing myself in practices to optimize... everything I could think of... but doing so in a relative vacuum.  I had no outside guidance or feedback.  No training partners.  Nothing to externally motivate me to give a best effort each practice... in addition to heavily feeling the strain of having to decide WHAT TO DO at each practice.  As I did not see the results I wanted (other than in flashes, Canley 2016 and TOTL 2016...), I was becoming discouraged, and had ingrained some beliefs about my capacities that I'm still actively sloughing off...right now.

Speaking with a best friend over the phone about how the rowing is going lately - I said "I love it.  I don't have to think about the workout... I get to DO the workout."  "Totally", my Division I head-coach friend said, "thinking about the workout and deciding your own training AND then having to go out and do it alone SUCKS."  "Yes, it does."

To be clear - it is FUN to have agency in rowing - to decide your future.  That's why I absolutely believe in a personalized, strategic, tailored approach to the sport.  There's no sense in me throwing World-Class workouts and expectations at middle school athletes, just like I wouldn't waste a high-performance sculler's time by only having them go light, short, and easy for every row.  To do so would be a disservice to their abilities, in both cases.  But if the challenge is matched to ability - and maybe just a bit beyond what the athlete perceives as their capability... magic can happen.  The athlete will still own the result.  The athlete will still do the work.  It's not going to magically be easier, just with a coach... you have to commit to being open to coaching, to being coachable!

We've been lifting twice a week, rowing 3 or 4 times a week.  I knew the boat was moving well (and it's a new boat - Sean I can't wait to get some good video and pics to share...), but it is still all down to race results to see progress in the single.  I raced as hard as I could last weekend but would not consider it on-par with my 2016 race.

Imagine my surprise when the time from the race was... almost identical... to 3 years ago with a near-perfect race.  Seeing that is deeply motivating in a way that words fail to capture.

If you are frustrated with your progress in something you REALLY care about... consider hiring a coach.  If you are specifically looking to improve your sculling, or you know someone who does, why don't you reach out either to me, or to Seattle Scullers.  My email is  It doesn't matter if you're trying to learn to scull for the first time or go from not performing great at Worlds to winning at Worlds.

Cheers.  Looking forward to hearing from you soon.

As a bonus and a way to say thank you for reading, here is a link to my 2016 Fall leading up to the Tail Of The Lake, and here is a link to my 2019 Fall leading up to this year's Tail Of The Lake.


Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Why have I decided to work with a coach for the first time in FOUR YEARS?

Last night I was reading a book of poet Mark Strand's interpretations of Edward Hopper's paintings, and something struck me.

One of the most important things to me about art is that the piece does not hold itself above the viewer, that you needn't anyone else to tell you how "good" or "important" this work is.  The best work, the great work, tends to last, to stand on its own for a very long time, and to be enjoyed by a high number of people regardless of their background or knowledge of art and art history.

Strand's book lends validity to any layman's interpretations of Hopper's paintings, and direct readings of formal elements.  I found this deeply comforting, that the author did not give "background" or "context" for the paintings... but discusses them as they are, visually.

I did not know very much about how Hopper made his paintings, and was pleased to learn he worked mostly from memory, in the studio.

"Tom at Worlds", watercolor and pencil on paper, 24 x 18", by David O. Smith, 2019
More work can be found at my instagram:
and my website:
Recently I completed a monochrome study based on a photograph from the 2018 World Rowing Championships.  It was a decent effort, but for me it does not evoke the feeling of being there, of what that walk into the venue was actually like to experience.  I look forward, perhaps, to drawing and painting a similar scene but this time from memory.

I have extensive notes (and even some sketches from life) from that year's championships, and I intend to review them, what I was feeling and thinking in that time, before recalling the scene from memory and drawing or painting it.  I would want something more... expansive.  I also recall a feeling of vulnerability, as I knew we didn't have a great chance of performing as well as the competition.  When we walked up the humans around me felt like islands... more like this...

Sketch for future drawing / painting of approach to worlds 2018... Ink on 9.75 x 7.5" notebook, by David O. Smith, 2019.

Both Mark Strand's writing and Edward Hopper's paintings are inspiringly simple, but obviously timeless and powerful.  The paintings seem obvious and unknowable simultaneously.  If you're a fan of art, poetry, or both, I encourage you to check out Strand's book, here.  I'll continue to share the art work I make here on my Instagram account, and here on my website.  I am even going to be able to share in the coming weeks (but not quite yet) some outstanding news about bringing the artwork and its physical presence to you, without always having the screen as filter.  This stuff is better in person... isn't everything?

