This was my father’s identity card for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Through his work for NBC News, and NBC’s sustained relationship to the Olympic Games, I was a fan of the greatest sports competition in the world. I was only one years-old at the time of the Tokyo Olympic Games, and of course remember nothing of it. But come 2020, when the Summer Games return to Tokyo, I will be there.
At the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the kayakers and canoeists landed at Haneda Airport like most other Olympians, but then were whisked off to Sagamihara, about sixty kilometers west of Tokyo. The competitions for the canoeists and kayakers were to be held at Lake Sagami, a man-made reservoir in an idyllic setting developed for tourists.
To Andras Toro, it was dreamlike:
Lake Sagami was a magical place with all the oriental beauty we had only seen before in magazines…the morning mist that rose along the shoreline was beautifully surreal.
It was the perfect setting for Cold War intrigue.
Since the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, Toro and his friends in the Honved Canoe Club in Budapest had given serious thought to defecting from their country, as long as it was under the hammer (and sickle) of the Soviet Union. In fact, many of his friends did indeed defect, taking advantage of their participation at the 1956 Melbourne Games.
But Toro didn’t go to Melbourne. And his bronze medal finish at the 1960 Rome Olympics only fanned the flames of his desire to win in Tokyo. Competing in the individual 1,000-meter event, Toro had his sights set on the gold. But he also smelled an opportunity—that if he did not win a medal, he would seriously consider defecting to the West.
Just saying that you want to defect, however, doesn’t make it happen. There is no defector’s manual. Who do you contact? What country would take you? How do you avoid the ears and eyes of your country’s minders? Toro spoke almost no English. Who would he even start this conversation with?
And yet, when you want something, as Paulo Coelho famously put it in his novel, The Alchemist, “all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”
Off the foggy banks of Lake Sagami, the universe began to conspire for Andras Toro.
In the tiny community of Olympic canoeists and kayakers emerged quite unexpectedly a friend of Toro’s, Andor Elbert. Friends since their teenage years in the Honved Canoe Club in Budapest, Elbert had defected to Canada eight years prior, and was representing Canada at the 1964 Olympics. Toro, shielded behind his Hungarian minders, was of course never informed that a defector had made the Olympic squad on another nation’s team.
Then an American kayaker named Bill Smoke entered the picture. He was at Lake Sagami to compete for the US Olympic squad, but he was also looking for talent. Smoke lived in Michigan, famous for its lakes and love of boating of all kinds, and he hoped to find someone who could build canoes and kayaks so that he could start a business back home.
Smoke walked over to the Canadian dorms looking for someone who spoke English and happened to have that conversation with Elbert. Smoke wondered if Elbert knew anyone in Canada who might be willing to help him out. As a matter of fact, Elbert did know someone, but he wasn’t from Canada.
Elbert told Smoke that his friend Toro was not only good at designing and building boats, he was also hoping to defect from Hungary. Smoke in turn talked with US teammate and then-girlfriend, Marcia Jones, who was in Japan also competing in individual canoeing. She turned out to be a key connection, as her mother was Mary Francis, an attorney, one of two women to graduate from the University of Michigan Law School in 1929. She was also sympathetic to people who had to leave their home countries.
Jones said that when she was ten, they had a DP, or displaced person, couple from Latvia stay with them. “The government brought them over here,” she said. “My mother sponsored them. They lived at our place. They went to our schools. She wanted to help them out. She was a very generous person and we could afford to help them.”
When Jones told her mother about Toro, Mary Francis got to work, contacting the US Embassy in Tokyo to seek their help. According to Smoke, who eventually married Jones, his future mother-in-law was not someone you could say no to easily. Francis was able to set up a meeting for Toro at the Embassy.
So very suddenly, all of the pieces fell into place. Toro was ready to defect, resigned to most likely never seeing his family and home country ever again, but with hopes of starting anew in a new land. All that remained, strangely enough, was for him to lose.
