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Rowing her way to the Olympics

Two pivotal things must happen over the next year for elite rower Michaela Copenhaver of New Milford to realize her dream of competing in the Olympics in lightweight double sculls. Picture two women in a sliver of a boat, four oars, a burst of heart-pumping speed and, hopefully, the endurance to cover 2,000 meters faster than any other pair in the world.

Lots of variables are in play, but there’s at least one certainty for the Princeton University graduate and West Coast transplant who started rowing in high school. Training for the past several years with Guenter Beutter at GMS Rowing Center, she’s in exactly the right place. “I met the coach when I was training out in California,” Copenhaver recalls. “I immediately knew it was a better fit. He and I have the ability to read each other’s minds.”

So strong was the bond, Copenhaver persuaded her husband, photographer Dan Copenhaver, to move to New Milford amid the brutal winter of 2014.

They may not have loved the climate shock, but the rest clicked for the couple, who love the Litchfield Hills and how favorably Connecticut compares to California on cost of living and housing prices. “Also, all of the qualifying racing is in New Jersey, so coming out from California several times a year was not feasible,” says Copenhaver, who trains seven days a week, often twice a day.

The incentive driving her intensity can be summed up in two words, Olympic glory, and Copenhaver’s efforts have been paying off.

In 2018, she earned a spot on US Rowing’s senior national team, which represents the U.S. in the Olympics and World Championships, qualifying in lightweight quadruple sculls (four women) and finishing fourth at the 2018 World Rowing Championships in Bulgaria.

Great result, just one problem. Lightweight boats were introduced to give smaller rowers a fighting chance, as size is a “huge advantage,” says Copenhaver (five-feet, seven inches and 125 pounds). Lightweights suffer nonpriority status for the Olympics—and only one boat in Copenhaver’s class goes, the women’s lightweight double sculls.

For Copenhaver to be in that boat at the 2020 Olympics, the U.S. first has to qualify a lightweight doubles boat by performing well enough at the next World Rowing Championships this summer—a step that “may be” out of Copenhaver’s control. She’ll only be in the boat for the Olympic qualifying attempt if she rows exceptionally well in national team trials coming up, which presumably would mean leapfrogging the U.S. pair who won Silver at the last World Championships.

Either way, Copenhaver assumes the U.S. will qualify the boat for the Olympics. The next step comes in early spring of the Olympic year. Because rowing is strictly merit-based, the women’s doubles pair that wins those trials goes to the Olympics.

Copenhaver has reason to hope, as top rowers tend to peak and then fade, while talented rowers on the rise are pacing themselves to time their peak to an Olympic cycle. “There’s definitely some speed out there that hasn’t been there before,” she says of partnering well. “You can have the right pairing of athletes who can go really, really fast. A good double can be more than the sum of its parts; it’s finding a person you click with perfectly.”

If all of that isn’t complicated enough, there’s also a sense of urgency to the mission for Copenhaver. “It’s very likely the lightweights will be cut from the Olympics in 2024, so 2020 may be my last shot,” she says.


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