August 23, 2004

They said they'd throw me off the boat: Australian rower Sally Robbins couldn't go on, physically or mentally. The rest of her crew reacted badly. What does this say about the Olympic ideal, team work, mateship or loyalty?

posted by owlhouse to other at 06:41 PM - 51 comments

I'd say her teammates have every right to be outraged. Barring an injury, you don't quit at the Olympics.

posted by dusted at 07:13 PM on August 23

Many things are forgivable. Quitting on your team in the finals of the Olympics would not be one of them. Just a shade behind that would be quitting on your team in the finals of the World Championships. She has now done both. She blew a second chance and violated a trust. I really find nothing sympathetic in her defense. Even if she had some health or mental issue that would make this a possibility, she is just a culpable for not telling her team about it. For two separate teams, years of training and gold medals down the drain. Her crew did not react as badly she acted.

posted by pivo at 07:40 PM on August 23

I can understand if you can't row any more, but you don't let the oars dip into the water and create drag. She should have lifted them out and held them there so she wouldn't get in the way of her teammates. That said, if she did it once, she shouldn't have been allowed on the team to do it a second time. I've got no problem with her teammates ripping a strip off her. And the comment from one of them ("Tell us the truth!") sounds like someone thinks there is more to this than "exhaustion".

posted by grum@work at 08:34 PM on August 23

I think that if you let your teammates down this badly at the Olympics, the least you could do is drop dead of exhaustion to prove that it isn't simply mental. If she's not willing to go that far, throwing her out of the boat is a reasonable alternative to beating her to death with oars.

posted by rcade at 08:47 PM on August 23

Many things are forgivable. Quitting on your team in the finals of the Olympics would not be one of them . . . Personally, I save terms like "unforgivable" for really deliberate acts that have really dire consequences. They were taken out of a race, and with it the years and pain invested by the other rowers. I am not unsympathetic; their anger is totally understandable. I know this is the Olympics, not some club race on Lake Podunk. Her crew was banking on her effort, literally I'm sure, and she blew it for them. If I were her teammate,I'd be tempted to do hurtful things to her, even if we were in last place at the time. And I don't think I'd forgive her right away, either. So maybe if it turns out this is a ruse to cover throwing the race for money, that might be close to unforgivable. But it's not like drowned the coxswain, right? I'm not trying to be a troll here, just noting that reasonable people differ when big dichotomies like forgivable/unforgivable are at stake. "Unforgivable" within the realm of sport I'll grant; within the realm of reliabley fallible, flawed humans--no. What she could do to atone for this is hard to imagine, though. On preview: good points, grum, about the "tell the truth" remarks, and rcade, about lifting her oar. Interesting to note the differences between this and Paula Radcliffe hitting the wall in the marathon.

posted by jason streed at 09:08 PM on August 23

No, she didn't try to drown the cox, but... given the amount of training even mediocre Div. 1 rowers do, it is probably not an exaggeration to say that she threw away several years of the lives of her teammates. They probably put off education, careers, lives, all for this. And she took that away. Unless they are incredibly forgiving people, they'll spend the rest of their lives wondering what else they could have done with that time of their lives, that they'll never get back.

posted by tieguy at 09:29 PM on August 23

Yes, like in any other job, if you puss out on your group and leave them twisting in the wind, they'll be rather angry.

posted by molafson at 09:40 PM on August 23

So - if she's done it before and the Aussies are world powers at the sport then why was she even in there? You couldn't find a eighth rower? However, to blame Robbins for the 4 years the others lost is ludicrous. What if everyone rowed and they came in 4th? or 2nd? Is that wasted too? Is it all about the result? She didn't sacrifice the same things to get there? It's athletics - ask a hundred medal favorites who didn't perform on 'the Day'. Sometimes you lose. And if you planning on winning as a team, you better buck up and lose as one too. Man, if you're spending your entire life thinking and preparing to win on one day, you're setting yourself up for disappointment - that's life, everyone isn't the best all the time. You can be upset that she couldn't or didn't perform, and she won't be back there again - but let's hold off on the execution party. She's not the first athlete to breakdown at these ultra-hot games. Radcliffe was the defending Champ. The fat-assed media and couch surfers are so hyper-critical of athletes here in Canada because the 'haul' has been low that it makes me sick. Like it's our collective right and honour. What makes me love the Games so much is because it's about so much more than just results. You've seen it - sometimes bronze shines as brightly as gold, and sometimes crossing the finish line is the biggest victory you could imagine.

