July 14, 2021

Working his Way Up Ladder for U.S. Rowing, PU Alum Mead Competing in Men’s 8 at Olympics

FOCUS ON TOKYO: Nick Mead focuses in on his training with the U.S. rowing program. Former Princeton University men’s heavyweight rowing star Mead ’17 was named to the United States Rowing Olympic Team and will row for the men’s 8 at the upcoming Tokyo Olympics. The rowing competition is scheduled for July 23-30 at the Sea Forest Waterway in Tokyo. (Photo provided courtesy of USRowing)

By Justin Feil

Nick Mead headed to Hawaii last week, but it was far from a vacation.

The 2017 Princeton University graduate is in the final training phase with the United States Rowing Olympic Team men’s 8 that will compete in the Tokyo Olympics beginning July 25.

“I’m unbelievably excited,” said Mead, a former men’s heavyweight star rower for the Tigers. “Honestly, I’m very relieved. It was a pretty stressful year or so of uncertainty and the stress of selection.”

The Olympics were pushed back one year by the COVID-19 pandemic, and that meant one more year of training and the accompanying sacrifices before Mead and his teammates could start counting down the days until they rowed for gold.

“You take it day by day, just thinking about each day of training,” said Mead. “There’s definitely a building excitement though, like we only have a couple more days until we’re in Japan and in the Olympic Village. It makes you consider every little thing that you’re doing during the day.”

The sacrifices over the years run the gamut from the mundane to some difficult decisions. Mead walks on the shady side of the street to practice in Honolulu to ensure that he doesn’t get sunburnt. Before the weeklong camp in Hawaii, Mead was living in the Oakland, Calif., area, across the country from his family in the Philadelphia area and his girlfriend in New York. He’s been there since 2018, six months after he graduated from Princeton. For almost two weeks after graduation, when USRowing still had its national team training centered in Princeton, Mead slept on the floor of the Princeton University boathouse.

“Definitely the last four years since I graduated in 2017, everything has been dictated by the training schedule and putting myself in the best position to make the team, which was difficult,” said Mead.

His family and close friends have supported his sacrifices — the missed weddings and reunions and visits. And all those sacrifices paid off and added to his sense of relief when he was selected to the national team.

“In college, if you don’t make the varsity, you still get to race as the second varsity or 3V or 4V and feel like you can contribute to the team,” said Mead.

“Here, if you don’t make it in the end, you did make all those sacrifices and you can say I went for it, but it’s tough at the end; you don’t get to race at all or feel like you’re a part of the team. I do feel super excited. I’m really close with everyone on the team, and we’ve got a really good culture. I’m excited about everything and don’t think I gave away too much of my life to make it here.”

The opening rounds of the eights rowing competition are slated July 25 and 28 with the finals to be held on July 30. No spectators are being allowed in person along the course on the Sea Forest Waterway in Tokyo due to COVID restrictions, but that isn’t detracting from the experience or moment.

“Now that we’re here and only a couple weeks out,” said Mead, “I’m super excited to finally race again after two-plus years of training with no international racing.”

As he looks ahead to Tokyo, Mead is hoping to add to his international success at the Olympics. At 6’6, 212 pounds, Mead is one of the power rowers that form the engine of the boat. He was in the six seat for the second-place boat in the 2017 World Championships. He was in the four seat for the 2019 boat that placed fifth at the World Championships. His experience helps in preparation for the highest level of racing.

“You’re going to be nervous at any big race,” said Mead. 

“It’s not like I’ll turn up at the Olympics and just be a cool customer. I think everyone will be nervous and stressed, but that’s a useful emotion to perform in our sport. That churning in your stomach helps as you line up. The experience is super helpful in terms of expectations in knowing the level that other countries are at and how fast they can get off the line. I think it helps us realize we’re not just settling for a good piece or a good practice. It has to be as perfect as we can get.”

Mead is one of the more experienced rowers in a U.S. boat that features a mix of young and veteran members. They’ve been working together for years and the final eight has been fine-tuning their roles since being put together at the end of May.

“The eight’s moving really well,” said Mead. “We put down some pretty fast times in California in practice. We just got to Hawaii (last Wednesday). We’re here rowing in Honolulu. Things are going really well. We’re all really excited. Our competition is going to be pretty fierce. The British, the Germans, the Dutch, the Australians, the Kiwis, and Romanians are all really fast. But we’re pretty confident in our own speed. We’re excited to finally get to line up against some competition again.”

During his college career, Mead experienced success at Princeton before he moved up to the national boat. He won three medals at the Intercollegiate Rowing Association (IRA) Championships. The second varsity 8 took silver in 2014, and he won a pair of bronze medals in varsity 8s. His career at Princeton was crucial to his international aspirations, and he credits several factors there with helping him develop into an Olympian from the time he felt like one of the less talented rowers in the junior system.

“I was by no means considered one of the top guys in high schools around the country,” said Mead.

“I made the team, but I felt like I just barely made it. When I went to Princeton, I was recruited there, and I was lucky enough to be recruited there, but I didn’t feel like I was the top recruit or that I was at the level of some of the guys coming in, especially the international guys from Britain and Australia. Being around all those people who were way more talented than I was as a freshman and sophomore really elevated me to another level. Just to keep up with these guys in practice, you have to come down early for extra sessions and look at what they do and see how they’ve gotten better than you. I didn’t have national team aspirations until I started to row alongside these guys.”

Rowing in the shadow of the national program also helped Mead begin to consider it as an option. He would be starting workouts with the Princeton crew when the national team came off the water. And Princeton men’s heavyweight coach Greg Hughes was a strong voice of encouragement for Mead to try out for the national team.

“He said, ‘I think you should give it a shot. Even if you don’t make it, you’re not going to regret going for it,’” recalled Mead. “That sort of cemented the idea in my mind.”

Over the years, Mead worked his way up to the Olympic boat. From being on the juniors in 2013, to the Under-23 team in 2016 and his first Senior team in 2017. The Olympic team had not been set in 2020 when the Games were pushed back a year and opened a whole new set of questions.

“It was a strange moment for all of us,” said Mead. “The Olympics are delayed, and we don’t know if we would have been on the Olympic team. You sort of have that choice of, OK, do I keep training? Do I go through that whole process again without knowing whether or not I’ll make it? There’s no certainty even if I come back, if I train well, if I don’t get injured, whether I’m going to make this team. Some people didn’t come back.”

Among them was Pat Eble, another Princeton University graduate. Eble moved on — he has a good job in New York and a fiancée and he switched his focus in that direction after the pandemic hit.

“He called me and said his heart wasn’t in it anymore,” said Mead.

“That was a blow. Pat was really talented, but also he’s one of my closer friends on the team. I overlapped for three years with him at Princeton and I knew him from high school too. It was definitely a huge blow. Luckily, when things did get delayed, there was a large enough group that kept training through it and it gave me motivation. It helped me get through the first three or four months when things were difficult.”

The delay away from team competition lasted longer than he ever imagined. He spent months on the erg machine and learning to row a single scull when restrictions kept the team out of rowing together in bigger boats. He kept working in the treasury operations for the Fremont Group that had been so flexible with him and other rowers.

Mead waited for the chance to compete with two dozen other skilled rowers for the precious chance to row in the Olympics that is finally right around the corner.

“We have not been able to race internationally since July 2019,” said Mead. “We’re really looking forward to finally being able to do it again. It’s why we do all the training, to be able to race.”