To my readers of this blog - I was silent since last May.  A transitional phase is ongoing, including finally finding a new racing and training affiliation with Seattle Scullers.  I encourage anyone interested in why this is the first time in FOUR YEARS I've trained regularly with a coach in Seattle (since Margot moved on to a new career, that is) to investigate what is going on on the website, the instagram account.  Or, just reach out to me.

We had another solid row this morning, and for the first time in a long time the training doesn't feel forced, and isn't something I'm having to ask myself or my body to do.  It is drawn to it, impelled, pulled along rather than pushed.  And I guess that's convenient because we are in the business of pulling... hard.

This season I'm also working (albeit infrequently) with Seattle Scullers from the coaching launch.  I believe in it, and this will be the first junior coaching responsibility I've agreed to since spring of 2018.  It's the kind of junior rowing experience I would have jumped at, had I had the opportunity when I was in high school and middle school.  Such a program simply did not exist at that time.

September - mid-hypertrophy phase of lifting, during a 4x4 sets/reps "easy" week,
I "accidentally" PR'd on Hex Bar Deadlift - new One Rep Max of 415lbs.

All credit goes to Josh Gellert for working with me on
getting stronger and staying unhurt for the better part of
a year now
There will be plenty more to come in the future.  I've not shared how the summer and early fall went on purpose, but there was lots of good news, some fun rows and ergs with Glory Days, PRs (see left), etc etc despite not going out for the US team last 2019 season.

I am excited to be working under and with Coach Matt at Seattle Scullers, and I feel lucky to have found such a positive force in my hometown.

Last weekend was a start, taking 2nd overall in Tail Of The Lake in the Men's Single, despite having to stop for a junior double crossing in front of me during the race.  I hope I did not frighten them unnecessarily by yelling "STOP!" but I am also grateful we didn't damage each others' equipment as we tangled and untangled the oars carefully.  Well-raced by the other Seattle Scullers' crews.

I'll be racing Head Of The Lake in November in the single, too.


Friday, May 10, 2019


A Sunset in May
Watercolor on Paper, 14 x 20"

Thank you to every one of you who has bought art, prints, or commissioned work from me.

If you enjoy the artwork I make, you should have the opportunity to own an original, regardless of your budget.  If I could - I would give you my artwork for free.  Going forward until August (or until it's no longer a good idea) I'm selling my paintings, and also the work from my first show, for a flat rate of $500 each.  If you see something you like on Facebook or Instagram, please reach out to me asap and let me know.  For $500 that work can become part of your office or home.  I will finish out all current commissioned work, but will only be accepting a few moving forward.  I am selling my art in this way so that in the near future I can afford to expand my artistic skillset in an intensive setting.

On a rowing note - I cannot afford to race the light single at trials this July.  I wish that were possible.  These luxuries must be earned.  Regardless, the focus moving forward professionally is on artwork.  To commit to art, I cannot commit fully and simultaneously to rowing.  This is a profound and painfully truthful admission.  For the 2019 season, barring some major change, I cannot pursue the USA team.

Sunday, April 28, 2019


I'm excited about what's to come, and happy to share some recent training updates and news.

Some of my best friends raced well in the lightweight singles (men's and women's) at the most recent Speed Order in Florida.  A special congratulations to Alex Twist (longtime friend since 2012, he and I have squared off in lightweight quads trials vying for a spot on the 2013 team, as well as racing together in the 2015 USA lightweight eight, as well as both competing on the 2017 team in the light pair and the light four) for making it to the A-Final with a well-paced regatta, and to Christine Cavallo (of Hydro) for nearly winning the whole damn thing in an exciting final race to finish second to Michelle Sechser.  No shame in finishing second to Michelle - who was the lightweight women's team sculler on my first team in 2012 in Plovdiv, Bulgaria.  I wish I could have joined you guys on the race course -- following your results is motivating.