posted by WeedyMcSmokey at 09:54 PM on August 23

Like many Olympic competitions, rowing in an eight is not something you can pair up. (I find the hype over multiple gold hauls for swimmers and gymnasts a bit silly for that reason.) And if you fuck up an eight, whether it's by catching a crab or dying in the boat, you fuck up in such a big way it's hard to describe. There's no I know rowers. Had Sally Robbins passed out in the boat, her crew would have revived her, then thrown her into the water. Plus, these are Aussies, and 'wussing out' is so very not part of Aussie culture.

posted by etagloh at 10:01 PM on August 23

She's not the first athlete to breakdown at these ultra-hot games. Is Australia not a very hot and dry country as well? Of all teams, I'd expect the Aussies to be used to those conditions. The whole thing is puzzling. I have a hard time believing that she simply ran out of gas -- for heaven's sake, if you're an elite athlete, you know your distance and you train to have what it takes to go the distance. It could be that there was something else, ranging from something temporary like food poisoning to a more long-term condition like chronic fatigue. But I wonder, as I expect a lot of people do, what's behind the, "Tell us the truth!" comment.

posted by lil_brown_bat at 05:30 AM on August 24

Is Australia not a very hot and dry country as well? In the Outback. It's a whole continent, so there's probably some variation in climate somewhere. And I nominate "drowned the coxswain" as a beautiful mastubatory metaphor. Stroke, stroke . . .

posted by yerfatma at 06:01 AM on August 24

However, to blame Robbins for the 4 years the others lost is ludicrous. What if everyone rowed and they came in 4th? There's a difference between losing something because you weren't good enough and losing because one of your teammates gave up during the race. And that's clearly what happened here. Robbins has admitted as much, stating that she's been treated by a sports psychologist and the problem is partly caused by anxiety. This situation reminds me of Barrett Robbins (any relation?) going AWOL before the Raiders played Super Bowl 37. He wasn't there when his teammates needed him most, and the distraction could have contributed to their subsequent pasting by the Bucs.

posted by rcade at 09:28 AM on August 24

I feel for Robbins. My heart goes out to her. I know people who, when they hit the wall, the wall stops them cold and they can't move or think or do anything. This is fine in a solo sport, because you're only hurting yourself, but in a team sport it's catastrophic. (Barrett Robbins might have had this issue as well, but there was serious depression and alcohol abuse in the mix there, so it's not quite the same thing.) But knowing that she's the kind of person who freezes up under extreme duress like that, and having had it happen once, as the Australian coach, I would not have let her back in the boat for this race. This isn't the Special Olympics; only the people who can get over or through their inner wall deserve medals. That's a large part of what separates the very best from the very good. It's no reflection on her as a person that she couldn't do it, but it is a reflection on her as an athlete. Frankly, I blame the coaching staff for letting her back in the boat, if anyone.

posted by chicobangs at 10:32 AM on August 24

From the article rcade linked: "Robbins says she hopes she will be back in the team." Not bloody likely.

