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August 17, 2008

Matt Schnobrich, a 2001 graduate of Saint John's University, is a member of the U.S. men’s eight-man boat that competes during the Beijing Olympics Aug. 9-17 at the Shunyi Olympic Rowing and Canoeing Park.

Photo credits: USRowing and Matt Schnobrich

Competition update from Sunday, August 17:
The U.S. men’s eight, which included Saint John's University graduate Matt Schnobrich, won the bronze medal Sunday, missing the silver by 0.23 seconds.

After getting off the line in sixth place, the U.S. crew pushed into fourth at the 1,000-meter mark before taking third position from The Netherlands in the third quarter of the race. The U.S. continued to charge on the second-place British crew but fell just short at the line.

Canada led the race from start to finish, winning with a time of 5 minutes, 23.89 seconds. Great Britain took second in 5:25.11, followed by the U.S. in 5:25.34.

“I’m really happy,” team member Bryan Volpenhein said to USRowing. “I was really excited to get out there today. I’m not disappointed with bronze. It’s always good to come away with a medal.”

“It’s been pretty incredible,” added teammate Dan Walsh to USRowing. “We had a rough heat, but we came together as a team, and that’s the Olympic spirit. You persevere and you end up on the podium."

Blog from Friday, August 15:
None of the races I’ve participated in over the course of the last four years has gone according to plan. Prior to and during each event, we have worked very hard to set ourselves up for success by anticipating the opposition and focusing on achieving our own potential on race day. This year has been no different, and we have been meticulous in getting us to where we wanted to be this week.

Going into the heat this past Monday, we focused on our own race plan and went into the race expecting that we would execute what we had discussed in all the buildup to the Games. Like the first quarter of a football game, our plays and moves were scripted to hopefully allow us to stay in our own boat, focus on ourselves and prevail. Although we executed our own race, the British crew alongside us was able to build about a length lead in the second 500 and clawing our way back during the second half of the race proved too difficult. That whole “prevail” part eluded us. We laid down a good effort, but agreed that our cadence (strokes per minute) was a little too high and that we weren’t getting the maximum efficiency out of the work. We were capable of doing more with less effort.

Entering into the repechage (on Tuesday), we were very mindful to transition into our natural base speed and our own rhythm coming out of the elevated starting sequence. We needed to trust our own power and our own boat speed rather than just throwing ourselves at each stroke. We were more thoughtful in our approach, and the end result was much more composed and effective. By saying “thoughtful,” of course, I mean actually using the one millisecond of mental time available during each stroke in which to be as deliberate as possible. That may sound like an obvious thing to do, but it gets increasingly more difficult when your body’s on fire, you are trying very hard to breathe, and your heart rate is up around 200. We were able to win the repechage with a sense of composure, securing our spot in the final and proving to ourselves that our natural speed would put us where we needed to be.

We have carried this same approach through the past couple days. We have been very diligent in making sure that we take the right strokes and that we are always conscious of what we’re working on as individuals and as a boat. In the end, we’ve wound up learning a lot about ourselves and our capabilities. As we left Princeton (N.J.), we were well aware that the times we had posted during all of our training were indicative of good speed, and this gave us a significant amount of confidence coming into the Olympics. With two races under our belts we have been able to see where that speed measures up in comparison to the rest of the world. We remain confident in that speed, but after the result in the heats there has been a greater sense of urgency and diligence to remain focused on the task at hand.

Mentally, we’ll likely center ourselves between now and Sunday. We need to rely on our speed, to trust our abilities, and to realize that we don’t need to do anything that is beyond our potential. In the midst of the race, it can be easy to do too much. The small adjustments made over the past couple days, an awareness of what other boats are capable of, and the obvious sense of purpose that only an Olympic final can provide should put us in the right state on Sunday afternoon. There is no doubt that we aren’t capable of reaching the top of the podium, but as is always the case in rowing, it will come down to who is better on the day. You could run the race 10 times and get 10 different outcomes, so we’ll rely on these preparations to get the most out of ourselves when it counts. Lucius Seneca put it best in that “luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” Never has there been a greater opportunity, so hopefully we get a little luck.

