Interview with Fred Vysavel ’16
The Ivy Club has a rich history of Olympic athletes. This past summer Fred Vystavel ’16 and Hannah Scott ’21 competed in rowing at the Tokyo olympics – Hannah in the womens’ quadruple sculls for Great Britain, Fred in the mens’ coxless pair for Denmark. Both did Ivy proud. Fred took home Bronze for his country and was able to share with us about the experience, from training to the A Final, and described how his upbringing and his time at Ivy contributed to his success.
Describe your personal upbringing a bit. What was/ is your family culture like?
I had a somewhat multicultural upbringing, being born to Danish and Swedish parents, and growing up in Belgium, England, and Spain. My sister and I were brought up to be open, kind, and considerate of other people’s feelings. My parents have always been supportive of whatever my sister and I have done or plan to do. We’re a tight family, who enjoys traveling just as much as some good Danish ‘hygge’ at home in front of the tele.
What is the guiding principle in your life, broadly speaking?
I generally try to always have a positive outlook on life, and enjoy whatever it is I do. That doesn’t mean it always has to be ‘fun’ in the moment – rowing isn’t always sunshine and rainbows – it just has to be worthwhile. I firmly believe that if something stops being that, it’s time to stop and move on.
I’m not a religious man but I do believe in the “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, and think about how my actions will affect those around me. Put another way, I like to try and be that guy who will wait for you to tie your shoe laces while the rest of the group keeps walking.
What have been some pivotal changes in your approach to rowing throughout your career – be they mental or physical – that have allowed you to broaden your capabilities?
I’ve been fortunate enough in my rowing career to row with a multitude of very different people, with each experience shaping who I am today, both as a person and as a rower. I was dealt a very good hand by starting out with rowing at Eton College, UK, which set a solid foundation. Princeton then added a huge second layer on top of that, where I developed both physically and mentally, paving the way to my time on the Danish team.
Physically, I’ve learned to listen to my body well over the years, and know what things work for me and what don’t.
Mentally speaking I’ve become better at decision making – important in such an athlete-driven programme that the Danish squad is – and I don’t let things I can’t control get to me. This latter point is important when training full time, as one doesn’t have the luxury of ‘distractions’ that study/work provides.
What values or beliefs were deepened during your time at Princeton, and how?
I think general openness to people that have walked, and do walk, different paths in life is something I got to practice even more while at Princeton. Being exposed to a truly diverse and across-theboard driven student body was fundamental to my maturing as an individual, inspiring me to make the most of my time at Princeton: in the classroom, social settings, and at the boathouse.
What drew you to Ivy? What aspect of the Ivy community has been most impactful in your life?
Initially the fun atmosphere on nights out, as an underclassman, and the fact it was pretty international. Once a member, I learned that the general culture at the Club, most evident at meals, [is what] makes Ivy so great. Some of my fondest memories from Princeton are from Ivy meals: [especially those shared by] the ‘breakfast club’, featuring the rowers and other early birds. The friendly staff, great food, the interesting conversations enjoyed around the tables, and the friendships formed at the club … those are memories and connections I cherish today.
What is something most people may not appreciate or notice about the sport of rowing?
How brutally demanding it is. It’s a grind, but there’s no two ways about it. Unless you’ve tried it yourself, or personally know someone who has gone through an Olympic cycle – which I haven’t actually done myself, as I only joined the Danish team Fall 2018 after a couple of years of ‘staying fit’ by myself – then I’d say most people won’t come close to appreciating the level of commitment required to even make it to the Olympic Games. Broken down, we’d be logging a full 24+hrs’ worth of quality training, every six days.
Describe how the A Final felt. What was your mental state before, during, and after?
I’d say surprisingly cool and under control, but it was no surprise. We had figured out what worked for us, mentally speaking, in the lead up to Final Qualifiers in May – dubbed “The Regatta of Death” by the rowing community, as there are only two available qualification spots left for the taking, in each category. For us that was kind of our Olympic Final, in that we had nothing to lose but everything to gain on the day; and we executed it pretty much perfectly. So, fast forward three months to us sitting on the start line of the A Final in Tokyo, we were cool. Nothing had changed. We were faster and more ready than ever to go out there and race our race. We had dialled into that state of mind we found in May the morning of the Heat, squashing any nerves that usually spring up on the first race day. We had spoken after the semi-final that there was a medal for the taking, but we stopped that kind of chat quickly, as we haven’t been a result-focused boat, but more process-oriented. I think as soon as you start thinking about the result before the race it’s kind of game over, as I think that’s when the nerves start to kick in. We therefore treated the Final as any other race, which may also have been easier this year given there were no spectators. The race itself was very similar to the Semifinal. The wind had slightly dropped but it was still tricky water. We got out well and had established a solid 2nd/3rd position over the middle part of the race. We held our composure coming into the last 500m, keeping an eye on the rest of the field. It was hard to do any real kind of sprint because that was when the water was the roughest, so coming into the last 250m – the “red buoys” – we went through our closing sequence, trying to increase boat speed while still being cautious in the bad water. The tough conditions saw a lot of good crews falling short of their potential, and we didn’t want to join their company. I recall seeing Canada really start to move in the last 100m over in lane 1, making me call a couple last second “Go!”, while trying not to sound panicked. I also recall looking over and thinking we’d finished a seat or so ahead of the Canadians crossing the line, but I didn’t celebrate until I saw Joachim raise his arm, prompting me to look right and see “3. DEN” on the big screen. Directly after the race was a whirlwind of emotions, as the medallists were herded to a side pontoon and led to a tent to change into our medal ceremony outfit, and then onto the medal ceremony itself, followed by interviews with media. We had short moments in that 40-min post-race period where we just laughed, shook our heads, and hugged each other. I cried a little when the Danish flag got raised. Such a surreal morning, one I will never forget.
Describe the experience of teamwork as you’ve lived it in preparation for the Olympics. What has your teammate Joachim Sutton taught you?
The past year and a half taught me so much about teamwork as I had never been in a pair project before. The fact that we were only two people in the boat presented lots of opportunity for greater flexibility in how we trained – doing a lot of the cardio sessions separately, for example – but also provided plenty of challenges, as there’s no hiding in the pair. We learned, through some trial & error, how to be clear in our communication, understanding and taking into account the differences in our personalities, both on and off the water. The key to our teamwork in the pair, and with our coach, was the balance between taking enough personal ego out of the equation, while still maintaining our own personal identity. [Our coach] Jens learned to trust us and truly let us get on with figuring out how best to row the pair together. He respected that we sometimes needed to go out on the water by ourselves, and not have him coach us from his launch. This requires a huge amount of selflessness, which was the foundation of the successful teamwork we experienced in the run up to Tokyo and the Games themselves. Joachim’s relentless self-confidence in his ability to race, and out-race others, is something that I valued greatly in the boat. I don’t think I’ve ever lacked it, but I’ve certainly grown a lot as a racer from being with him. This augmented confidence meant that we could take the race to the very best out there, together.
What are you most grateful for?
Probably that I could finish off my rowing career on such a high. Not just with an Olympic medal – something I had never dreamt of as I had always seen the Olympics as something totally beyond my reach – but to be given the opportunity to represent all my schools, friends, and family, on the biggest stage of all, that is something I’m super grateful for. I’m immensely proud of the quality of people I have around me and who have supported me on this journey