Athlete of the Month – January 2016
Switzerland’s Mario Gyr, 31, has been competing internationally in the lightweight men’s four since 2008, with a stint in the lightweight men’s double sculls in 2013 and 2014. Last year he and his teammates experienced their most successful regatta season to date, with an overall World Cup win, a European Championship and a World Championship title. The crew also won the Swiss National Team Award for 2015.
World Rowing had a chance to catch up with the Swiss lawyer, now training in New Zealand for the next two months. Read on to learn more about Gyr’s path to success and future goals.
World Rowing: When did you first set the goal of competing at the Olympic Games?
Mario Gyr: My childhood dreams were always to win the Football World Cup and/or to win an Olympic medal. After we didn’t qualify our boat at the 2008 Final Olympic Qualification Regatta in Poznan, I set the goal to race in the final at London 2012.
WR: What sports did you practice before you began to row?
MG: I started with ice hockey and badminton and played football for quite a long time. At the age of 17 I had back problems and my physiotherapist advised me to try rowing. I loved the water element and I was passionate about being in a team that moves together in one direction in total synchrony and about pushing myself in every training session. The football training was quite a contrast to the rowing training…
WR: After London 2012, the Swiss lightweight men’s four had a break and you rowed in the double in 2013 and 2014. What process led the four of you to get back together in 2015?
MG: After the disappointment of the 2012 Olympics we needed a break. The split into small boats was easier to handle, as training organisation was easier. When our new Kiwi coach Ian Wright came to Switzerland he said: “It’s rare for four talented strong rowers to come together at the same time.” And so he put us back in the four.
WR: What factors played a role in making 2015 such a successful year for your boat?
MG: It certainly helped that Ian Wright brought a new training system to Switzerland. We trained a lot in the past years, but maybe not intensely enough. The new programme is certainly harder than how we used to train before and we spend more time together in the four than before.
WR: Why, in your opinion, is success never arbitrary?
MG: I’m a strong believer in meritocracy. I believe that hard work pays off and gets awarded sooner or later - I just don’t know what those rewards are yet. It’s a question of prioritisation and what you are ready to give up for your achievements. If you do that the results will take care of themselves.
WR: You’ve rowed in stroke seat for most of your international career, starting with your first participation at a World Rowing regatta - the 2003 World Rowing Junior Championships where you raced in the junior men’s quadruple sculls. Why does this position suit you?
MG: I think a good rower should be able to row in any seat. Personally, it doesn’t matter in which seat I row as long as the boat is running! Bill Mason once defined me as 'The Racer.' I’m certainly able to switch to another level in racing and maybe that suits a stroke man.
WR: In 2015, you raced in two-seat and then switched back to stroke for the World Rowing Championships. What were the reasons behind this change?
MG: Last year I had a bad kidney injury and I had surgery twice. This affected my fitness a lot and so I was the 'passenger' at World Rowing Cup I and the European Rowing Championships. After World Rowing Cup II we had seat races on the Rotsee. It was one of the hottest days ever in Switzerland. We started at 7:00am and ended up doing 73km. At the end of the day we discovered which seating combinations were the fastest.
WR: How do you and your teammates complement each other in the boat?
MG: We have a great camaraderie, a common philosophy and a similar way of thinking. It’s not necessary to be friends, but it certainly helps being good friends when you’re going head to head at the end of a race. Simon Niepmann is a calm, but strong-minded person. He is the most experienced guy in our team with great rowing technique and a superb boat feeling. Lucas Tramer is very ambitious and makes sure we never take shortcuts in training. He is our engine and strongest man on board. Simon Schuerch is the youngest team member and an easy-going fellow with a big focus on what matters in order to achieve his goals. He’s an outstanding athlete and makes the calls in our boat.
I’m very lucky to be part of this team made up of exceptional athletes, outstanding personalities and good friends. We strive together for our goals and are not a team because we work together - we are a team because we trust, respect and care for each other!
WR: Where do you and your team train?
MG: At the moment we are in New Zealand for nearly two months but normally we train at the Swiss Rowing Training Centre in Sarnen from Wednesday to Sunday. Monday is off and on Tuesday I train in my club in Lucerne.
WR: How would you describe your working relationship with your coach, Ian Wright?
MG: It’s maybe like the big, old uncle and his four nephews. On land, Ian is pretty easy-going and we have a lot of fun, but on the water he is very strict and can also be quite a 'badass' at times. He wants discipline, determination and an absolute commitment to excellence and outstanding performances. He gets us out of our comfort zone every day.
WR: You and your crewmates won the Swiss National Award for “Team of the Year” in 2015. What does this mean to you?
MG: It was definitely a surprise for us to win this award. The Credit Suisse Sports Awards is a big thing in Switzerland and becoming Team of the Year was a big honour for us four. Rowing is not that popular in Switzerland and that we came out on top against the ice hockey or football teams was certainly the result of a great season. Apparently the Swiss people took notice.
WR: How would you describe your main competitors?
MG: The great thing about the lightweight four is that a lot of great crews can win the race, that we fight each other hard on the water but enjoy some drinks on land and have good fun. I think Olaf Tufte was absolutely right when he once told me: "You don’t have to be enemies to have a great race!"
WR: You are a World Rowing ambassador for the Kafue River & Rowing Centre Project. Why do you think it is important for rowing athletes to help create awareness about clean water?
MG: I was privileged to be born in a place where I’m surrounded by beautiful clean rivers and lakes, but the problems surrounding freshwater are certainly some of the biggest problems that people on this planet will face in the future. We do have a responsibility for the next generations to preserve our natural resources and to ensure they still have the same water quality as we have. On a daily basis I try to have economical and considerate water consumption and two times a year our local fishing-club organises a cleaning-day on the Rotsee and the River Reuss. My godmother comes from Ruanda and founded an non-profit organisation called 'Editions Bakame.' The work and effort she has been putting into that project for the last 20 years is amazing and truly inspiring and gives me motivation to help where I can.
WR: You studied law. How did you manage to combine elite training and competition with studying?
MG: Yes, usually I work as a lawyer on Mondays and Tuesdays. Studying law and training about 20 to 30 hours a week was not easy and it required a lot of discipline and commitment. You are tired after the training sessions but are forced to look at books. Your university mates went to great parties while you went to sleep because the next day before lectures you went on the water. It wasn’t always easy, but it was worth it. There are no shortcuts in the Swiss university system - I remember the dean of the law faculty telling me that I should stop training and focus on the study courses because both would not be possible. I was quite amused when years later after finishing my law degree and going to the Olympics, he wrote me a letter to apologise and wish me luck for the future.
WR: What are your professional goals for the coming ten years?
MG: Ha, ha - this is the big question! I think either I’ll work as a lawyer in a Swiss law office, start my own law office or do an MBA and start a career in consulting. Oh yeah, and Friday is off for daddy-day;-)
WR: Who have your biggest role models been in your sports/professional career?
MG: I admire people who inspire values of sportsmanship, solidarity and doing one’s best. People who do not give up in difficult situations where nothing seems to be moving forward anymore.