Competition update from Tuesday, August 12:
Saint John’s University alumnus Matt Schnobrich and the U.S. men’s eight won its repechage, or second-chance race, Tuesday at the Shunyi Olympic Rowing -Canoeing Park.

The men’s eight advanced to Sunday’s final with a time of 5 minutes, 38.95 seconds to win the repechage. The U.S. crew led through the first half of the race but entered the final 500 meters trailing Australia by 0.91 seconds. However, the Americans responded with a strong sprint to win the race by 1.36 seconds over the Australians, according to USRowing.

Australia, The Netherlands and Poland also qualified for the final from the repechage, joining Canada and Great Britain in the final field of six. Canada and Great Britain previously qualified for the final with victories in heat races Aug. 11.

“We made some improvements from the heat to the rep, and there are things we can work on over the course of the next four days, just building as the races go on,” Schnobrich said to USRowing.

The U.S. eight is the defending Olympic gold medalist.

Competition update from Monday, August 11:
The U.S. men’s eight boat, with Saint John’s University alumnus Matt Schnobrich in the No. 2 position, finished second in its qualifying heat Monday. The U.S. crew covered the 2,000-meter course in 5 minutes, 29.6 seconds, finishing behind Great Britain (5:25.89) and beating China and Germany.

The U.S. eight now races in a repechage, or second-chance, race on Tuesday. That race will include Poland, The Netherlands, Australia, China and Germany. The top four crews will advance to the final Aug. 17.

Schnobrich’s boat sat in first place at the 500-meter mark before Great Britain took command in the middle 1,000 meters. Canada controlled the other heat, clocking a 5:27.69 to win by more than seven seconds.

“Great Britain sort of controlled the middle 1,000 meters, and obviously, we have to go back and try to find a way to contain them there,” said Wyatt Allen, a member of the U.S. boat, to USRowing. “We’re going to go into the rep tomorrow and just try to row a fast race and hopefully get ourselves into the final. Hats off to them, they controlled the race and beat us out there.”

Blog from Wednesday, August 6:
We have officially been cooped up in the hotel for over a week. We have generally been training twice a day with our meals spaced in between each session. This schedule leaves for a lot of downtime.

Whether it was previous years’ World Championships or this year’s Olympics, it is always amusing to watch 40 to 50 mid to late 20-somethings interact over the course of the two-week pre-event “acclimation period.” The combination of a foreign country, too many people on one floor of a hotel, and an extended taper leaves everyone a bit stir crazy. We begin to amuse ourselves in otherwise unorthodox ways.

Generally, the use of downtime can be split into three phases. There is the initial “Make the Most of My Time” phase during which we rapidly consume all of the literature carefully stowed for the trip or discuss the various nuances of possible vice presidential candidates. Everyone usually brings a few books, of which one is very thick and thoughtful (e.g. The Brothers Karamazov) which will certainly never be opened. These books merely serve as good ballast for carry-on bags. I have watched one of my teammates successfully transport Guns, Germs, and Steel to three different continents. That book has collected dust from all the corners of the globe. The good intentions of the “Make the Most of My Time” period usually last for two days.

The second phase of downtime regression can be generally referred to as “YouTube Your Own Adventure.” You log on to check your e-mail, you realize that you’re halfway around the world and no one you know is awake, and you wind up making your way to YouTube to catch up on the past week’s debates or other news. Of course that’s the initial intention. You may watch a recent McCain/Obama interview, which then leads to several Daily Show snippets, which in some backwards way leads to a compilation of Arnold Schwarzenegger movie quotes, followed by the complete collection of Terry Tate: Office Linebacker commercials, until you finally find yourself watching a clip called “very best of Halo 3 sniper kills.” You know you’ve reached the end of your adventure and truly hit rock bottom when you are actually watching someone else play video games. This period lasts a little longer than I would care to quantify.

