London dispatch: Stafford's long journey

Santa Rosa High graduate Silas Stafford will be competing in two-man rowing at the Olympics in London. He will be providing The Press Democrat with the occasional dispatch. You can read more of Silas’ writing on his blog and follow him on Twitter.

We have settled into the Olympic rowing village in London, and are excited to start racing in the heats on Saturday.

I'm going to be competing in rowing, in the pair.  Tom Peszek (my rowing partner) and I have had a good training camp after winning trials Princeton, N.J., about 6 weeks ago.  It’s my first Olympics, and my emotions are mostly a mix of excitement and thankfulness. The nerves are just beginning to set in, and they inevitably will escalate in the coming week. 

The Olympics are the culmination of a long journey for most athletes.  I started rowing relatively late, in my freshman year of college at UCLA.  I'd loved the discipline, racing, and rewards of distance running in high school but was too big to succeed at a higher level.  Rowing filled the void vacated by running.  I found the competitive energy, the teamwork and reward of winning to be compelling.  

A lot of the discipline, mental toughness and mental tricks I'd learned while running track and cross country at Santa Rosa High School paid big dividends in rowing, where the mental battle is half the game.  I'm certain the aerobic training in running played a huge role as well.  

I transferred to Stanford and my rowing career took off.  My junior year we took silver at national championships, and I was invited to try out for the under-23 national team.  My skills kept advancing with the sharp learning curve of a beginner, and when it came time to graduate, I had to figure out whether to continue rowing.

Deciding to pursue rowing after college felt like jumping off a cliff.  It meant three years of training hard twice a day, making little or no money, and surviving off of the generosity of others, alongside a minuscule stipend from the US Olympic Committee for those who made the national team.  The infrastructure we enjoyed rowing for Stanford simply wasn't there.  Rowing is not a sport where money is made even at the international level. We row because we love it, or because we feel we have something to prove.  I decided I had to try for the London Olympics, even if only to eliminate regret and "what-ifs" later in life.  

Fast-forward three years of training and racing, three years of blistered hands, back injuries and broken ribs, three years of making the team and getting cut from the team, summers spent sleeping on the floor at the Princeton Catholic student center with 20 others, three years of surviving. Here I am, racing in the Olympics for the USA.  It's been a difficult road, with me frequently questioning what I am doing with my life and why.  Ultimately though, it has been an enormously rewarding road, and I am thankful to be where I am.  I have no regrets, only gratitude.  Immediately after crossing the line and winning Olympic trials, a great roar exploded from deep in my belly, the release of years of suffering and hope.  It was worth it.