Eyes On Paris
This feature originally appeared in the 2022 Spring edition of the Cal Sports Quarterly. The Cal Athletics flagship magazine features long-form sports journalism at its finest and provides in-depth coverage of the scholar-athlete experience in Berkeley. Printed copies are mailed four times a year to Bear Backers who give annually at the Bear Club level (currently $600 or more). For more information on how you can receive a printed version of the Cal Sports Quarterly at home, send an email to CalAthleticsFund@berkeley.edu or call (510) 642-2427.
For someone who had his realistic eye on the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris, Ollie Maclean came awfully close to winning a gold medal in Tokyo.
The Cal rower from Auckland, New Zealand, didn't initially think he'd make his nation's Olympic team for the 2020 Games, but he ended up being a reserve for the trip to Tokyo. Maclean was on standby for any of New Zealand's boats, and moments before the final of the men's eight, he was told he might have to row due to a back injury to teammate Dan Williamson.
Maclean went through the entire warm-up routine as part of the men's eight and walked with the crew to launch the boat 10 minutes before the start of the race. That's when it was determined that Williamson could row, and Maclean ended up watching his teammates take the gold medal from the crowd box.
"I cried," Maclean's mother, Vikki, said. "I was in a café when Ollie rang me and told me he could possibly be needed for the eight. I just burst into tears. It was all of his dreams come true."
While the emotional tug-of-war was certainly challenging, Maclean handled the situation with all of the traits his Cal teammates have gotten to know – maturity, professionalism, selflessness and leadership.
"I had the mindset as if I was going to race," Maclean said. "I knew my position on the team was to help the guys and warm up as if I was going to race. The day I was announced as a reserve for the team, my mindset changed to how can I help these guys as much as possible."
Maclean established himself as one of New Zealand's top young rowers when he was named to the country's under-23 national team at the age of 18 and helped it win the gold medal in the quad at the 2017 World Rowing U23 Championships. He enrolled at Northeastern University that fall and spent two years with the Huskies before making the decision to transfer to Cal, where he is now a senior.
Maclean ascended through the New Zealand national program along with good friend Jack Lopas, who also made the U23 team at the age of 18 and went to Yale, where he is now a senior and team captain. Lopas rowed in the double sculls in Tokyo.
"Being a reserve was definitely a tough position for Ollie to be in – there's that mental strain of being in and out of a boat," Lopas said. "Rowing is a lot of repetition and just getting used to something by doing it over and over again, and he wasn't consistently in the same boat every day. We were pretty confident going into the Olympics that if something did happen, we would have a very good backup."
Maclean said he originally had his sights on the 2024 Summer Olympics and last year was more of a bonus. But he feels the experience he had in Tokyo will help as he has his eyes firmly set now on Paris.
"Tokyo was never on my mind," Maclean said. "Paris was. It was like a bonus to experience the Olympics in Tokyo. I was definitely distracted. I saw all the NBA players, all the sprinters. I feel like I have that out of my system now and going toward Paris, I will be locked in."
Maclean arrived in Berkeley in time for the spring season in 2019 and rowed in Cal's varsity eight, including at the IRA national championships. He was in the varsity eight that fall and for the only race in the spring of 2020 before the season was shut down due to COVID-19.
"I knew Cal was more of my crowd right away," Maclean said. "It was pretty easy to fit in. I looked at some other schools originally as well, but Cal was always in the back of my mind."
Maclean returned to New Zealand to train and earn his spot as a reserve on the Olympic team. When he got back to Berkeley last fall, he said it took him awhile to feel comfortable assuming a leadership position. Not only had he missed the previous season because of his national team commitments in New Zealand, the entire team had been separated before that because of COVID-19.
"He's patient and humble," said fellow Cal rower Cameron Smith, who came up through the New Zealand national team program with Maclean. "I think he's being more communicative and really encouraging people to speak up and initiate a conversation on how to improve things. That's definitely something he's developed in his leadership – just taking a little bit more ownership of his communication."
Cal head coach Scott Frandsen called Maclean a "one-percenter," one of those rare athletes that takes care of all of the details to make winning possible. Frandsen said it was that approach that allowed Maclean to assimilate immediately once he arrived in Berkeley.
"I think it took him about 20 minutes to be fully integrated into our team culture when he first got here," Frandsen said. "Guys will follow someone who is just clearly serious about what they do and is comfortable in their own skin. It's very easy to tell what's important to him. That's infectious."
Maclean said much of his focus on the details came from his time away with the New Zealand national team. He trained with several Olympic veterans, including New Zealand legend Mahe Drysdale, a three-time Olympic medalist.
"Being in the international system for a year, I really learned a lot from the other guys – the knowledge and the experiences they shared with me," Maclean said. "I was training with elite guys who have been in the system for 10-15 years. I felt like when I got back to Cal, I could now lead a team, speak up more, share my experiences and wisdom that I've learned from what worked for me and what I think can help the team."
Maclean has imparted the importance of the details to his Cal teammates – especially the underclassmen. He focuses on sleep, physiotherapy, nutrition, hydration – all the things that allow for consistently high-level training, which he feels puts the team on the path to winning.
"It's definitely rubbed off on me," Smith said. "I think he's really learned a lot over these last two or three years, and he's really owning it. He's learned a lot from the New Zealand team, and I think he also grew some confidence from that as well. When all is said and done I'm really hopeful for his career in the future and I'm really banking on the fact that he's going to become my claim to fame. I want to be able to tell my kids one day that I rowed with that guy."