An excerpt from the book, 1964: The Greatest Year in the History of Japan – How the Tokyo Olympics Symbolized Japan’s Miraculous Rise from the Ashes
In 1959, when Tokyo was awarded the XVIII Olympiad by the IOC, Seiko’s President, Shoji Hattori, was determined to make Seiko the official timer of the Olympic Games. In 1960, he sent a telegram to one of his watch design section managers, Saburo Inoue, with instructions that would forever change the fate of the Japanese watch company—”Intend to handle official timing duties. Go to Rome Olympics in August and observe timing procedures.”
Inoue was deeply skeptical of the idea, and for good reason. “I’d never seen timing devices for the Olympics,” he said. “I didn’t know how they used their stopwatches, or what types they would need. We couldn’t do computer simulations, so we had to work out every single thing by trial and error.”
But again, as explained in the 2012 The Daily Telegraph article, ignorance proved to be bliss.
In those days, it was the prerogative of the local organizing committee to select the company that would supply the timers, and it was likely they would choose the tried-and-true Swiss watchmakers—Omega or Longines. Up till then, they were the only firms trusted with ensuring accurate times in Olympic competition.
In contrast, Seiko’s experience in building timers specifically for sports was zero. Such was the confidence of Hattori and Japan at the time—that anything was possible if they tried.
Without assurance of a contract for the Olympics, Hattori asked his three group companies to work on Olympic-related projects: large clocks, stopwatches, crystal chronometers, and a new idea, a device that could print the times of competitors right after the end of a race. They were called printing timers, and this revolutionized the way results of competitions were determined.
In only two years, Seiko was producing sports stopwatches that passed the standards of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) Technical Committee. In a track and field competition in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, the IAAF was witness to a successful test, as the Japanese-made stopwatches proved accurate and reliable.
Seiko had already successfully developed quartz technology for small watches, and used this crystal technology for long distance races, like the marathon among others. Developing this quartz technology was key to developing Seiko wristwatches of the future that would stay accurate over longer periods of time.
More significantly, perhaps for the athletes, was Seiko’s development of the printing timer, a machine that would electronically time and print the results of an event, up to 1/100 of a second for track events.
This machine had a significant impact on a high-visibility competition at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics—the women’s 80-meter hurdles final.
On October 19, at the National Stadium, Karin Balzer of Germany and Teresa Cieply of Poland settled into their starting blocks. When the pistol shot rang, an electric signal was sent via wire to a printing timer, as well as a signal to a camera that would take special photo finish pictures, and a signal to a large spectator clock that set the second-hand in motion.
In a stunning finish, Balzer, Cieply, and Australian Pam Kilborn hit the tape seemingly in a dead heat, all three timed by officials at 10.5 seconds. Despite numerous officials with hand stopwatches that measured in tenths of seconds, officials could not determine a winner.
The officials preferred not to hand out three gold medals, and fortunately, had a fallback plan—the latest timing technology from Japan.
When the runners arrived at the goal, a picture was taken by a slit camera, manufactured by Japan Photo Finish Co. Ltd. After thirty seconds, the image’s negative was transmitted as a reflected image, and converted in three minutes to a positive print. The information from Seiko’s printing timer was integrated into an image noting times in hundredths of seconds. The photo would show not only the athletes, but time, and thus the order in which they finished.
Thanks to the printing timer, it was revealed that Balzer completed the race in 10.54 seconds, 0.01 seconds ahead of Cieply, who was also only 0.01 seconds ahead of Kilborn. While the IAAF officially recognized times to the tenth of a second, in this case, they accepted the recorded electronic time to the hundredth.
The printing timer contributed mightily to the evolution of timed sports, and led to the creation of the famed, global printing company—EPSON—its name a simple mash-up of the words “son of electronic printer.”
1964 was Seiko’s time.
It was October 10, 1964 – a bright and beautiful Autumn day.
After years of hard work, years of worry, years of questioning whether the world would embrace Japan after the turmoil of world war, the Tokyo Olympics had finally arrived.
To the world, Japan was radiant, fresh-faced, smiling from ear to ear, looking at the world with eyes wide open, like a baby, looking at her beautiful mother for the first time.
