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Washington's Brooke Mooney turns skis and erg record into quest for Olympic gold

Jul 29, 2021
US Rowing

TOKYO – On Friday morning, six days after it won its opening heat of the Tokyo Games, the U.S. women’s eight will aim for its fourth consecutive Olympic gold medal. If it wins, it means the boat moved as one, every sinew and breath of its crew in perfect unison. In rowing, all credit it shared. No one’s a hero. But sometimes, a remarkable story lies within. This year’s compelling figure is in the “engine room,” or power section.

Brooke Mooney, 25, sits third from the bow. She was raised in Vermont, in a skiing town in a skiing area. She grew up competing in cross-country skiing. It’s what her family did. It’s what her friends did – everyone in elementary school and middle school. She was tall, athletic, and posted strong results in the 1.2km to 1.4km sprints. Nevertheless, she said, “I was never like, ‘This is what I want to do in college and fully commit to.' I was doing it because I didn’t know differently.”

A learn-to-row camp changed all that. The summer before her senior year, she transferred to a New England prep school that offered crew. The spring before graduating, she rowed her first 2km (the Olympic distance) on the erg. The team was scheduled for a 1,500m workout, but she asked her coach if she could tack on another 500, so she could have a time for college. “It can’t be that much longer – only 500 meters,” she says now, chuckling. “That’s the LAST time I ever think 2K is ‘not that much longer’ than a 1,500.”

She covered the distance in 7 minutes, 22 seconds, and didn’t realize it was an excellent time for an inaugural 2K. “To be a top recruit going to college, I was told it’s like 7:20, or sub 7:20. I was like: Oh cool! I just did a 7:22. That sounds good!”

She applied to WASHINGTON but thought it was longshot. “I’m not going to get into this place,” she said. “They’re not going to want me. I don’t know what I’m doing. I had no idea about this whole rowing-in college thing. I’m just gonna fill out all these forms.”

The Huskies said yes!

The ski training she’d done had demonstrated that she was strong enough to handle a full, intense conditioning programs, including heart-rate training.

“They were taking a risk,” she acknowledged, “but maybe they’ll catch you and be like, ‘Oh, you’re not burned out on rowing. Let’s see what we can do with you.’”

By junior year, Mooney was an NCAA champion in Washington’s eight, along with Jessica Thoennes, who currently rows in the bow of the 2020 U.S. Olympic eight.

In 2018, her senior year, Mooney’s erg stats shot through the roof. During an early season one-minute erg test, Mooney maintained an output of 615 watts, and when UW coach Yasmin Farooq sent word to the national team coaches, “They did not recall anyone having ever gone above 600,” Farooq told The Seattle Times.

Additionally, in a 10-minute stroke test, to see how many watts Mooney could generate in a single stroke, Mooney’s maximum hit 854 watts, which the national team coaches called another “unprecedented number.”

None of those numbers were planned. But three years later, Mooney had an idea. She was feeling strong and thought she could break 6:22.8 over 2,000 meters on the erg. In other words, cut eight seconds off her personal best and bust open Olena Buryak’s erg world record at the Olympic distance. The prize? Nothing, not even a t-shirt.

But Mooney was hungry.

She researched Buryak’s training and splits, this past March 24, at the end of a national team camp, Mooney sat down at an erg at the end of the line for a team test. She hit her first two 500-meter marks in dead-even splits, 1:37.2 for each. Halfway through the third quarter, she said, “something came over me, and I just WENT. The projected finish time [on the readout] kept coming down and I was like, ‘I can do this.’ It was the longest sprint of my life. Going into the last minute and a half of the piece, I had a slight panic moment and thought: you need to lengthen out and add a bit more power. I did that for a few strokes, went right back to half-slide, just put my head down and went. I don’t know if I could ever have a sprint like that again, but yeah.”

Six minutes, 21.1 seconds. World record.

U.S. coach Tom Terhaar was there to see it.

“I’m not surprised,” he said of her time. “It’s more that she did it after only really about two-and-a-half years of training at a high level.

“People say erg times don’t necessarily translate to boat speed in the water – but they will eventually” he said. “It’s only a matter of time. It’s easier to figure out how to row a little better than it is to go 6:21.

Win, place, or show for the U.S. on Friday, Terhaar said, “She’s got a lot to prove. We don’t want to blow her ego out too much. She’s got a lot of room to grow and lots to learn. But she’s showing really good potential and has done an excellent job of continuing to have a steady increase in performance.”

Stay tuned.