Olympic rower Will Dean on raw determination
— By Rachel Sovka
Will Dean decided he was going to go to the Olympics the moment he watched Simon Whitfield cross the finish line for gold on TV in the 2000 Olympics.
Despite the emotional moment, he approached his decision with a great deal of logic. Dean’s mom was a triathlete as well and perhaps that made the Olympic dream seem more accessible to him, but it wasn’t until he read a particular magazine article that he chose the sport of rowing as the way to get there.
The article stated that if you could row 2,000 metres in six minutes and 20 seconds, U.S. rowing programs would be very interested in recruiting you.. Then and there Dean decided to row 2,000 metres in 6:11, so he booked himself a flight to the rowing championships, and that’s exactly what he did.
Dean found himself at Berkeley at the age of 18 and graduated in 2010 with an English degree; all made possible by that first determined decision.
“It was definitely a decision I made, not a daydream or desire; I was pretty confident I would do it, it was just a matter of how,” says Dean, now 30. “I did cross-country, basketball, skiing and a few other sports, so it wasn’t immediately clear how I was going to do it.”
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Being as confident as he was no doubt contributed to his success, but getting there wasn’t without hard work.
“I really had no experience,” explains Dean, a native of Kelowna, B.C. “I was recruited as novice, probably more for my physiology than skill; I had to learn the skill part.”
Training without a trainer
When asked what he did in training to get himself from no experience to qualifying for a U.S. scholarship he explains a barebones routine.
“It seemed simple back then,” he says. “I did a bit of weight training but I had no real coaching, I just got on a rowing machine and started adding time. There’s no wrong way, I probably could've done more intervals, but that’s what worked for me at the time with what little I knew.”
Because he lacked experience and resources at first, his belief that he had the capacity to achieve his goal was hugely important. That same psychological commitment has served him well throughout his Olympic rowing career at the Games in London in 2012 and Rio in 2016. From his first stroke in school to competing all over the world, Dean says mental focus is paramount.
The little things
“During a competition my strategy is to think about all the small things I need to do,” he says. “That helps me be in the moment as much as possible. I’m not thinking about the consequences, I just think about each breath and each stroke; not about the whole race, just what’s in front of me right now.”
Dean believes that consequences don't help you try harder, that’s why he insists on focusing your best in the moment, regardless of outcome. You can make all the right choices and still break your ankle like he did during his four years at Berkeley.
“It’s times like that I take into account the nature of the sport,” Dean says. “While rowing generally favours big strong athletes, I've seen lots of smaller athletes go very fast with technique and determination..”
Navigating the composition of those assets and skills in a four-person boat has taught Dean a lot about teamwork and leadership.
In the same boat
“Leadership looks different on a team of four than other boats I’ve been in like eight-person or two-man,” Dean says. “Being in that confined space aiming for the same objective really forces you to work well with people and different personalities.
“Conflict resolution is crucial, we can’t afford to have squabbles,” he continues. “Most conflict on the water occurs when everyone is trying to make something happen, so it’s a bit like oxen. You make sure you figure it out in order to move forward.”
Dean says his teams have all got along for the most part, something he attributes to cohesive teamwork and saying the right things from the bow seat.
“It’s so interesting to see what drives people, what’s helpful to say to encourage a teammate, what isn't, and how that differs from athlete to athlete,” he says. “For myself, I was really lucky to have parents that never drove me into sports or pushed me to be a certain kind of athlete.”
As Dean reflects on how he was parented, his five-month-old daughter, Olivia, can be heard in the background. Now Dean is hoping to parent in the same way.
“Of course, I want them to be active and healthy, but the last thing I would do is really drive them about it. If they want to go to the Olympics, they are the ones that have to be the driving force.”
But with a father who knows as much as Dean about driving force and motivating yourself all the way to the Olympics, chances are, raw determination runs in the family.