The feeling at that time was reflected in the song, “Konnichiwa Akachan” (こんにちは赤ちゃん) , sung by Michiyo Azusa. This popular tune was released in 1963, but Japanese would still hear it on the radio and the TV constantly throughout 1964 as it captured the spirit of the time – optimism for a bright future!
Below is the singer, Chiharu Nacitas and the guitarist Steve Myers, performing “Konnichi was Akachan” (which means “Hello, My Baby!”) at my book launch party on October 10, 2019, the 55th anniversary of the 1964 Tokyo Summer Games.
The sense of optimism at the time was powerful, as Japanese adults who made the Olympics possible, and who cheered on and welcomed athletes from all visiting nations, were alive at the end of the Pacific War, when all they and their families knew was poverty, homelessness, hunger, and disease, at least for those in the burned out rubble-strewn cities of Japan.
The Japanese rebuilt the nation and were rightly proud to bring to the world the most logistically demanding global event of its time. And on that beautiful Autumn day on October 10, never was the nation prouder. Japan was akin to a newly born baby, smiling into the eyes of her mother, as in the song.
The person who wrote the lyrics to “Konnichiwa Akachan” was Rokusuke Ei. He also wrote the lyrics to a 1961 song that was very popular during the Olympics, not only to the Japanese, but also to foreigners visiting the country. The song was sung in Japanese, and still sold over 13 million copies worldwide, hitting number 1 on the pop charts in the US, Canada and Australia.
This song was known in Japan as “Ue o Muite Arukou,”(上を向いて歩こう) and its catchy melody made singer Sakamoto Kyu a global star, and made Japan relevant to the world. To the rest of the world, it was known as “Sukiyaki,” the idea of a British music promoter who thought that the Japanese dish would make more sense to the Western world. You can’t argue with success.
If you understand the lyrics,“Ue o Muite Arukou” sounds like a love song, or one of unrequited love. But Rokusuke Ei wrote not about love, but about defeat.
Ei participated in the anti-government protests against Japan’s signing of the Mutual Treaty of Cooperation and Security with America. And after the government signed the treaty, American soldiers and military bases were allowed to remain in the country. Ei was sad, and wrote that famous song, reflecting a more complex relationship Japan had with the West, particularly the United States.
While anti-government protests were happening in Japan in the early 1960s and around the world, they were gaining real force in the late 1960s. In fact, the 1968 Mexico City Olympics were scarred by the killing of dozens if not hundreds of students during an anti-government protest by government forces, only 10 days prior to the start of those Games.
If the Olympics came to Tokyo in 1968, it’s likely that the clamor of anti-government protests in Japan would have created tension if not trouble during the Games.
If the Games came to Tokyo in 1960, it’s likely that the Japanese economy in the 1950s, while accelerating, would not have been robust enough to support the organization of the Games for the summer of 1960.
In other words, 1964 was the perfect time, the right time. And after the successful completion of the 1964 Olympics, they were often called the Happy Games, and in retrospect, the Last innocent Games.
Two of Rokusuke Ei’s most popular songs captured the mood of the time, and are, in my mind, intertwined with the joy and wonder the Japanese had for the XVIII Olympiad in Tokyo.
Here again are Chiharu Nacitas and Steve Myers with their beautiful rendition of “Ue o Muite, Arukou.”
As I sit at home this quiet Saturday morning, Tokyo braces for the mighty hurricane Hagibis.
As Forbes claims, Hagibis could be as powerful as Hurricane Sandy, a category 2 storm that resulted in 2 billion dollars worth of damage to the East Coast of the US in 2012.
Today is October 12, 2019. For all the amateur and professional weather prognosticators who are fretting about the potential heat wave during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, to be held from July 24 to August 9, calm down.
So many have said, “Why didn’t they schedule the upcoming Olympics in October like they did in 1964?” They could have. But for financial reasons outlined in this informative New York Times article, they didn’t.
So imagine the Olympics taking place in mid-October, on a day like today. What would have happened?
The 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan is a test case. The organizers for the 2-month tournament, which has been very well received in Japan, selling out stadiums across the nation, have cancelled (not postponed) two matches between New Zealand and Italy, and between England and France due to the threat of Hagibis.