posted by dusted at 11:30 AM on August 24

I would have thrown her off the boat. Like rcade said, there's a BIG difference between everyone trying their best and still coming in last and being in the lead until one of your mates stops completely and you lose. Totally and completely unforgivable. These women have put aside their lives for this, and this woman ruins it all for them because she can't handle the stress? What the hell is she doing there in the first place??? (I was once climbing down the cables on the back of Half Dome in Yosemite, as a storm was approaching with lightning (the cables are steel...not a good place to be in a lightning storm) and there was a woman, frozen, blocking everyone from coming down the cables. We couldn't go past her because she was grabbing both cables and blocking the whole pathway down, so our only option was to go outside the cables and around her, which is really scary and dangerous-especially with wind and water on the mountain. We all waited paitently for a while then started yelling at her to at least just hold onto one side of the cables so we can go around her inside them, and her husband screams up "My wife is afraid of heights!" We all looked at each other, and in unison, screamed back "THEN WHAT THE HELL IS SHE DOING ON HALF DOME???" No, it's not the same thing...but it's the same idea. My point is, don't put yourself in a situation where you know there's a good chance you might freeze and cause harm (mental or physical) to others. )

posted by aacheson at 12:28 PM on August 24

I bet she wouldn't have froze in a solo craft.

posted by garfield at 12:42 PM on August 24

I still think that if her problem was anxiety and she's in therapy then perhaps she shouldn't be in the boat to begin with. If her teammates knew this then they have no one to blame but themselves for rowing with her. It's disgusting to watch a team gang up on the weakest member like that. And for the record - the same thing happened to the World Champion Canada's men's eight (though it may not have been anxiety related). They didn't turn around and eat their own, though. Fucking cowards eat their own.

posted by WeedyMcSmokey at 01:40 PM on August 24

Fucking cowards eat their own. Weedy, do you know how the eight was selected? I don't, but somehow I don't think it was a secret ballot vote by the athletes. Doubles partners in tennis or badminton or beach volleyball get to pick their teammates, at least to some extent, but in any larger team, I doubt that the members of the team are ever given the option of voting one of themselves off the island, no matter how good the reason. If that's true, they wouldn't have had the option of removing Robbins from the team, even if they knew she had Issues and were very concerned that she might tank in a big race. So what could they do? Say, "Oh, tra la la, I'll just go find some other Australian national team to row for!!!"? I take less issue with your use of the epithet "fucking cowards", as strong and probably inappropriate as it is, than I do with your use of "their own", when there's no evidence that they ever had any real choice in the matter.

posted by lil_brown_bat at 02:59 PM on August 24

So has the coach of the Australian National Rowing Team actually had to answer for her selection? John Coates (the AOC Chief) should not be the one answering for all this, unless he selected her to the team. Someone has to stand up and take responsibility for the decision to let her race. I would think. Maybe not. I don't know. If I was an Australian rower, I'd be pissed too. A 150-pound stone in that seat would have given them the gold.

posted by chicobangs at 03:38 PM on August 24

Conversely, a 150-stone woman would not.

posted by yerfatma at 03:50 PM on August 24

This isn't a politically correct thing to say, but who cares if she has an anxiety problem? I get anxious when I compete, too - everyone does. And don't tell me it's a matter of degree. Vomiting and diarrhea are common before an athlete gets on the starting blocks. There are millions of examples of stressed out, anxious-to-the-point-of-getting-sick athletes competing without quitting. It happens every day. One of the most important and admirable traits in athletics is resiliency. You've got to keep going, whether you're training, rehabbing, competing - whatever. It's as important as talent or genetics in separating champions from the rest. But you don't have to be a champion; we cheer last-place finishers because we admire their tenacity. So she got stressed out and quit. It's not the end of the world, but don't expect me to have sympathy for her or condemn her teammates for their reactions. I don't feel sympathy for Sally because there are a lot more athletes with less talent but enough resiliency, tenacity, drive - call it what you will - to KEEP GOING! /rant over

posted by dusted at 03:52 PM on August 24

speaking of last-place finishers (via metafilter)

posted by goddam at 04:54 PM on August 24

neat link goddam........thanks

posted by smithers at 05:13 PM on August 24

From goddam's excellent link: Derek Redmond. Whooo - that's a tear-jerker, but in a good way, if that's possible.

