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by Brooks Clark
The Canadian men’s heavyweight eight had a plan for their final in Beijing: Get out ahead and set a pace so fast that none of the other crews could stay with them.
“We were world champions the year before,” says Dominic Seiterle. “We were faster than in 2007 and had a lot more training under our belt.”
Coach Mike Spracklen had trained them not just to be able to win on a good day, when things went right. Says Seiterle, “We wanted to train to the point that if everything was to go wrong, we’d still come out on top.”
“[Coxswain] Brian [Price] called the race the way we discussed and he got us moving when he needed to.” They started out for the first two minutes at a stroke rate well above 40 strokes per minute. As they moved forward on the Great Britain boat – with Josh West (Yale ’98) in the 5 seat – Price called out the seats of as he drew even with each one.
“He was calling seat distances,” says Seiterle. “ ‘We have a seat! ....a half a seat! two seats!’ ” says Seiterle. “Then he said, ‘We have Josh West!’”
Says Price, “He’s the only guy in the boat I know the name of to say, that big 6’,7” guy.”
“I’m very simplistic,” says Seiterle, chuckling, “especially when rowing. I know Josh, but I don’t follow the other teams and I have no idea what seat he rows. I’m a numbers guy. Hearing the name didn’t help me much. So I’m thinking, ‘Where are we? Are we losing? Winning? What?’ ”
“We attacked each call that Brian made,” says Seiterle. “I remember him saying, ‘This hurts but we’re moving well.’ ”
Following the race plan, the Canadians never dropped below 38½ strokes per minute. Says Seiterle, “Some of the guys said that a minute in, they knew we were going to win.”
But Seiterle wasn’t so sure: “There’s always something that goes a little wrong. In the third 500 meters, I felt a bit of a bobble to starboard. There was a little bit of fear.”
With 20 or 30 meters to go, up by more than a second on the British and Americans, Price said, “We are Olympic Gold Medalists.”
“I’m the conservative guy in the boat,” says Seiterle. “I’m thinking, ‘Don’t say that yet! We’ve got two or three strokes to go.’ As we went over the line, two or three of the guys had their hands up. I couldn’t really hear the horn, so I took or three more strokes, just in case.”
Their time was 5 minutes, 23.89 seconds. The British got silver in 5:25.11. The Americans, gold medalists at the 2004 Athens Games, took bronze in 5:25.34, just .23 seconds behind the British.
For Seiterle, 32, the Olympic Gold was the climax of an unlikely return to international competition after a seven-year hiatus.
Born in Montreal, Seiterle moved with his family to San Antonio, Texas, when he was 4. He took up rowing at Saint Andrew’s School in Middletown, Delaware, (where the movie The Dead Poet’s Society had been filmed). Dominic chose St. Andrew’s in part because of its outdoor programs and field sciences. “They had 2,500 acres and plenty of places to hike and walk around,” he says. “I would sit with a camera outside a fox den for hours. Other times I’d watch bald eagles coming down for fish.”
His interest in the outdoors made Dartmouth a natural choice. A Psychology and Environmental Studies major, he loved Moosilauke and the Outing Club.
The summer before his senior year, Seiterle was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Remarkably, even after his thyroidectomy and radiation treatments, he was able to captain the heavyweight crew at the Head of the Charles that fall and for the rest of the year.
At the 2000 Sydney Olympics, he placed 13th in a double with Todd Hallett, from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.
In Victoria, B.C., where the Canadian team trains, Seiderle got to know one of Todd’s neighbors, Claire Miller. On her wedding day in 2001, Claire introduced Dominic to her twin sister, Laura. Dominic and Laura, a special ed teacher, were married four years later.
In 2002, he took a year off from rowing to start his MBA at the University of Rochester. (In 2003 he rowed 80 miles across Lake Ontario – from Rochester, N.Y., to Kingston, Ont. – to raise money for the James Wilmot Cancer Center at the University of Rochester and the Ontario’s Camp Trillium Childhood Cancer Support Centre.)