Meanwhile, I was here in Seattle, as well as journeying East to visit friends (with Jess being my cheerful and accommodating travel companion) to Dartmouth (in Hanover, NH for a Dartmouth Aires a cappella reunion), Boston (Happy Birthday Phil Henson, Dartmouth alum and 5-seat of the 2015 Usa Light Eight, and thank you Matty, Jack, Ian, Tobin and Mrs. Tobin, for making the trip and hosting), and New York (shuttle courtesy Jack and Keziah) to see more good people there, Gabe, Anna, Emerson, Adamah.  Too much of a good thing is never enough - and for all your friendship and company no thanks can possibly do my gratitude justice.  It was such a trip to spend time with all you wonderful East Coast people - please do let me know should you find yourself in or around the great Pacific Northwest.  Jess, thank you for being with me on a whirlwind tour... I'm not sure "vacation" is the right word for what we did, but I was so proud to be able to have you and some of my best friends meet at last.

Ok, the vacation is over and the dust has settled.  Time to get back to work.  Time to get back in shape!

When the unstructured time is over and training resumes, having company helps.  In recent weeks the group rowing out of the College Club in Seattle has been nothing but welcoming and competitive.  We've had some good days out in singles, in eights, and more.

As I go forward into the spring and summer of racing, I'm seeking out opportunities to challenge myself on the water, with perhaps the most significant aspect of this being moving on from Pocock.  I've resigned my coaching duties there as well as (rowing gods-willing) moving my single elsewhere.  This will free up my professional life a bit as someone who spends the majority of their time making art, no longer coaching.  Working for myself over the past several months has been the most significant challenge I've faced.  Thank you to everyone in my life both in the rowing community and my friends and family beyond it for supporting me in this pursuit.  It's not been a solo effort but a team effort - as I constantly seek advice and input from anyone willing to give it.  Already the week of the Windermere Cup is upon us, and I look forward so much to this community event, heralding the coming of boating season and of springtime's explosive transition into Summer.

I'd like to acknowledge my friend Alex M for suggesting I stretch out the "commentary" part of this blog and keep the google sheets to a minimum.  As such (and for my own simplification with much less time to make pretty training sheets) I've changed the format of my training document.  It's less elaborate, and a bit more severe visually.  For this blog, I will attempt to get back in the rhythm of using this as a writing platform, not just a regurgitation of minutes and meters rowed.  Some apologies are due to my writing mentors - I'm rusty.  Hopefully with some of the rust shaken clear I'll improve.  At least for now, though, this is the first time in a long time I feel the cylinders of the engine firing in time and in tune, moving things in a new and more positive direction.

A thank-you to the good people at Fluidesign (Sean!) for talking me through the process of beginning construction of a new single scull.  If you are a sculler in the market for a fast boat, the people at Fluid are honest, straightforward, and easy to work with.  It was a hell of a weekend last weekend to raise the necessary funds through art sales to commit to buying - but somehow, it happened.  Thank you to my patrons for your purchases of my artwork... it directly and non-metaphorically will put me into a new racing shell so I can be freed from any anxieties over equipment limitations.  The rest of going fast will be up to me.  With this major equipment upgrade a box is checked - equipment for training and racing is set.

I have two other foci moving forward, two other unchecked boxes.  One box is getting in lots of side-by-side racing practice, the other is getting my fitness to a point it's never before been.  The racing component is straightforward, because the more exposure I give myself to racing side-by-side, the better I become at it.  For the fitness aspect, that has always been my greatest challenge with rowing.  Strength-wise in the weight room, I'm already where I want to be.  This winter and spring, I've set lifetime PR's on the weights, with the heaviest thanks to Josh Gellert, PT and strength-trainer extraordinaire.  Without Josh's guidance I would not be where I am.  Aerobically, I'm as good as I've ever been, with still room to grow as I get out more frequently in the single for long steady state rows.  Any yet, as anyone who has ever attempted to race 2000m all-out will know, race fitness is specific and cannot be faked, meeting somewhere in the VO2-Max middle between raw weight-room power and steady state aerobic base endurance.  I look forward to finding creative ways to push that zone in the coming months, and as always, if you read this blog, I welcome your input as well as your questions, and I hope you find something useful within.


Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Video SDCC 8+

Here is some video from Sunday's practice in our San Diego "Coach 8+" boat.


Sunday, March 31, 2019

Training Update - One week until San Diego!

I really enjoyed this week's training.  Having company yesterday in the singles and today in the eight is just about the best part of our sport.  Individual expansion is more likely and more enjoyable when there's a communal purpose.