posted by dusted at 05:29 PM on August 24

interesting points made. i originally posted this story because i couldn't work out for myself which side i was on - sympathy for an athlete who couldn't go on, or siding with the team mates who were let down. i saw australian rowing commentator nick green on TV last night. he pointed out that there were two 'unwritten rules' broken in the robbins case - one: as an individual you don't quit trying, especially in a team event and two: you don't bag your team mates, even if they stuff up. seems that the canadian men's eight worked this out a while ago and applied it in practice.

posted by owlhouse at 05:45 PM on August 24

That link, dusted, breaks my heart, as it did when I saw it live 12 years ago. (And kudos to ESPN for picking it.) Redmond had such damn promise -- hell, that was an era in which the entire GB men's 400m team was inspiring -- and he deserved so much out of his career. Anyway, I'm looking to see what Roy and HG said about Sally Robbins on 'The Dream In Athens'... I suspect that Fatso the Fat-Arsed Wombat will have his own judgement.

posted by etagloh at 07:56 PM on August 24

"I had some pretty hard words thrown at me. I had some pretty tough things to take," said 23-year-old Robbins last night. "I haven't really experienced anything like that before." Then you haven't been training hard enough, Sally. I don't give a crap about how nice you are supposed to be to teammates. Robbins cost eight other people a medal by repeating the same blowout she's had two years before. She should have had brains enough not to be there, the coach should have had brains enough not to select her and the team should be excused for being a tad angry that Sally just pissed away their hard work.

posted by wfrazerjr at 08:58 PM on August 24

The team had a press conference yesterday - see article here. It's all now lovey-dovey by all accounts. A good point made in the article is that the press were already there when the team started ripping into Sally Robbins, so there was no chance to fall back on the usual 'what's said on the field stays on the field' mantra. Warts and all stuff. And, no - Roy and HG stayed right away from this one!

posted by owlhouse at 10:54 PM on August 24

Did you see the photo in owlhouse's link? Great stuff.

posted by dusted at 11:23 PM on August 24

I'm having trouble figuring out how slamming your teammate for wimping out amounts to fucking cowardice. If you're willing to forgive Robbins for throwing in the towel in a moment of weakness, why do you view so harshly the immediate response of her teammates as their Olympic dreams were completely shattered? (Incidentally, Derek Redmond has turned that incident into a motivational speaking career).

posted by rcade at 08:06 AM on August 25

No, the teammates' response was entirely understandable. If I was in that boat, damn right I'd be up in her face wondering what the hell her problem was, especially if we had a clue she might react like that under that kind of pressure. Sally Robbins the person is not being judged here. I have no doubt she's going through more internal hell than any of us could put on her. Sally Robbins the athlete, on the other hand, can't be trusted in a competitive boat anymore. And whoever let her back into that boat should be either reprimanded or removed from their post.

posted by chicobangs at 09:48 AM on August 25

Rcade: I'm not necessarily willing to forgive Robbins for 'wimping out' (which strikes me as being a judgement, not a fact) in the same respect that I'm certainly not going to forgive her teammates for kicking one of their own when she's down. And as far as I'm concerned Olympic Dreams of Gold are shattered on a daily basis for a variety of reasons - good, bad or circumstantial. Robbins sacrificed and trained just as hard as everyone else on that boat, she didn't operate in isolation, and then she didn't perform. She is not the first, and certainly not the last. I can appreciate that her teammates are mad as hell and probably no longer want anything to do with her - rightly so, but to publically destroy her on the worst day of her life angers me to a great extent. There is no glory, no sportsmanship and certainly no honour in that.

