Before a race, Spencer Dettlinger goes through his normal routine of shaking off his nerves, calming down and channeling his adrenaline into pure energy and aggression for the competition.
Once he’s on the water, he is focused on one thing: getting his blade in on the next stroke, with more strength and power than the last.
That mentality is how he earned his spot in the Junior World Rowing Championships.
“If you really put your mind to something, you will be able to accomplish it,” he said during a recent interview.
Dettlinger, an 18-year-old San Ramon Valley High School incoming senior, will be representing the United States on the Junior National Rowing Team for his first time in the upcoming world championships in Trakai, Lithuania.
He began crew in seventh grade and fell in love with the sport after participating in several middle school summer camps hosted by his current club, Oakland Strokes Rowing Club.
During the school year, he trains with Oakland Strokes six days a week, once a day from 4-6:30 p.m. right after school. But his training for the upcoming championships has been more rigorous. Practice occurs twice a day from around 7-10 a.m. and then from around 4-6:30 p.m., sometimes with weightlifting sessions in the middle.
At the championships, Dettlinger will be rowing the eight, which is an event designed for eight rowers who propel the boat with sweep oars and is steered by the coxswain.
Besides making the Junior National Team, some of his other crew highlights include getting second at the National Championships this past June in Sarasota, Florida in the eight and winning the 2016 Head of the Charles Regatta in the eight.
Dettlinger attributes these successes to the high standard he holds himself to — winning.
“It’s a terrible feeling when you put in all this work for nine months just to get second,” he said. “And rowing doesn’t have a lot of instant gratification. It’s not like there are races or games every day. You train for a very long time for only two or three important races the entire season.”
Nevertheless, he has remained resilient and persistent.
“You don’t always win races on a Sunday during the championship. You win races on Tuesday during practice. You still give it your all. And the only thing you can do after a workout is think about how to do better," he added.
And doing better every day during practice is essential, considering a 2,000-meter race, which takes a little under six minutes to complete in an eight, is equivalent in “calorie burn and energy spent” to playing two NBA basketball games back to back — except with no timeouts.
The last 500 meters of the race — the sprint of the race — is where, according to Dettlinger, “you lay it all out and leave nothing on the water. Your legs are burning, your lungs feel like they’re going to explode out of your chest, your back feels like it’s going to snap in half. But the best part about rowing is that the pain is only temporary.”
“If you watch any race, it looks so pretty and smooth in the last 500 meters, but as soon as the rowers cross the finish line they fold over on their bodies in exhaustion,” he added.
To endure and triumph in such intense races, Dettlinger had to learn the importance of hard work early on.
Going into his first varsity year as an incoming sophomore, Dettlinger had been training over the summer with Oakland Strokes, but had not anticipated how difficult varsity was going to be and found himself exhausted after every workout, barely able to keep up with his teammates who had been in varsity the year before.
“My coach over the summer, Alan Kush, basically told me I wasn’t fit enough. That sounds harsh, but it pushed me to be better. I started working on my own, trained by myself. By that fall, I stroked the Head of the Charles as a sophomore — which hasn’t really happened in the club before.”
Through these kinds of experiences, Dettlinger learned about the importance of determination and the necessity of time management, having to balance exhaustive hours spent training with school, his social life and sleep and manage the lengthy commute to Oakland for practice.
Typically not home until 8 p.m. at night, Dettlinger is forced to be exceedingly diligent in his studies, “hammering out” all his homework once he gets home as efficiently as possible.
But even so, he has always found the time to pursue his other passions, notably his lifelong interest in modifying and configuring cars and when he doesn’t have an upcoming race, riding dirt bikes with his father.
Going into his last year as a high school athlete and looking back on his experiences, Dettlinger has never forgotten the impact his coaches, Kush and Brian de Regt and their unfaltering encouragement have had on him.
And when asked to name a particular athlete he admires, Dettlinger’s mind jumped not to an “all-star” athlete or team, but his own teammate Nikita Lilichenko, who graduated from Miramonte High School this past year and will be attending Stanford University.
He rowed the eight in last year’s Championships and came in second place, losing to the German team by only 0.03 seconds. He will be rowing with Dettlinger in the eight again this year and has been one of Dettlinger’s biggest motivators and role models.
As for his family — his biggest fans — Dettlinger has had no difficulty finding support from his parents, who were collegiate rowers in UC Berkeley. Dettlinger’s younger brother Stewart, who is an incoming sophomore at SRVHS, however, has yet to embrace the sport and mostly devotes his time to basketball.
“But we’re trying to get him into it,” Dettlinger promised.
Dettlinger has already been recruited to numerous prestigious universities, such as Princeton, UC Berkeley, University of Washington, Yale and Brown, but still hasn’t decided where he wants to go just yet.
Whatever college he decides to attend, he said he plans to major in mechanical engineering, architecture or anything else related to design — a choice that stems from his love for building legos as a child, his interest in geometry, the fact that he is a “spatial thinker” and his interest in cars.
Dettlinger is not sure whether he will continue to row past college, “but the 2024 Olympics might be in LA, so… we’ll see,” he hinted.