Tuesday, November 22, 2011

About 10 years ago, two pancake breakfasts at Metro 29 Diner — a teal, glass and aluminum comfort-food haven in Arlington — would have set you back about $15. Double that if you’re feeding a couple of towering 200-pounders who have just spent the morning rowing from the Key Bridge to Mount Vernon on the Potomac.

Jim Mitchell, the former rowing coach at McLean High School, never worried about the bill back then when it came to feeding Giuseppe Lanzone, 29, and Sam Stitt, 30. “My philosophy was they got the best equipment, the best training, the best hotels and we fed them well. So if you lose, don’t blame me,” he said. “I called that the Olympic mentality.”

Plus, the few minutes of silence when Lanzone and Stitt tore into those plate-sized pancakes were well worth it.

The Virginia rowers — who would go on to make the 2008 Olympic team and are contenders for London in 2012 — graduated from McLean one year apart and were key members of a nascent Highlanders rowing program in 2000. When Mitchell took over the 2-year-old team in 1999, he turned it from more of an “activity” to a competitive sport. And his original prodigies were Lanzone, the Peruvian-born son of Italian parents; and Stitt, the son of a prominent Fairfax County judge, raised in McLean.

After the high school season, and in the summers during college, Lanzone and Stitt rowed a two-man boat, with Mitchell as coach and manager. The pair competed in junior and Under-23 races at regattas throughout the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast, including the famous Royal Canadian Henley event near Niagara Falls, which they won four times in two age groups. Though they were clearly a winning pair, the two young men would blow up at each other once in a while.

“When you row a two-man boat, the blame doesn’t have to go that far,” Stitt said by phone from his dorm room at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif. “And you’re not wondering who it was that didn’t row hard enough.”

So Mitchell and the two young men would stow their gear and head for the closest diner to work it out.

The rowers couldn’t have been more different on the surface, but their careers have traced a similar arc thanks to their formative years training and competing on the Potomac. Lanzone moved to Northern Virginia just before ninth grade, leaving behind what seemed like an idyllic childhood growing up in a beach town called La Punta, outside of Lima.

“When school was over in the summer, it was the best time of the year,” Lanzone said of his youth. “I’d leave the house with my key, and a couple of bucks for some food, and head to the beach, where there would always be someone hanging out, playing soccer or surfing.”

Stitt tried a few different sports, but it wasn’t until his sophomore year — after he was cut from the basketball team, joined the swim team and made a handful of friends who were rowers — that he started on his Olympic path. Mitchell said he recruited Lanzone, whose father was a rower in Peru, before football practice one fall day.

Stitt graduated from McLean in 2000 and went to Rutgers, then a national-level rowing juggernaut, and Lanzone left a year later with a scholarship to the University of Washington. They would reconnect each summer with Mitchell.

“They’re the product of a lot of really focused hard work,” said Mitchell, who lives in Loudoun County and runs a business that develops rowing equipment. “I’m really proud of them, obviously, but the Olympics were expected. That was the goal, that’s where they were supposed to be.”

Over the years, at national team regattas and Olympic tryout events, Stitt and Lanzone would reconnect. But as they grew into the sport, their specialties put them on slightly different paths. Stitt, long and lean at 6-foot-6, became a sculler, meaning each rower in the boat uses two oars at the same time, while Lanzone, slightly more powerful and compact, but still 6-4, became a “sweep,” a member of a boat where each rower uses just one oar. Lanzone received his U.S. citizenship just before the 2006 world championship.

In Beijing, Stitt’s quadruple sculls boat finished fifth, while Lanzone’s four-man boat missed out on the “A” final (where the medals are awarded) and placed ninth.

In the three years since the Beijing Games, the men have remained dedicated to their sport, something that can become difficult once you reach your late 20s and thoughts of career and family arise. But it’s been rewarding, too. Based on their results over the past couple of seasons — including a fifth-place finish rowing together in the men’s four at the 2010 world championship in New Zealand — they earned resident athlete status in Chula Vista, which includes full room and board. While they will not compete for a spot in the same boat in 2012, Lanzone and Stitt are perhaps closer than ever, and they have been roommates at the training center for the past year. It can be tough to share a bedroom at 29 and 30 years old, but the friends make it work.

“Let’s just say that Sam makes his bed every morning, and I don’t,” said Lanzone. “But when it comes to rowing, I know no matter what, Sam is going to put his heart out there and row as hard as he can.”

Tim McLaren, an Australian Olympian who took over as the national men’s team coach after Beijing, said Lanzone and Stitt wouldn’t be in California if they weren’t seen as legitimate contenders for a spot in an Olympic boat.

Lanzone, Stitt and the rest of the Olympic prospects will attend a series of selection regattas in March and April 2012, and the members of boats with four rowers or more will be named about 30 days before the London Games. The local rowers already are at an advantage, having been named to the national team’s “Big Boat Selection Camp” that runs from the middle of November through June 2012.

“Their backgrounds are solid, having been on the national team last year and at the Olympics. But they’ve got things they need to improve on,” said McLaren. “It’s nice to have some experienced guys who can add value to some of the younger guys, but at the same time, they’re going to have to work their butts off.”

Both rowers are happy to discuss their chances, and are eager to get back to the Olympic stage and try to atone for disappointing Beijing results. But they have their own ways of dealing with the question. Lanzone said his mother, Gisella, knows not to ask, because all she’ll get in return is an “I don’t know,” a tactic he uses to avoid complacency. Stitt is happy to say his chances are good.

“Confidence is a good thing, and anyone you ask who says they have a good chance of going has the right mindset,” he said. “I’ve committed three or four years this go-round, and it’s going to be tough, but I think I have a pretty good shot.”

Lanzone, Stitt and the rest of the Olympic prospects will attend a series of selection regattas in 2012, and the team will be named about 30 days before the London Games.

Regardless of what happens, the two kids from McLean value the experiences that have come with competing at the Olympic level — and that includes modeling for Ralph Lauren (Lanzone) and interacting with the Winklevoss twins, of “The Social Network” fame.

Each rower knows he couldn’t have made it without support from coaches, parents and mentors in the D.C. area.

“I got real lucky,” said Stitt, who said he was pointed in the Olympic direction by his coaches at the Potomac Boat Club during his post-college years. “They say every blind squirrel finds a nut, and I just happened to land in a field of them.”

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