Finally, we wind up somewhere in the ninth circle of downtime, which could be loosely entitled “Your Mom Jokes.” We have only been here for about 10 days so far, so we really aren’t entrenched that deep, but signs of this phase are beginning to rear their ugly heads. Presently, we are still somewhere in phase 2, which is marked by a significant increase in online Euchre. Sadly, our online Euchre includes two of us playing together, as partners on different computers, cheating as we read each other’s hands and bid accordingly, all the while taking advantage of some other unsuspecting online players. If your online name happens to be drobert438 or joetryan1956, I sincerely apologize for the 11-1 and 10-2 bludgeonings we doled out last night. It’s just a game.

Either way, arrival at this final circle usually indicates that we are ready to race. Mental stress has been eliminated and we are focused on the task at hand. The practice sessions remain thoughtful and precise, and we are businesslike in our approach. We sleep normal hours again, we are adjusted to the differences in food, and we are feeling at home on the course and at the hotel. We are rested. The final couple days will be spent really engraining our race plan and going over anything else that needs attention. For most of us, we have been ready to go for a few weeks, but we’ll just try to stay loose for the last few days. Accordingly, that really old Chinese woman in a samurai outfit on channel 37? I was just told that was my mom.

Matt (in red shirt) practicing

Blog from Monday, August 4:
On top of the rowing and just getting acclimated to our surroundings, I have spent the first week curiously taking in the Chinese culture, observing the way that they carry themselves and treat others, and just sitting back to let things sink in. After all of this, I would have to say that I am thoroughly impressed. The rowing venue is a wonderful place to train and compete. There is relatively little wind, and when it does pick up seems to be fair for all lanes across the course. Pretty much everything is brand new and as a result has a very clean, well-kept quality with that good “new stadium” smell. This is by no means limited to just the rowing course. I’m sure you have seen many photos of the Bird’s Nest Stadium and the Water Cube Aquatics Center, and these are nothing less than spectacular. The whitewater kayaking venue adjoining the rowing venue is probably the largest one of its kind.

Aside from the venues, the personnel and volunteer army in and around Beijing are equally impressive. These blue shirted volunteers assemble en masse, and are quick to assist or guide you in any direction. All seem to be fully enjoying themselves regardless of their apparent task. I watched about six of these volunteers laboring to drag what looked to be very heavy boxes down the road with big smiles and lots of laughs. They arrive at the course well before us and stay until well after we leave. Navigating the metal detectors at the course has become a daily adventure, as there must be 30 people in the entrance tent to handle, prod and inspect our things. Having become accustomed to this process at both the hotel and the course, we fast became experts in avoiding hiccups and expediting entrance. Over the course of the first few days, we identified all of the things which would set off the machine and result in a close secondary wanding, and made sure those items were stowed in our backpacks for the x-ray conveyer. I think at some point, however, the wanders became bored and frustrated with the inability to fulfill their inspection obligations, and as such have increased the sensitivity of the archway. Accordingly, the detector goes off regardless of any metal items on your person. I’m not sure what I could be hiding in my flip flops and spandex that you wouldn’t be able to readily observe, but needless to say, all volunteers are now feeling included. This is probably good for morale.

All reports of the hot, humid, and smoggy weather back home are all true, and there are days when we can only see about 500 meters down the course. Still, we have adjusted to the conditions and the oppressive heat, and have been dealing with it and making sure that we are taking on enough fluids. Nike set us all up with an ice vest, which is similar to a life jacket in construction but more reminiscent of a frosty ninja turtle. These have been very helpful in bringing down the core temperatures following workouts and getting our bodies back in recovery mode. The heat is pretty similar to the typical hot New Jersey summer we left in Princeton, so we may have an advantage in that regard. In regards to the smog, we have yet to have any real limitations. I am an asthmatic and use an inhaler during exercise, so poor air quality should probably cause me some difficulty. Still, we have done some simulated races over the course of the last week and I haven’t had any issues. In the end, the conditions affect everyone the same and the playing field is level.

