Sports

M-A grad Weil set to row, row, row his boat in Rio waters

 

Seth Weil never imagined it going this far.

The Menlo-Atherton High grad was just looking for a way to blow off steam when he signed up for the rowing club as a UC Davis freshman.

"I was just drawn in by the culture of it," Weil said, "just the push of people waking up early in the morning and working hard, that was exciting to me.

"I thought it was a good way to kick-start the day, you feel like you're doing something right."

Weil is still feeling it.

The 29-year-old will compete in the men's 4 in the 2016 Olympics in Rio.

"I definitely made a conscious effort to try to improve," he said. "You try to be a little bit better the next year and the next year and the next year and I just kept stacking it up, pouring it on. And now I'm here."

To say Weil was among the most unlikely future Olympians in M-A's 2005 graduating class would be an understatement.

Weil played the trumpet in a jazz band and was on the robotics team. He didn't compete in any sport at any level.

But he considers his M-A experience to be a crucial part of his future athletic development.

"I was just fortunate to be around incredibly driven people," he said. "In every aspect of my life growing up I was around a group of people that were better than me at what I was trying to do, so I just learned from them.

"When I was learning to play trumpet there were people that were better than me. If I was trying to learn programming I had friends that were just incredible programmers."

Weil believes the intensely-competitive environment drove him to pursue excellence.

"I could latch on to what made them good, and when it came time for me to put things together for myself I had a lot more tools to draw from than I realized.

"All I'm doing with rowing is just pulling in the lessons and the skills that I learned growing up when I was surrounded by so many incredible people."

Music remains a passion for Weil, with an eclectic mix of hip-hop, jazz, classic rock and many other genres central to a grueling training program that affords him a guilt-free 8,000 calorie daily diet.

"I think music is incredibly performance-enhancing," Weil said. " Anything that brings out emotions in you I think is good for training.

“Emotion is fuel, it's what allows you to get up in the morning. I firmly believe that without listening music I wouldn't have succeeded in rowing. It's been an integral part of my training since I started."

Weil completed his undergraduate degree at UC Davis in aerospace engineering with a minor in psychology with a biological emphasis. He gave up on plans to study theoretical physics after his freshman year.

A curiosity that he believes is essential to the human spirit drives Weil's academic and athletic pursuits.

"The common thread they have is just being curious," Weil said. "The biggest thing that's helped me as an athlete is just being curious at all times. I like problems and I really like solving problems."

Just days out from the Rio competition, he continues to juggle the anticipation of elite athletic competition with questions that dog modern science.

"One of the biggest unknowns I think in modern science is how the brain functions and how it works," he said. "If you ask my coaches they'll probably say they struggle to get me out of my head a little bit because I'm always thinking a lot."

It is in the water where the theoretical ideas of how the immovable force and unstoppable object interact, and the reality of creating forces that move objects, intersect.

Weil enters the Olympics at the top of his game. He's just a year removed from being named the US Rowing Male Athlete of the Year.

Going from the robotics team at M-A to the Olympics culminates more than a decade of training.

His workouts include up to 20 kilometers in the water followed by strength and interval training. He is usually up at 6 a.m. and in the water by 6:45.

“You're trying to build big lungs to have a big aerobic capacity and also have a lot of muscle to push, to really move weight," he said. “It's a sustained sprint. (Rowing is) a power endurance sport, the goal would be to produce the most power you can for about six minutes."

Managing his energy level is one of the most formidable challenges.

“You try to figure out the maximum sustained effort you can do for this amount of time and you try to get right to it and hold it," he said."Iif you try to go too hard you'll blow up and if you don't go hard enough you'll fall behind."

The hardest part, however, is honestly measuring progress.

“It's a scary thing to open yourself up to the reality of where you stand," he said, noting that “instinct everybody has to not want to check their bank account because they don't want to know how much money they have in it."

“If you can start being OK with honest feedback, that's when you can start to improve."

Weil acknowledged that training for the Olympics is hard, “but not the same kind of hard as waking up every day and grinding out a job to support a family."

He said the training Olympic athletes do isn't all that different from what recreational athletes experience.

“The boats get faster and the times get faster and you get faster, but whatever the weekend warrior is doing to struggle through the last three miles is the same exact thing that we struggle through to finish our last three miles.

“That's a human quality and it's just something you get better at doing it because you build more mental tools to push through."

He believes the appeal of the Olympics is that the competition reflects the challenges that are elemental to the human experience.

“I know it looks like 'bigger, faster, stronger,' but the Olympics are really a not a celebration of the fastest and the biggest and the strongest so much as a celebration of a natural characteristic in people, and the desire to be curious," he said.

Weil remains curious.

“As a species we like to explore planets and territories and then within yourself you like to explore how far can this go? how far can I push myself? how much can I achieve?

“Am I capable of doing this?"

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