Well, the organizers couldn’t have predicted that.
If the third day of the Olympics fell on October 12 like today, the organizers would have to cancel surfing, rowing, beach volleyball, skateboarding, shooting, archery, field hockey, softball, tennis, sailing, canoe slalom, road cycling, soccer, and equestrian dressage because they are outdoor events. But they would also likely cancel all of the indoor events as well, which include volleyball, fencing, gymnastics, table tennis, badminton, taekwando, swimming, weighlifting, baseketball, handball, judo, and diving because of the risk of harm and delay to spectators, organizers and athletes getting to and from venues.
Hurricanes aside, yes, it will likely be hot during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Most athletes and organizers will do the cost-benefit analysis in their heads, weighing their options, as they did regarding the more fearsome Zika Virus scare prior to the Rio Olympics. My guess is that even the marathoners and triathoners, who could be affected by the heat, will decide to go to Tokyo for the Olympics. I’m sure the organizers will go overboard on creating cooler environments (although I doubt they can bring down the summer water temperature of Tokyo Bay for the triathletes.)
At the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the weather was actually far from beautiful Autumn weather. The temperatures ranged from 14.6 C (58.2F) to 21.7C (71F), and was basically cool, cloudy and rainy almost every day. The road cyclists could see their breath in the hills of Hachioji, the runners in the Stadium had to run through rain and sometimes muddy conditions on certain days.
And smack dab in the middle of the Tokyo Olympics, everybody in Japan were deeply concerned about radiation poisoning. Communist China decided to detonate its first atomic bomb as a test, on October 16, 1964. The only nation to have an atomic bomb dropped on its soil, organizers and citizens alike were concerned about radiation fallout blown on the winds over the waters that separated the two countries.
Predicting the unpredictable – it’s cool if you can do it. I wouldn’t bet on it.
So for those who are sure what the weather will be like in Tokyo from July 24 to August 9 – here’s hoping you had nothing great planned outdoors today.
The Tokyo Organizing Committee sent emails today (October 2, 2019) to people who signed up for the Tokyo2020 Paralympic ticket lottery found out whether they were lucky or not. I had already struck out twice in the ticket lottery for Olympic events, so I was not optimistic.
As it turned out, my email went straight to the junk folder so I didn’t notice it until the evening. And the contents weren’t junk!
“We are happy to inform you…..”
That’s all I needed to know. When I went to the website, signed in, and saw what I won, it was kind of depressing at first. All the events I wanted started with the word “Sorry”. Tickets for the first six events I applied for were not available.
But as I scrolled all the way to the bottom, I saw that I had attained tickets for great events: the opening and closing ceremonies.
Sunday, September 29, 2019 was gymnastics legend, Masao Takemoto‘s birthday. Had the three-time Olympian been alive, he would have turned 100 that day.
So many of Japan’s gymnastics greats attended this event, including:
- Shuji Tsurumi, two time Olympian and winner of 6 medals, including three silver medals at the ’64 Olympics to go with his team gold
- Haruhiro Yamashita, Tsurumi’s teammate on the 1964 team and winner of two medals, including gold in individual vault
- Toshiko Shirasu Aihara, two-time Olympian and 1964 women’s team bronze medalist
- Gingko Abukawa-Chiba, two-time Olympian and 1964 women’s team bronze medalist
- Koji Gushiken, 5-time medalist at the 1984 Olympics, including men’s individual all around
Takemoto was an inspiration to them all. Appearing at the 1952, 1956 and 1960 Olympics, Takemoto amassed 7 medals, and 7 medals in World Championships in 1954 and 1958, helping the Japan team to a team silver medal at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. When he finished his Olympic career, helping his team to the gold medal at the 1960 Rome Olympics, he helped ignite a 16-year stretch of absolute dominance for Japanese men’s gymnastics, as Team Japan took gold from Rome in 1960 to Montreal in 1976.
And he won that gold medal at the age of 41.