With less than a week to go until the opening ceremonies, excitement is building. Our 55 television channels at the hotel (four of which are in English) all seem to be simultaneously airing something about the Olympics. We can’t really understand what most are talking about, but excitement transcends the language barrier. One channel has shown the torch runners moving their way across China for about 12 hours a day. The running is characterized by some Chinese man or woman, smiling and waving their hands while running down some street lined with row upon row of cheering, flag-waving onlookers. Really, it could be just one endless loop of people running with a lit torch if not for the fact that they stop every 50 feet or so to light a new person’s torch, who then runs for an additional 50 feet to light someone else. This has been going on for the entire week. I have heard that similar scenes accompanied the torch relays in the U.S. prior to the Los Angeles and Atlanta games, but the sheer magnitude of television coverage and media attention has been eye-opening. The Olympic spirit is certainly in full swing, and it has been pretty incredible to take it all in.

Course where the U.S. team will compete

Blog from Monday, July 28:
For the most part, Olympic sport is characterized by the day-to-day, solitary toil of teams and individuals spanning a four-year period full of countless hours, miles and repetitions invested. As such, the 16 days that make up the Olympic Games are the bright light at the end of that oft times dismal training tunnel when, finally, there is an opportunity to emerge from whichever small corner of the world we’ve become so accustomed to in order to show people what we’ve been up to all these years. For the rowing team, that small corner of the world is on Carnegie Lake in Princeton, N.J. I’ve put millions of puddles into that body of water, for hours a day, hell bent on making each one better than the last.

Over the course of my life, I have watched the Olympics religiously. I think as an observer, you see the athletes on TV, you imagine the time they have spent preparing for this one to-be-defining moment, and you watch their lives unfold in front of you. Sometimes that ends in gold, and sometimes it ends in defeat. You recognize the incredible humanity of competitors like Dan Jansen, you feel the magnitude of what was accomplished by the 1980 U.S. hockey team, and you’re awed by Michael Phelps or Michael Johnson reaching the podium seemingly without effort. As athletes, we all dream of experiencing that performance, that race, or that game that will remain with us forever. I think that objective drives all of us, and we are painfully aware that those moments only come for very, very few. Still, it’s the pursuit of that singular performance that makes the effort worthwhile.

The Olympic team was finally named on July 25, and the last month has been spent finalizing race plans, polishing up the finer points like starts and sprints, and really just maintaining and getting to our racing fitness. We flew from Princeton to San Francisco for Olympic processing this past Friday, which included credentialing, gear distribution, and all sorts of other needful tidbits (“don’t drink the water”). Over the course of the past month, I’ve been asked a number of times about what it “feels like” to be going to the Olympics and to be getting ready for this, and I have been hard pressed to find a real answer. During one of our processing briefings, however, amidst all of the medical and logistical information thrown our way, there were two statements that registered and hit home: “There is no greater honor than to represent your country,” and “You are each a continuation of all the U.S. athletes that have come before.” So while my standard answer to the “feels like” question would be along the lines of “well, not much different, we’re still trying to keep the nose to the grindstone,” there are occasional times when you see through the day to day preparations and get a glimpse of these much larger themes.

[A third appropriate comment overheard at processing was from the Governator himself, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who showed up and took time to chat with pretty much everyone, and quoted Conan the Barbarian in saying: “You must crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentations of their women.”]

Now that we’ve arrived in Beijing, the enormity of this has started to sink in. The Chinese are carefully attending to each and every last detail, and there are numerous personnel guiding our every step and making sure we’re in the right place. Over 10 people, immaculately dressed, greet, guide and motion to me as I walk from my third floor hotel room to the dining room downstairs. There is absolutely no traffic on the local roads due to the pre-Olympic air care. There are live roses and orchids adorning each corner of the Beijing airport. You get the strong sense that they are poised for something big. In spite of all of this, we try to block out the general noise and hubbub to focus on the task at hand during these final two weeks before racing. We are living about a mile from the Shunyi racecourse, which itself is about 30 minutes outside of the main Olympic complex in Beijing, and as such are removed from a lot of that distraction. It’s time to get back into the daily routine, adjust to the time difference and just equilibrate to our surroundings. That should get us to where we need to be for our first race on Aug. 10.