The next year he was in the national team pair heading to the World Cup in Lucerne, Switzerland, the warm-up for the 2004 Olympics. “Then I came down with a fluky blood infection that kept me on an I-V for four weeks.” It took him seven months to get back in condition, and he missed his chance for the Games in Athens.
After finishing his MBA in 2005, Seiterle was back in Victoria, training on his own, in his single.
As it happened, around that time Coach Mike Spracklen was thinking about fortifying his national men’s eight with some horsepower. Favorites in Athens, the Canadian boat, a smaller crew that relied on technique and toughness, had fallen behind in the final and come undone, finishing fifth. The heartbreak left team members weeping on the dock. After the boat disappointed again at the 2006 World Championships, Spracklen was looking for answers.
One day in February 2007, Spracklen called and said he needed a sub. He asked Seiterle which side he preferred to row. Seiterle had fallen down the stairs of his apartment two days before and was sore in his right shoulder, so he said, “I’d probably feel more comfortable on port.” Spracklen said, “I’m pretty sure you were rowing starboard the last time I saw you.” Still, thinking of his shoulder, Seiderle said he’d prefer port. “And it stuck,” he says today.
Seiterle hadn’t been in a sweep boat for two years, but Spracklen must have liked what he saw. A few weeks later he said, “Would you consider being in the 8?”
At 6’4”, 205 pounds and one of the stronger rowers, Seiderle took the 6 seat, in front of 6’7”, 220-pound Malcolm Howard (Harvard ’05) in what is known in rowing as the Engine Room.
“Where I might be lacking some in the technical area,” says Seiderle, “I’m able to pull my weight.”
Like golfers with their swings, oarsmen are always striving to find the perfect stroke.
“It never feels as good as it looks,” says Seiterle, who says he sometimes dips his hands at the catch, perhaps a half-inch, sending the blade in the air before it drops in the water. Two years ago it might have been 1½ inches, so I improved, but I still wasn’t going right in, with no dip at all.” He was also working on his finish—the never-ending challenge of holding the oar in the water, maintaining pressure on the blade until the last instant, before extracting it cleanly.
The emphasis in Sprachen’s training was to train long and hard enough to be able to win on a bad day. “We did double the load from what we were doing in 2000,” says Seiterle, “It’s going to where you can’t go any further, and then going further than that, and then going even further than that. It’s teaching your mind that when it thinks you can’t go any further, it really can. It’s teaching your body that no matter how much it hurts, no matter what injury you’ve got here or there, you’re nowhere close to death, and you can give a little more.”
“You do most of your training in smaller boats – in pairs—because it keeps the competition level. There are no free rides. You can’t take a stroke off because everyone will pass you. There are always mental games people play, no matter how disciplined they are. So keeping up the competition keeps up the intensity level.”
When the Canadian boat won the 2007 world championships in Munich, Germany, it put them up against a jinx: in 35 years, no heavyweight crew had been able to follow up a world championship with Olympic gold, a measure of how fierce the competition is at the international level.
The 2007 world championships also brought the birth of Maximilian Seiterle. “It was all good,” says Laura, of her spouse being away during the delivery. “Women in the military do it all the time.”
And then there was Beijing and the Gold. “It’s a great feeling,” says Seiterle. “It’s taken a long time, but it’s worth it.”
Back home in Victoria, Seiterle is settling in and prepared to go to work full-time in marketing communications in the human resources area of the British Columbia Provincial Government. Says Seiterle, “I told Laura, who’s been supporting me all this time, if there’s anything she wants to do – go to graduate school, take a trip – it’s her time.”
“I’m pretty sure I’m retired [from competitive rowing],” he says, though he will continue to get out on the water. “It’s been too much a part of my life for too long. I don’t understand people who say they’re never getting back in a boat.”
In the first days after the Olympics, when he went out in his single, he was greeted by at least a dozen well wishers wanting to hear about the triumph. “If I wait a week or so, it may die down,” he says. “It’s my 15 minutes of fame.”