Japanese American gymnast, Makoto Sakamoto was a 13-year old in Los Angeles, after moving there from Tokyo, when Japan won their first team gold in Rome. Sakamoto, who was in Tokyo and attended the 100th anniversary of Takemoto’s birthday, told the attendees that he and his older brother had a copy of Takemoto’s book on gymnastics, and that they read every page and followed every line in the book like it was gospel.
Sakamoto would go on to make the American men’s gymnastics team and compete at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, as well as serve as assistant coach to Team USA men’s gymnastics team that won gold at home in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
The taxi driver couldn’t help it. He started talking about Japan’s incredible upset over Ireland in rugby on Saturday. Then he talked about the Japan women’s volleyball team come back win over Serbia a day before that. And how about those Japanese boys in Doha at the World Track and Field Championships? He said that if he could, he would be ditching the taxi and watching sports all day and all night.
Something’s in the air in Japan.
The 2-month 2019 Rugby World Cup taking place in Japan is a huge hit – stadiums are packed with fans from all over the world. And Japan, which entered the tournament ranked ninth in the world, pulled off an incredible upset of second-ranked Ireland, which set the country on fire. As The Guardian put it:
Japan have done it again, this time against the team ranked No 1 in the world two weeks ago. The World Cup hosts came from nine points down to win after playing with pace, skill and fervour that the humidity and time could not dim. Such was the thunderous roar when the final whistle sounded it would have caused the nearby Mount Fuji to wobble.
Over the weekend, Japan watched the Japanese women’s volleyball team win the last three games of an 11-game FIVB Volleyball Women’s World Cup. They had fallen into a funk and ran their record to 3 – 5, losing to regional rivals China and South Korea, but defeated Serbia, Argentina and the Netherlands in the final three days to take fifth place in the tournament.
Like the rugby matches, all games were on national television, and the volleyball arena in Osaka was packed with enthusiastic, cheering fans.
In the late evenings and mornings, Japanese track and field fans watched Japanese sprinters and long jumpers at the 2019 IAAF World Championships in Doha, Qatar. Fans watched rising stars Yuki Koike, Abdul Hakim Sani Brown and Yoshihide Kiryu compete for 100-meter glory. After Japan’s incredible silver-medal feat in the 4×100 relay sprint at the 2016 Rio Olympics, Japan’s men have raised their games and hope to equal their prospects in 2020.
Unfortunately, Japan’s sprinters were all eliminated in the semi-finals. But that did not dampen the mood of a nation electrified by the accomplishments of their national teams over the weekend.
Japan’s rugby team showed that on your home turf, anything’s possible. Japan’s volleyball team showed that on their home court, they can be as dangerous as any other team – in fact they took number 2 USA to five sets last week.
Japan’s athletes are competing at the highest levels. They look to smash their record of 16 gold medals at an Olympics at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
There’s something in the air. And to the Japanese, it’s a tailwind, and it’s just beginning to build.
It’s amazing to think – over one third of all 44 venues for the upcoming 2020 Tokyo Olympics are in the Tokyo Bay, landfill property developed over centuries, but particularly over the past 100 years.
According to Associate Professor Robin Kietlinski of LaGuardia Community College of the City University of New York, 16 venues for the Olympics will be held in what had been previously the open waters of Tokyo Bay.
In a talk Dr. Kietlinski gave on Friday, September 27, 2019, at the newly opened Japan campus of Temple University, she explained how the physical landmass of Tokyo along the Western edges of Tokyo Bay began to grow when Edo was established in the early 17th century as the de facto capital of Japan during the Tokugawa shogunate. But in the aftermath of the 1923 Great Kanto Earthquake, and the firebombings of Tokyo during World War II, rubble was poured into the western and northern shores of Tokyo Bay.
Around the time of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, when the engine of the Japanese economic miracle was really beginning to rev, the waste produced by the tremendous growth in population, industry and consumerism was growing faster than they could manage it. Tokyo waterways were polluted and odorous. The landfill in Tokyo Bay became the dumping grounds of Tokyo, and ran rampant with rodents and flies. As I wrote in this blog post on Yumenoshima, site of Olympic archery next year, the Self Defense Forces had to be called into exterminate the fly infestation.
