Former club rower Wherley anchors Olympic team with years of experience

Road to Athens 2004

Dan Miller

Growing up in Sun Prairie, Wis., as one of eight children, former Minnesota rower Mike Wherley never traveled much farther than Illinois.

But now, as an experienced member of the U.S. Olympic Rowing Team, Wherley has been all around the world.

His next destination is Athens, Greece, where he will be competing as a member of the U.S. eight-man boat.

Wherley said when talking to high schoolers he likes to tell them to be ready for their break.

“We can all train and have desires,” Wherley says. “But we have to be ready on that day when opportunity presents itself.”

Wherley’s opportunity presented itself in 1991 on an east-bank dormitory floor.

In his freshman year, he picked up a flyer advertising Minnesota’s rowing club. He admitted he was more interested in trying out for the basketball team.

As it would happen, the 6-foot-7-inch Wherley ended up cleaning Williams Arena’s floors to raise funds for the rowing team.

“We were kinda behind the eight ball in many regards because it was just a club sport, and we had to do all the fundraising,” Wherley said.

He said that especially during the winter when the rowers couldn’t train on the water, the commitment was hard to swallow.

A turning point came during his freshman spring at the Dad Vail Regatta in Philadelphia. With people crowded to watch the event, Wherley saw that people were actually interested in his sport.

“It was pretty wild to see 10,000 people on the bank of the Schuylkill River,” Wherley said. “That kinda got me hooked.”

After a celebrated five years of rowing at Minnesota, Wherley contemplated making a career out of it.

He rowed for a year with the Minneapolis Rowing Club and then made the decision to move to the mecca of American rowing – the Northeast Coast.

After joining a well-known rowing club in Philadelphia, Wherley started drawing attention.

He won three straight World Championships with the U.S. Rowing Team (1997, 1998 and 1999) in their eight-man boat.

He switched to the four-man boat for the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney.

Ed Podnieks, who was Wherley’s teammate at Minnesota and now a coach for its club team, said Wherley was asked to help the four-man team.

Podnieks said after a rower was injured, the boat was in jeopardy of not qualifying for the Olympics.

“Mike literally took one for the team,” Minnesota women’s rowing coach Wendy Davis said. “It was a big sacrifice for him to go into the four (person boat).”

Both Podnieks and Davis said Wherley’s switch shows the respect he receives from the U.S. Team’s coaches.

“He has the complete package of talent, work ethic and professionalism that elite coaches are looking for,” Podnieks said.

It comes as no surprise to Davis and Podnieks that Wherley is looking at coaching when he is finished competing.

Since graduating from Minnesota and working toward being an elite rower, Wherley said career ambitious have been on hold.

With a degree in history and journalism, Wherley said the reality of a U.S. rower is to take what you can get when it comes to jobs.

Wherley said he has been lucky with past jobs, which include an editing stint and a programmer job. But he and his teammates have had to take jobs that are flexible with their 30 hours of training a week.

Wherley resigned from his programming job in December because of his increased training regimen leading up to the Olympics.

He is now working at Home Depot through the Olympic Job Opportunities Program. It pays Olympic athletes a living wage while being flexible and allowing them to adequately train.

Any regrets while showing people different colors of wallpaper?

“It’s just a choice I took to pursue a career in rowing,” Wherley said. “When I had the opportunity, I took it.”

Wherley’s next opening will come next month, when an Olympic gold medal will present itself to he who is willing to seize the opportunity.