Greatness was standing right before his eyes, but former McLean High School rowing coach Jim Mitchell couldn’t see it. In search of talent at his school’s football practice, he had no idea the teenager in front of him was an indomitable athlete, a sporting prodigy, a future Olympian.
“I just saw a big, tall kid,” Mitchell said.
Giuseppe Lanzone was nearing the end of his junior season as an offensive and defensive lineman. At that moment, he only was thinking about what this next practice would bring, not daring to let his mind drift to the next game or the next season.
Then Mitchell tapped him on the shoulder and issued a not-so-subtle demand that changed his life forever.
“He said, ‘Hey, what’s your name and what’s your phone number? You have to row during the winter,’” Lanzone recalled.
Less than two years after he consented to Mitchell’s request, Lanzone was an undefeated state champion rower. And as the years went by, the accolades piled up: bronze medalist at the 2006 World Championships, 2010 U.S. Rowing Male Athlete of the Year, two-time Olympian.
Yet his most recent accomplishment, the one he’s been working toward every day
for the past four years, came perilously close to never materializing.
Lanzone’s four-man boat finished fourth at the World Rowing Championships last year, good enough to qualify it for this summer’s Olympic Games. But the eightman boat, which traditionally thrives at the Olympics for the U.S., finished in eighth place — just outside the top seven that qualify.
That meant the eight boat needed to re-group in Switzerland at the 2012 Final Olympic Qualification Regatta, where it would have to finish in first to qualify for the Games. Coaches shuffled the lineup and inserted Lanzone, who until that point had put his focus and energy into the four-man boat at the international level. Sure enough, with Lanzone in the mix, the eight boat won the race and booked a ticket to London.
Lanzone can hardly take all the credit for that heroic feat. After all, there were seven other guys in the boat. Mitchell, however, emphasizes his former pupil’s rare gift for bringing out the best in everyone around him, something that might well have saved the team from Olympic banishment.
“[Rowing is] such an exerting force that when you sit there you say, ‘I’m not going to give 100 percent unless the other rowers are giving 100 percent,’ Mitchell said. “Giuseppe always, always, always gives 100 percent. So he motivates all his teammates. Whenever he’s in the boat, the other rowers feel more confident and he elevates the whole boat.”
To Lanzone — who immigrated with his family from La Punta, Peru, to Virginia as a teenager — that uncompromising work ethic is nothing new. Ever since his family arrived to the U.S., he has made it a point to out-work everyone around him so he could take full advantage of new opportunities.
Mitchell recalls a race in Canada, where Lanzone and McLean teammate Sam Stitt were set to battle some of the top rowers in the country just days after completing the Junior Worlds competition. Sensing fatigue, Mitchell joked to his rowers that he would carry them out of the boat after the race if he had to. Sure enough, Lanzone’s legs were so swollen from lactic acid buildup after the race that he needed Mitchell to lift him out of the boat.
“They had just given everything they had to give,” Mitchell said. “They didn’t have anything left. They really had a hard time walking up to get their awards.”
Still, Lanzone’s work is hardly complete. Qualification may be sealed, but Lanzone feels he must still atone for his four boat’s ninth place finish at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.
“There was a lot of hype going into the Olympics; it’s the biggest stage for rowing,” Lanzone said. “A few weeks prior to that we were at World Cup and we ended up in third place. But the Olympics is a different thing; everybody brings their best game there. The difference between medal contention and finishing in ninth is a couple of seconds.”
The U.S. team’s obstacles to a gold medal in London will be considerable. Germany has dominated the world stage during the past three years, and Great Britain, set to perform in its own backyard, has not been far behind them. Yet Lanzone, set to turn 30 later this year, has never encountered a challenge greater than his own willpower.
Without a doubt, the big, tall kid at football practice has come pretty far. In his mind, though, the journey is just beginning.