Today, as Dr. Kietlinski explained, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government has built waste processing plants that pulverize and incinerate waste. All of the incinerator ash is then used for landfill in Tokyo Bay, continuing plans to increase the terrestrial space in the bay, according to this explanation of waste management from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government.
Here is a list of all of the venues, including the Olympic Village, that sit in the middle of Tokyo Bay. You can see get more information on the Olympic venues here.
- Aomi Urban Sports Park – 3×3 basketball, sport climbing
- Ariake Arena – volleyball
- Ariake Gymnastics Center -gymnastics
- Ariake Tennis Park – tennis
- Ariake Urban Sports Park – BMX, skateboarding
- IBC/MPC (International Broadcast Center/Main Press Center)
- Kasai Canoe Slalom Center – canoe (slalom)
- Odaiba Marine Park – marathon swimming, triathlon
- Oi Hockey Stadium – field hockey
- Olympic Village
- Tatsumi Water Polo Center – water polo
- Tokyo Aquatics Center – swimming, diving, synchronized swimming
- Sea Forest Cross-Country Course – equestrian
- Sea Forest Waterway – canoe (sprint) and rowing
- Shiokaze Park – beach volleyball
- Yumenoshima Park Archery Field – archery
It wasn’t an Olympic test match, but Japan got to see how Tokyo Stadium looks and feels like when the world comes to it.
On September 20, the 2019 Rugby World Cup commenced at Tokyo Stadium in rousing fashion as Japan defeated Russia in a stirring start to this increasingly popular rugby union world championship.
Tokyo Stadium, which is about 18 kilometers west of the National Stadium in Yoyogi, will be the site of Olympic rugby, soccer and the pentathlon in 2020. On the second day of the Rugby World Cup, I was at Tokyo Stadium for a match between Argentina and France.
Fans from all over the world filed into the stadium, many of them making their way by train, and then taking a short 5-minute walk from Tobitakyu Station on the Keio Line to the Stadium. The path to the stadium was lined by volunteers who were there essentially to smile and wave us on. As a tv commentator said, the volunteers make the entry to a stadium feel like you’re at Disneyland.
Inside the stadium, the atmosphere was electric as fans from France and Argentina competed to be heard, and the inevitable “wave” increased intensity as it rolled around and around. As a bonus, the game was a nailbiter.
Despite falling behind 20-3 at the half, the light blue and white striped team from Argentina burst into the second half with two quick tries to pull within 3 of France, and eventually took the lead with a penalty kick. But the fans from France had to fret for only a couple of minutes when a drop kick from a recently added substitute pushed France back in the lead 23-21. And when a potentially game-winning penalty kick by Argentina went slightly wide, Les Bleus had won their opening match of the tournament.
Right after the match ended, the fans filed out very quickly, made their way to the crowded station, and yet filled trains back into town. While security might be a tad greater for the Olympics, this match was an indication that getting in and out of Tokyo Stadium by train is a piece of cake. Granted, traffic will be greater as the neighboring facility, Musashino Forest Sports Plaza, will host Olympic badminton and pentathlon fencing.
Note: All photos taken by author.
In 2012, the US women’s eight was the favorite to take the gold medal at that year’s London Olympics. Stroke seat Caryn Davies wasn’t buying it. “Everyone’s bow is even at the start line. Being the favorite means nothing when we line up to race.” And Team Canada was nipping at their heels, having nearly beaten Team USA in a World Cup race a couple of months prior to the Summer Games.
But only 500 meters into the finals of the women’s eights in London, coxswain Mary Whipple could see the commanding lead they had built, and she told Davies some years after that at that point in the race she was so certain of victory that she had wanted to stand up in the stern of the boat and shout to the competition behind her, “Bring it!” She didn’t, but the Americans did indeed win gold, leading from start to finish and winning America’s third-ever gold medal in the vaunted eights competition.
This was a significant triumph, important in cementing the American women’s dominance. And yet, for Davies, it was the end of a long road. After winning bronze in Athens and then gold in Beijing and London in the stroke position of the boat, she felt it was time to move on with her life.