Chinese Olympic volunteers


Matt Schnobrich '01 earns spot on U.S. Olympic rowing team

July 25, 2008

Of all the spectacular views of Saint John’s University, Matt Schnobrich thought the best view of campus came while rowing on Lake Sagatagan on a foggy day.

“There is really no other view that compares to looking back at the campus on the hill as the sun came up through all that foggy stillness,” said Schnobrich, a 2001 graduate of SJU.

These days, Schnobrich has his eyes on a different view – the medals stand at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, China.

Schnobrich is a member of the U.S. men’s eight-man boat that competes Aug. 9-17 at the Shunyi Olympic Rowing and Canoeing Park. The U.S. eight won the gold medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics.

“It would be safe to say that the thought of someday rowing in the Olympics NEVER crossed my mind,” said Schnobrich, who is believed to be the first SJU student or graduate to participate in the Olympics. “I played every sport under the sun and had a profound appreciation for the Olympics, but the possibility of this was a distant fantasy.”

So, how did the native of St. Paul get to the point of possibly staring down an Olympic medal?

Schnobrich competed in soccer and cross country skiing while attending St. Thomas Academy High School. He came to Saint John’s, but his biology, chemistry and physics labs nearly every afternoon prevented him from joining any varsity teams. Enter rowing, which is a club sport at Saint John’s.

“I was looking for some way to stay in shape while at college,” Schnobrich said. “Being that rowing was always early in the day at 6 a.m., it fit into my schedule nicely. My resident assistant, Matt Rose, was also on the rowing team and he lived across the hall from me. He told me that given my stature (6-foot-5), I should try rowing.

“Sag (Lake Sagatagan) was a wonderful place to row as the water in the mornings was usually dead calm, and there was always 20 feet worth of fog lying across the water,” Schnobrich said. “The scenery did come with a price on those April mornings, however, as we often had to walk into Sag barefoot to put the boat in, and it often took the entire practice to get the blood moving back to the toes.”

Following his graduation from SJU (he has degrees in biology and Spanish), he worked for one year as a chemist at Cargill and then went to graduate school at the University of Minnesota to get his master’s in environmental engineering. All the while, he was rowing with the Minneapolis Rowing Club.

“During those three years (2001-04), I kept rowing in smaller boats (single, pair) and kept improving. As I got better, I kept pushing myself a little harder as that time went on,” Schnobrich said. “After getting my master’s, there were enough people that said, ‘Hey, you should go out East and try to take this somewhere,’ and I finally decided to give it a shot.”

He joined the Penn Athletic Club, which allowed him to focus on making the U.S. national team. Schnobrich learned what it meant to be an “elite athlete” as his training went from five to six sessions a week to 10 or 12 sessions per week, tripling the amount of mileage he put in on the water.

Schnobrich made the national team for the first time in 2005, competing in the World Championships in Gigu, Japan. He followed with national team appearances in 2006 (England) and 2007 (Germany).

“Although I have competed with and trained with a number of guys who were at the Athens games, I never really felt that I had a strong chance of making this year’s team until last summer,” Schnobrich said. “It’s the sort of environment where you never, ever, count your chickens before they hatch, grow up and lay eggs of their own. This past year has been incredibly competitive among the 30-odd members of the training camp, and competition for the 14 spots on the team has been cutthroat. There are a lot of great athletes, and every day counts.”

Despite focusing his attention on the Olympics, he stays in contact with his cousin Jeff Schnobrich, a senior running back for the SJU football team.

“Many a fall Saturday afternoon, I have bent over my computer listening to the gamecast online, and – unbeknownst to anyone until now – have run around the living room like a lunatic when Jeff has found the end zone,” Matt Schnobrich said.