DORNEY, England (Reuters) - Any member of the United States men’s eight hit by last minute nerves before their Olympic rowing final will need to look no further than to the right-hand bank and the lone figure of the rugged Mike Teti perched on his bike.
The 55-year-old coach from Philadelphia has taken on near legendary status in American rowing - breaking records, forming winning crews and all with an unorthodox style.
On Wednesday, his crew will line up for the final of an event that the United States has dominated in recent years, less than a year after he returned to rescue a team which faced missing out on the Games for the first time.
Told that his crew had attributed their comfortable victory in the first heat on Saturday to Teti, he said it was because they were scared of him.
“They looked pretty controlled, but that’s the way they are,” he said. “I think there’s seven engineers in there, so they’re kind of boring. They’re methodical and systematic. It makes me kind of nervous, I‘m an Italian guy from Philadelphia.”
One of ten children from an Italian-American family, who discovered rowing at his local Catholic high school, Teti won a bronze in the eight at the 1988 Seoul Olympics and finished fourth in 1992.
He then turned his focus to coaching.
The blue riband eight event holds a special place in American sport - the country won every Olympic final between 1920 and 1956. After missing out in 1960, it returned to win in 1964, before enduring a barren spell that lasted for 40 years.
That was only broken when Teti coached the U.S. boat to victory in 2004, and in Beijing they won bronze. Results then deteriorated when he left to coach the University of California.
Much has been made in the American press of his style, with a recent New Yorker profile describing him as a screamer, and a profane one at that, who weeds out the weaker athletes by forcing them to race off against each other.
“As the freshmen men’s coach at Princeton, he played a role not unlike that of a drill instructor in a Marine boot camp -Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, from Stanley Kubrick’s ”Full Metal Jacket“, comes to mind,” it said.
“Not only would he bust your balls on the water, in terms of the training, but he would also bust them off the water, by getting in your head.”
The tall coach who communicates with his crew through a bull horn also likes to bring in athletes from different sports and, according to the New Yorker, prefers rowers who have not come through the once traditional route of Ivy League colleges.
But the affable Teti plays down the “ball-breaker” image.
”To me, it’s about people, rowing isn’t the NBA, it isn’t professional soccer,“ he said. ”So I attempt to try and have fun. Everyone else is out there working and we’re driving around in a motorboat in a beautiful lake. It’s a pretty good gig.
“I was a solid C minus student. The furthest I’d ever been was the Jersey shore and now I‘m flying into different countries, with opportunities that my family didn’t have.”
One person who knows what it feels like to train and race under Teti is Bryan Volpenhein, another coach at the London Games who sat in the stroke seat of both the Athens eight and the Beijing crews.
“He has this reputation so you feel that if you can deal with him and everything he puts you through, then you can handle anything,” he told Reuters, briefly removing his sunglasses to concentrate on the subject. “You take confidence from him.”
“He’s very, very deliberate and everything is intentional. He’s not just going around and kicking chairs and throwing tables, there’s a reason for it. When I was an athlete I was like, ‘I‘m never going to coach like that.’ But I now find myself saying things that he does all the time.”
Editing by Matt Falloon