“I had had a good run,” Davies told me. “I won a bunch of medals and ended on a high note. I was almost done with law school. I thought it was time to get a job and start ‘real’ life.” With a law degree from Columbia and an MBA from Oxford, Davies entered the reputable law firm Goodwin Procter in Boston. For three and a half years, she advised clients on finance and M&A. While getting the work done, she wasn’t as fulfilled as she hoped to be. The competitive nature of business was different from the competitive nature of sports, and she was noticing the differences.
Business leaders love to listen to and be around sports champions. They love to hear their stories of preparation, struggle and triumph. Yet success in sport is generally clear-cut and objective, whereas success in business is often opaque or subjective. The contrast led to the insight that the challenges of leadership and management can be greater in the world of business where goals and metrics are less clear. In such cases, the ability of leaders and managers to motivate individuals and sustain a team mindset becomes more significant.
She shared this insight in a 2017 interview with Forbes magazine.
True teamwork demands a level of bonding at deeper levels. That requires intentional effort to build. The intensity of the workplace, and its consumption of most of our brain power, leaves little reserve for building those bonds. When you’re executing a sport like rowing, even though physically demanding, you aren’t using all of your brain’s processing power, so there is reserve left to invest in relationships with your teammates.
In other words, often in business, managers may have to work harder to strengthen team bonds to improve team performance, particularly if there are perceived stars on the team. Davies experience has informed her that successful rowing teams do not emphasize the star.
In rowing, there is no standout player. On sports teams where you have star players, you see divisiveness. Generally, you know who is faster on your team, but from the outside looking in, there is no star. You see boats where there’s one person trying to win the race alone, and they burn out. The people behind them can’t follow and there’s a disconnect between them and the rest of the team, just making the boat go slower.
Davies, who was already a member at a couple rowing clubs in Boston, began going down to the boathouse more regularly. She wasn’t there just to get in a good workout in the early mornings, but to learn from the club members who were themselves successful people with lessons for newbies to the world of business. And one day, she learned a lesson from a successful person.
“I was out in the single rowing one morning August last year and the legendary Harvard coach Charley Butt sees me and says through his megaphone, ‘Caryn, are you training for 2020? You should! Rowing loves you, and you love rowing.’”
Reflecting on that, Davies realized she still needs to play to her strengths—that maybe her work in the law firm was not the way to fulfill that drive to be the best.
I was feeling a bit frustrated with my career. I thought, okay, I could double down on law. But I don’t love law enough to be the best in the world. And there is something where I have been the best in the world – rowing -and perhaps I could still be the best in the world. Where is my best contribution? I could slog away at a law firm. But is that my best contribution? There is this thing I am still good at and in which I still have a lot to learn – why not do it to the fullest before it’s too late?
Davies left Goodwin in February 2019 to focus on her training. Having been away from world-class competition for going on 7 years, she had to lot catching up to do, and is realistic about her chances of making it to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. But she knows she has a lot to offer.
Let’s be honest. I am nowhere near as strong physically as anyone on the team. If you put us on the rowing machine I would not beat another person. My strength has been on the technical side of rowing. That is something you never lose. I still have that. I realize I can contribute to a team by being in a boat and rowing my best and help others row a little bit better. My #1 goal for this year? Be the best teammate I can be. That means helping everyone get faster. I acknowledge that could help someone beat me out of a spot on the team. If that is the case, so beat it. I will have achieved my goal.
She now believes she has a 50:50 chance of making Team USA for the Olympics. And she’s got one positive sign so far: US Rowing announced the crews that will compete at the 2019 World Rowing Championships to be held in Linz, Austria from August 25 to September 1, 2019, and Davies made the cut. She will compete in the women’s four-person boat with Molly Bruggeman (Dayton, Ohio/University of Notre Dame), Madeline Wanamaker (Neenah, Wis./University of Wisconsin), and Vicky Opitz (Middleton, Wis./University of Wisconsin)
Caryn Davies (Ithaca, N.Y./Harvard University) said “I’m thrilled to be racing in that boat with those teammates. I think it’s going to be a great regatta!”