‘A long, strange journey’

rowing: Olympia’s Brodie Buckland has been pumped up and burned out but is finally in the Olympics for … Australia

mwochnick@theolympian.comJuly 22, 2012 

Olympia’s Brodie Buckland wasn’t too keen on organized team sports as a child.

“I was known in Little League as the kid in the outfield who played with the daisies,” said Buckland, a 2002 Capital High School graduate who goes by the familiar name Brodie.

His introduction to rowing eventually became a perfect fit. The sport has enabled him to succeed all over the world, including now on its largest stage – the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.

The Olympics begin Friday. A day later, Buckland faces the biggest race of his career when he rows for Australia in the men’s pair with teammate James Marburg.

This comes 12 years after being a member of the inaugural juniors program at Olympia Area Rowing (OAR).

“(When I was younger), I could not have been someone who was less concerned about athletics,” Buckland said last week from Varese, Italy, where he and his Australian national team trained for five weeks before departing for London today.

“But, I guess when you find your niche, you do find it. Rowing will get you to where you want to be.”

GETTING HIS START

Buckland called his transition from a tall and rangy 16-year-old more than a decade ago to rowing in the Olympic Games “surreal.”

In 2000, after tries with numerous youth sports, and even taking a crack at the violin, he was encouraged to try rowing by family friend Jessica Vavrus, a former University of Nebraska rower.

Buckland was one of a dozen high school-age rowers in OAR’s start-up junior program. At that time, the organization was in the midst of a resurgence after forming in the 1980s, and had only two eight-seat boats.

A temporary boathouse was a cargo container until a permanent boathouse was built in 2005.

Today, there are 76 junior members, 91 adult members, and 32 boats between four sizes, OAR vice president Gretchen Van Dusen said. Just in the last two years, OAR has sent four junior rowers to nationals.

“When you look at OAR today, you would have no idea how grass roots we were then,” said Vavrus, who coached Buckland as part of OAR’s first junior boys squad.

Marnie Buckland, Brodie’s mother, said rowing was the best way for her son to channel his energy. The sport clicked with him from the start.

“He was always challenging himself,” she said. “It was very early on he said, ‘Mom, I really like this.’ ”

His physique as a 16-year-old – tall and lanky – is ideal for rowing, which also attracts a certain type of athlete.

“Rowing draws … kids who are competitive, but not the traditional athletes,” Vavrus said.

Buckland first won a Pacific-10 Conference title at the University of Washington, then transferred to Harvard, where he won an Eastern Sprints championship.

He also rowed on the international circuit, and was a member of two world championship teams for the United States.

His taste for the Olympics first surfaced in 2008 while competing at the U.S. trials in New Jersey. Buckland barely missed out on making the team for Beijing in the men’s pair with then-teammate Sebastian Bea. They placed fourth, and only the first-place boat qualified.

That was a tough year for Buckland, who spent countless hours training and focusing on rowing – thus delaying law school. After the U.S. Olympic Trials, he said he was burned out. Subsequently, he sent an e-mail to USRowing, asking that he be taken off the national-team roster.

“I was … removed from everything and everyone that mattered to me, and sequestered in an environment that was unfamiliar to me,” Buckland said. “This led to me not training effectively, and not even really enjoying my life, which in turn hampered my performance.”

At that point, he had no intention to ever row competitively again.

MOVING DOWN UNDER

Buckland needed a change, and figured he would find more opportunities in Australia, where he moved in 2009.

He was accepted into law school at Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra – Australia’s capital city – where he expects to earn his law degree next year.

He also joined Sydney University’s Boat Club – and his love for rowing soon returned.

“I felt like rowing wasn’t finished with me,” he said.

Even though he trained with the Australian national team, he was always the odd man out for regattas – not because of his ability, but because he was not a citizen. Citizenship hampered any thoughts of making a push for the 2012 Olympics.

“Time was running out,” Buckland said.

But, after applying for dual citizenship in 2009, it was granted in February. Since then, he has trained full time with the Australian national team.

Then came the World Rowing Cup II in Lucerne, Switzerland, in May. The race would be Buckland’s final opportunity to reach the Olympics as the country’s men’s pair representative.

Buckland and Marburg faced off against Fergus Pragnell and Beijing gold medalist Duncan Free, who won the qualifying race.

But Free injured his rib, and had to withdraw – giving Buckland and Marburg the nod to go to London.

“Both of us exhaled about 10 times,” Buckland said. “It’s built up to be a major moment in our minds, but the revelation of it all, the biggest thing, was relief.”

THE GOAL … IS NOW

Buckland hasn’t stepped foot on U.S. soil since late 2008, but he’ll be back in Olympia for his 10-year high school reunion in September.

He will see his family before then. His mother, father (David) and younger brother (Michael) will be traveling to London to watch him compete.

The men’s pair competition begins next Saturday at the Eton Dorney Rowing Centre at Dorney Lake, about 25 miles from London. The rowing venue is acclaimed as one of the finest in the world.

The race is 1.25 miles. Buckland said the key in a two-person race is trusting the other rower.

Marburg is an established teammate. He won a silver medal in Beijing in 2008. Like Buckland, he is a college student.

“Everything you do affects the other guy,” Buckland said. “It makes all the difference. You train so much, you know not only how the guy is going to row, but how the guy is going to think.”

Buckland said the plan is to stay in London for the entire Olympics. After that, he said his future in rowing is uncertain. He does plan to stay in Australia.

“It’s been a long, strange, unpredictable journey,” Buckland said, “and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

mwochnick@theolympian.com 360-754-5473 www.theolympian.com/southsoundsports @megwochnick

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