The Warrior on the Water (April 2016)
Special Operations Marine Makes Historic Olympic Bid
By Jenna D. Sampson
When the U.S. Olympic Rowing Team Trials sweep through Sarasota, Florida, April 18-24, something extraordinary is taking place that’s worth a closer look. It’s arguably the most inspiring story to come out of the rowing world since the 1930s era of the recent New York Times bestselling book, “The Boys in the Boat”—a men’s quadruple sculls boat with a starting line-up just recently announced, aiming for one of the two last open spots at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
The rower in the number two seat, Paul Marcy, could become the first Marine Special Operations Officer to ever appear in the Summer Olympics. The active duty Bronze Star with Valor recipient, 33, joins three national team rowers in the boat for one of the most epic bids for gold ever seen in the rowing world.
The four men will compete at Nationals in Sarasota this week, likely move on to the Final Olympic Qualification Regatta in Lucerne, Switzerland, May 22-25, and then continue to Rio in August for a historic finale.
A twist in the plot is the man coaching the quad boat, Bernhard Stomporowski—the most medaled German lightweight rower of all time (and reigning world record holder in the men’s lightweight eight boat). He was given the unique task just a few years ago of taking over the California Rowing Club(CRC) based out of Oakland, and establishing a quad boat worthy of Olympic contention. “The only problem was, there were no rowers at the time. So I had to find them,” he laughed. Stomporowski, who isn’t shy to feign annoyance at not being offered a position for his home country’s rowing establishment, may get the last word in when his men pull past Germany come summer.
One of those rowers is Marcy, a Guilford, Vermont, native who rowed collegiately at the Naval Academy (’04) before taking a seven year hiatus (which is unheard of in elite rowing) to deploy six times from 2006-2013, including several combat tours to Iraq and Afghanistan. He hadn’t quite given up on his rowing dreams though, and arranged for a rowing machine (ergometer) to be shipped on deployment as part of the usual base fitness kit. Marcy would conduct dangerous daily missions, only to return to the “erg,” where he’d row in silence for hours. A member of the national team slipped him their daily workouts by email, and Marcy would submit his erg times to Stomporowski, just to let him know he was serious about pursuing a spot in the boat upon returning from deployment in late 2011.
“When he deployed to Afghanistan, he always sent in his results every week, and I would think, this guy is crazy,” says Stomporowski in disbelief, with a thick German accent. At the time, Marcy had been attempting a seat in the eight-man boat.
Upon his return, Marcy did try to make the 2012 Olympic Team, but didn’t have enough training time under his belt to make the final cut. “It was a long shot after being out of the sport for nine years,” he admits. “Physically I was faster than the slowest guy, but not dominant. Then I became a ‘critical deployer’ because we had a lot of MSOB [Marine Special Operations Battalion, now 1st Raider Battalion] officer casualties.”
On an emergency basis, Marcy deployed again with MARSOC (U.S. Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command) as an executive officer in alpha company from Thanksgiving 2012 to July 2013. And straight from there, to a mandatory six-month training course in Georgia. And all the while, rowing on his erg when he could, and all the while, still sending Stomporowski those erg times.
The team, who trains on the Oakland Estuary, happens to be located just across the water from a military base in Alameda, California, that includes a Marine Corps installation. As luck would have it, a buddy was leaving a post that Paul was qualified for, and the chips fell into place in early 2014 for Marcy to get a real shot at an Olympic bid. Marcy now serves as Inspector Instructor with the 4th Force Reconnaissance Company, which is essentially the West Coast’s elite unit of the non-MARSOC marines. “It’s a non-deployable job, and it allows me to train full time,” he explains.
He completes an early morning row with the team, heads across the estuary to his base, puts in a full day’s work, and returns to the boathouse for a second workout before dark. He’s considered on the older end for his sport at 33, with teammates all in their mid-20s. But you’d never know it. He’s the most powerful rower on the entire West Coast right now, having won the Fall 2015 West Coast Speed Order (a long distance 6k course), and setting an even faster personal record on the 6k erg test (18:40.3) in late 2015.
During spring of 2015, Marcy did make the quad boat for nationals, and they won, earning a chance to compete at Worlds last August to grab one of eight qualifying Olympic spots. Things didn’t go according to plan, though, and Marcy wasn’t in the quad at Worlds. And the team lost. Badly.
“Last year I was good enough to make the boat, but not good enough that I had to be in the boat,” Marcy explains about that loss. “This year, I knew I had to be essentially good enough that I had to be in the boat.”
And so we arrive to this week—and Marcy’s quad boat racing at Nationals to defeat an East Coast club known for sculling. “He’s an animal,” his coach growls. “He’s crazy. He’s really great, and you will see he’s not the tallest guy, at 6’2’’. He’s doing everything right, and has made huge improvements.”