posted by WeedyMcSmokey at 01:32 PM on August 25

I'm certainly not going to forgive her teammates for kicking one of their own when she's down. Exactly who kicked who? I mean, I s'pose if you can't see any importance in her letting her teammates down, I expect you would be fussed when she's called a couple of names (if that) on account of it. Other than that, I'm at a loss to explain your gushing with sympathy for Robbins at the same time that you seem to feel that her teammates should have just sucked it up and got over it, like instantaneously.l

posted by lil_brown_bat at 01:39 PM on August 25

Browny - I certainly can see the importance in that. And I can appreciate the anger that her team felt toward her. But, it is absolutely the worst feeling in the world to let down your team AND yourself. And I do sympathize with those that do this and then are isolated and austracized by the very people that they bled and sweated with for so long. There have been many examples in these games of teams that have been undone by one of their own's failure to perform when it really counts (inexcusable error by Peter Orr in the semi-final in baseball in the eighth with a lead; dropped batons or bad passes in the relays; etc.). In these cases the teams did suck it up. If you've been on a team you know that you always win as a team and lose as a team. And it does bother me a little with the insta-judgement by everyone that essentially paints her as being here for the free trip to Greece, a passenger in all the heats to get to the final and not a world-class athelete who fucked up. Is their anger justified? Yes. Is their reaction? IMHO, no. Robbins is a loser of the first order, no doubt - and the behaviour of her teammates insured that they joined her.

posted by WeedyMcSmokey at 02:03 PM on August 25

Is their anger justified? Yes. Is their reaction? IMHO, no. Robbins is a loser of the first order, no doubt - and the behaviour of her teammates insured that they joined her. I think perhaps all of the discussion, here and elsewhere, may have caused you to confuse her team's reaction with the more general reaction. She got hit hard, at least initially, in the Australian press. But from her team? The "behavior" is almost entirely what Robbins reported to the media, not what anybody witnessed. Robbins claimed at first that "they", and now "one of them", threatened to throw her off the boat. She claims that they said "some pretty hard words" after the race. But no one else heard those "pretty hard words", as far as I can tell. All I've been able to find that anybody else actually heard is, "Tell us the truth!", and a reference that Kyeema Doyle apparently questioned Robbins' selection and criticized her performance. Frankly, at this point it's looking more like a pig-pile on her teammates, while Robbins is holding a fine old pity party. You say that their reaction was not justified; I say, show me exactly what is the big ol' reaction that defies justification. BTW, a couple of related links that may interest you: Robbins, who at one point claimed it was fatigue that caused her to stop rowing, now says it was "anxiety", and Rowing Australia's president backs the decision to have her on the team.

posted by lil_brown_bat at 02:40 PM on August 25

There have been many examples in these games of teams that have been undone by one of their own's failure to perform when it really counts (inexcusable error by Peter Orr in the semi-final in baseball in the eighth with a lead; dropped batons or bad passes in the relays; etc.) Not the same thing. Those are errors, and everyone on those teams knows that anyone can commit an error. What Robbins did was give up. The equivalent would be if Peter Orr were to field the ball and then just stop, put it down on the ground and walk off the field. Or if the relay runner stopped running in the middle of his leg and just walked off the race track.

posted by grum@work at 04:03 PM on August 25

Robbins sacrificed and trained just as hard as everyone else on that boat Who cares? Not the rest of her teammates, I guarantee that. She sacrificed the work of every one else in her boat. Tossing her overboard is harsh? Shit, she's lucky they didn't get a chance to spotweld her ass to an anvil on the way over the starboard bow. And as for this "anxiety" bullshit, forget it. She gave up, plain and simple. I think we used to call this "cracking under pressure" back when people didn't look for a medical excuse when they screwed up.

posted by wfrazerjr at 04:23 PM on August 25

You know, I'd like to hear people's answer to this hypothetical: Basketball final, USA down by 1 point with no time on the clock. Carmelo Anthony on the line to shoot one more free throw after missing his first. He receives the ball, dribbles it a couple times, then fires it over the backboard into the crowd. As he walks off the court, Allen Iverson rushes out and begins screaming and yelling at him for being a quitter and losing the gold medal for the United States. Who is the bad guy here? Is it Iverson, for being distraught that a teammate just threw away a chance for the entire squad? Or is it Anthony, for melting down in the face of pressure? Would it be any different if Iverson laid him out with a right hook? Is there really a bad guy at all?

