Michael DiSanto figures he’s rowed on the Charles River somewhere around 2,000 times in his life.
“I think it’s a really special body of water. I have a lot of good memories,” he said. “That’s my favorite place in the world to row.”
This week, DiSanto is in a different body of water — Rio de Janeiro’s Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon. The Boston native is gunning for gold in the men’s eight boat at the Olympics.
“I’ve been rowing for over 10 years, and maybe seven or eight of those years I’ve thought about this as being the pinnacle of the career,” DiSanto said last Wednesday, 48 hours before the U.S. rowing team began its two-day journey to Brazil. “It hasn’t really set in yet.”
DiSanto grew up in Boston and attended Belmont Hill School before enrolling at Harvard University. After a strong collegiate rowing career for the Crimson, DiSanto moved to Princeton, N.J., home of USA Rowing’s training center. Now 26, DiSanto is about to dip his oars in the water for the first time at an Olympics.
How he got there, however, wasn’t an easy journey.
For one, DiSanto and his USA Rowing teammates row between 200 and 250 kilometers a week — broken up between rowing on the water and rowing on machines called ergs, short for ergometers.
Secondly, qualifying a boat for the Olympics doesn’t necessarily mean the rowers who qualified that boat will go to the Olympics. In Princeton, U.S. coaches put the rowers through rigorous training and held races 2-3 times a week starting last September, trying to determine which individual rowers will fill each boat in Rio.
The U.S. men’s eight boat did not initially quality for Rio at last year’s world championships, which double as the main Olympics qualifier every four years. Instead, that boat had to race at the European and Final Qualification Regatta, known in rowing circles as the last chance qualifier, in Switzerland in May.
DiSanto and seven teammates were named to the boat in April after months of proving themselves, with the caveat of having to win at the last chance qualifier in Switzerland in order to punch their Olympic tickets. They ended up winning, which DiSanto called a “surreal” experience.
The men’s eight has only two returning Olympians, which DiSanto sees as an advantage.
“You can either see that as a disadvantage because you don’t have the experience, or you can say, ‘Look. These guys don’t have any preconceived notions, they don’t have any expectations, all they have to do go and focus on racing and rowing,'” he said. “Whereas other countries who are gold-medal favorites, they’re probably thinking, ‘What do we need to do so we don’t mess this up?'”
Having less pressure and zero expectations can lead to a better performance, DiSanto said.
The Rio Olympics have been partly overshadowed by problems with the venues, water-quality issues, the Zika virus, and even crime in the city of more than 6 million people.
DiSanto said those are all things the athletes cannot control — and they’re part of competing at these Olympics, as far as he’s concerned.
“It’s peanuts compared to what we’ve had to do to get to the Olympics,” he said. “I don’t think it’s something any of us are too worried about.”
The men’s eight competition begins Aug. 8 and concludes Aug. 13.