How he was able to get to this point is purely phenomenal. That warrior spirit is what made one combat deployment worth recognizing. From July 2009 to February 2010, he served as a Special Operations Team Leader in Afghanistan along a vital ring route that the Taliban had been controlling.
“We were doing foreign internal defense—where you work by, with and through a partner nation for an extended time period to create their capability,” explains Marcy. “Two months into the deployment, there were multiple battles fought to clear that whole area. I stayed behind after the clearing effort, and then continued mentoring the Afghan National Army in charge of security there and started to organize the local government. Part large-scale military operations and part-nation building.”
That military work included being awarded the Bronze Star with Valor for his leadership during a six-day battle for Shewan, a Taliban stronghold in the Farah province. Marcy called in three air strikes on enemy positions and eliminated enemy soldiers from more than 200 houses, buildings and structures. According to the official citation, he was responsible for maintaining the effort while under intense machine gun fire and rocket-propelled grenades.
“His calmness under fire and leadership by example were instrumental in the team pacifying an area of the country previously considered an impenetrable enemy stronghold,” the citation states.
From August 2009 to December 2009, Marcy led his men and the Afghan National Army Soldiers in over 15 direct fire engagements and seven targeting operations against the enemy.
“His actions resulted in eliminating more than 100 enemy fighters during seven separate operations targeting Taliban leadership,” states the citation. The mission was in support of operation Enduring Freedom XIV.
“Paul is a bad ass,” admits teammate Derek Johnson. “One day after practice he had to attend a military event, and changed into his dress blues with full military brass. He never talks about his military work, but we were a little blown away.”
Johnson, a Yale graduate who works for Tesla Corporation during the offseason, is joined by UC Berkley graduate student John Madura (Worcester Technical Institute), and Ian Silveira (Princeton). Rowing is considered one of the most elite sports in the world. And one of the most difficult.
As author Daniel James Brown shares in his book, “The Boys in the Boat,” having a team of rowers find that perfect swing—is like having a team of golfers line up and hit a golf ball at exactly the same time, with the same velocity, having the ball land in the same spot on the green, and doing the same thing continuously every two to three seconds. It’s also considered one of the most painful sports. The average man’s lungs are generally capable of consuming four to five liters of oxygen per minute, but over the course of time, rowers condition theirs to process eight liters of oxygen per minute, similar to the stamina of a thoroughbred racehorse. Likewise, a two-thousand-meter race has the cardiovascular comparison of playing two back-to-back basketball games with no substitutions or timeouts.
Stomporowski insists that while most rowers love the book that has brought rowing some attention over the last two years, he disagrees with the necessity of having complete harmony among his rowers.
“The Germans proved long ago, that you don’t need everyone in the boat to be friends. The truth is, if homicide were legal, [I’d have three rowers left in the boat],” he says humorously, and assures me he isn’t referring to his Marine. “But, they row together well, and their differences are necessary.”
At stroke, Ian Silveira has a fiery disposition, tempered by three other varying degrees of introverts, meaning that sparks can fly when the fire is stoked. When asked what the hardest part of rowing is, Madura interrupts Silveira by piping in, “It’s less complicated than it seems,” he says stoically. “You put the oar in the water and you pull on it.” Which sets Silveira off a bit, peppering in the intricate details that make rowing the complex sport that it is.
“If it was easy, we wouldn’t have a problem,” he says with a hint of sarcasm. “There’s this thing called balance, and you’re trying to push against something that moves. Water doesn’t just stand still.”
The exchange is interrupted by another teammate ready to carry the boat to the dock.
Rowing is described by famed racing shell maker George Pocock with frankness: “Rowing is like a beautiful duck. On the surface it is all grace, but underneath the bastard’s paddling like mad.” To be quite clear, they’re making a very strenuous effort look effortless. The rowers are pulling with such excessive force that they are in constant pain, traveling roughly the same speed as an Olympic sprinter, with world record pace at roughly 13.6 mph.
The evidence is in their muscled legs, a hint of a barreled chest from all of that oxygen intake, and back definition that rivals any superhero. The men are all 6’2’’ or 6’3’’, which is relatively short for rowing, but the quad boat is known for being the powerhouse on the water, and the strength packed into those four bodies can compete to beat an eight-man boat.
“Synchronizing with each other and having the same power at the same moment—it’s the most technically difficult boat class,” admits Stomporowski. “It’s a long painful process.”
If time can stand still, it happens when these four are in sink, gliding across the Olympic Training Center reservoir during the golden hour of the morning’s first light. The four men know each other well, work together beautifully, and find a harmony on the water that anyone watching can get lost in.
And if you ask Marcy why he rows, he probably won’t say. It’s his gray MARSOC Foundation T-shirt he wears every day under his racing singlet that explains it all. Maybe he does it in memory of those who can’t.
Jenna D. Sampson is a freelance writer based out of Carlsbad, California.
(Disclaimer: The Men’s Quad didn’t make the Rio Olympics, but Paul’s story is one worth sharing).