posted by wfrazerjr at 04:30 PM on August 25

Shit, she's lucky they didn't get a chance to spotweld her ass to an anvil on the way over the starboard bow. 150 pts.

posted by garfield at 04:52 PM on August 25

re: hypothetical - AI would be at fault for his public display. That is what the locker room is for: chewing ass. Melo would be at fault for lacking heart and being weak-minded. My problem with this is that I can see AI going off, but I can't see Melo quitting. but it is just a hypothetical, so i'll get over it.

posted by garfield at 05:02 PM on August 25

Browny: Could be the case. I can certainly understand harsh words during the race - if I have overstated the same after the race, then I'd rethink the position.

posted by WeedyMcSmokey at 05:24 PM on August 25

wfrazer - geez it must be nice to be so sure about these things. Remind me never to be on the same team as you. Re: hypothetical: That's about as hypothetical as a man can get. Melo should have turned around and just chucked the ball right at Iverson.

posted by WeedyMcSmokey at 05:28 PM on August 25

Weedy -- I'm an excellent teammate, unless you just frigging give up. Then you're liable to get popped in the mouth and I won't feel bad for one second. I don't think it's any more of a reach for an example as a woman bailing out on her teammates twice in exactly the same fashion, is it? And Melo can't throw the ball at AI ... he's already fired it into the stands.

posted by wfrazerjr at 05:41 PM on August 25

I'm not necessarily willing to forgive Robbins for 'wimping out' (which strikes me as being a judgement, not a fact) ... She was being treated by a sports psychologist and admitted that part of her problem was anxiety, according to a story I linked. I think it's a safe judgment to conclude that her problems were largely, perhaps even totally, mental. There are some endeavours in which you join a team that has to rely on you completely -- mountain climbing, for instance. You know this going in, just as Robbins knew that before she accepted the invitation to join her crew. To me, her mental collapse is like a space shuttle astronaut with anxiety disorder going on a mission and freaking out, though here of course the consequences are far less -- just the Olympics. If you're going to join a team where the stakes of your failure are huge for everyone on your team, I think you gotta know yourself well enough to quit if you can't hack it.

posted by rcade at 05:54 PM on August 25

The lesson we should all learn from this is: Always pick the Robbins last in dodgeball.

posted by swank6 at 07:23 PM on August 25

Unless you spend time around rowing crews, you don't really appreciate how, in training for a big regatta, they become this kind of Borg entity. They keep the same schedule, eat together, and frankly become the dullest people on the fucking planet. It's that intense. It's obvious, yes, but having a bad outing in an eight fucks up the boat in a way that having a bad game in basketball or hockey or soccer doesn't. The rest of the crew can't compensate by raising their own game. In that regard, you're basically only as good as the worst rower on your boat. (It's a bit more complicated than that, in terms of placement in the eight, but it's a good rule of thumb.) I can understand Robbins having a mental blowout: the mechanics of rowing can and do play tricks with your head. But she really ought to take up single sculling.

posted by etagloh at 08:14 PM on August 25

But she really ought to take up single sculling. How would she get home?

posted by yerfatma at 08:59 PM on August 25

She was being treated by a sports psychologist and admitted that part of her problem was anxiety, according to a story I linked. I think it's a safe judgment to conclude that her problems were largely, perhaps even totally, mental. Yes - and we call this 'wimping out'. The reality is a mental disorder can be as debilitating as a phyiscal one. I think she should never have been in the boat, but I give her the benefit of the doubt. Spofi; so quick to condemn... God, I sound like such a pussy - but I like to boost the little guy.

posted by WeedyMcSmokey at 09:41 PM on August 25

but I like to boost the little guy So do I. The first time they fuck up. All succeeding fuck-ups you have to pay for yourself.

posted by yerfatma at 06:12 AM on August 26

God, I sound like such a pussy yup

posted by garfield at 06:41 AM on August 26

How would she get home? Exactly ;) She'd have to learn pretty fast.

posted by etagloh at 05:16 PM on August 26

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