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UMass Amherst- UMass rowing champion takes America to the Olympics

AMHERST - It was the final leg of a month-long competition to champion America in the Olympics two-man rowing races and only 2,000 meters separated University of Massachusetts student Wesley D. Piermarini from this year's international games in China.

At the starting gun Piermarini and rowing partner Elliot Hovey pushed off to an early lead in the men's double scull, a rowing competition where each teammate uses two oars. Piermarini could see his competitors 500 meters behind his boat. His thoughts reeled with anticipation: "In my mind and out loud I'm saying it, 'We're doing it. This is happening. It's just - Oh, wow.'"

Their competitors never caught up. Last week Piermarini and Hovey completed the final qualifying race in 6 minutes and 27 seconds, cementing their place in athletic history. Bottled waters were tossed to the champions who toasted their victory on New Jersey's Lake Mercer.

"When we won, it just felt awesome," said Piermarini, who spoke to the Gazette in between Olympic training sessions this week. "It's still totally mind blowing. It still hasn't totally sunk in yet. I think it will eventually."

Piermarini, 25, took a year-long break from his graduate studies in the UMass architecture department to train for the Olympics.

In September, the West Brookfield native left for the West Coast to join the California Rowing Club and train with Tim McLaren, an internationally recognized rowing coach who won a silver medal for Australia in sculling during the 1984 Olympics.

"As time went on, I felt it was sort of wrong not to try," said Piermarini. "I didn't want to be 50 and think I should have tried out for the 2008 games. I'm really happy with my decision now."

Growing up, Piermarini had dreams of competing in the Olympics, but as a downhill skier. He fell in love with rowing as a freshman at UMass. Piermarini graduated from UMass in 2004 with a bachelor's degree in architecture.

James W. Dietz, the UMass Women's Rowing coach and the man who taught Piermarini how to scull, said he is not surprised Piermarini found his way to the international games. Piermarini is an example of the complete athlete, he said.

"Wes showed not only the athletic ability and the ability to be a scholar at the highest level, but he also had the temperament and the drive," Dietz said. "All the kids would go home for the summer, but Wes rode all summer long."

The long road to the Olympics

Piermarini's road to the Olympics began his first year at UMass as he was making the difficult transition from a small school of 65 students to the large university. In an effort to structure his life, Piermarini joined the crew team.

"I sort of felt, without structure, I'd slip through the cracks and fail out of school or get into the wrong things," Piermarini said. "I heard (crew) was pretty structured and, man, it is."

Most days Piermarini woke at 5 a.m. and headed to the waters for practice. By 8 or 9 a.m. he was back in bed for a quick nap before classes. Hanging out with friends in between work, school and exercise, Piermarini found the structure he craved.

Trying to describe what he enjoys about rowing, the Olympian was at a loss for words. Often Piermarini's explanation turned to balance.

"You're moving a boat through water and it's pretty hard to keep your balance," Piermarini said. "When you're doing it right, it just feels amazing."

At UMass, Piermarini was a successful rower on the men's crew team. He was a three-time New England gold medalist, he won the Eastern College Athletic Conference's National Regatta, won bronze at the Intercollegiate Rowing Association's National Championship and competed in the Royal Henley Regatta.

After graduation, Piermarini continued to row, but noticed his skills were declining. When an old friend beat him in a race, Piermarini decided it was time to get serious about his sport and chase his Olympic dreams. UMass granted him a leave of absence to train for the Olympics, and he headed to California.

In California, Piermarini's coach paired him with Hovey, a teammate of similar physical proportions.

"Basically, the coach thought we'd be a good fit. Turns out he was right," Piermarini said.

The duo spent four to six hours a day on the water training for rowing competitions. For the Olympics, Piermarini and several members from his team competed to be in the men's quad rowing race, but missed winning the honor to represent America.

Piermarini and Hovey then decided to compete in the sculling competition. To become America's sculling team, Piermarini and Hovey had to win two out of three races in the final competition. Each race was conducted on a different day. Piermarini and Hovey won the first and second matches.

"You win the first day, and you know you have to defend yourself the next," Piermarini said. "It was pretty tough. I didn't sleep that well that night, that's for sure."

Now, Piermarini trains three times a day with Hovey in New Jersey, a place with a similar climate to Beijing. He recently received his Olympian uniform and will meet with the Olympics Committee to learn the details of his trip next week. He will leave for China on July 25 and return a month later after the Olympics' closing ceremonies.

But will Piermarini bring home the gold?

"We're sort of underdogs. We don't have any international experience. Most of the guys we'll be racing against have been at world championships. They don't know us, but we know them," Piermarini said. "I think we definitely have a chance."