Q&A with new women’s rowing head coach John Graves

Graves brings his experience as the Dartmouth men’s heavyweight assistant coach to the role.

by Caroline York | 8/18/23 1:00am


Courtesy of John Graves

In a series of coach hirings, John Graves was recently named the new head coach of the women’s rowing team. Graves has served as an assistant coach for the men’s heavyweight team for the last two years. Before Graves coached the Dartmouth heavyweight team to a top 10 rank, he helped the University of Texas’s heavyweight rowing team win a national championship in 2021. The Dartmouth sat down with Graves to learn more about how his work with the heavyweight team and his past as a rower have influenced his coaching philosophy.

What drew you to Dartmouth when you joined the heavyweight staff two years ago?

JG: The heavyweight program had just medaled in all three events at IRAs in 2021, and I was really excited about the momentum heavyweight head coach Wyatt Allen and heavyweight associate head coach Albert Monte were building. The chance to learn from two of the best coaches in the country was a “can’t miss” opportunity. I was very lucky to intersect with them during that period. 

You competed for the U.S. national team as recently as 2021. How did you make the quick transition from competing to coaching?

JG: I think I always knew I wanted to coach, and I always felt like I was learning from my coaches with that idea in the back of my mind. I was lucky to have some really amazing coaches that were very open about why we were doing things, why we trained certain ways, why we rowed certain ways, and I was always just trying to pick their brains and learn about things that could help me down the road. So I think that helped me when it was time to get into coaching. I felt like I had a clear image of how some of the best athletes and coaches did it, but obviously there’s a difference between having the knowledge and then actually doing it. Not to mention, there are big differences between what works for an individual and what works for a group of 55 rowers. That’s where the last couple of years learning from Wyatt has been so helpful. His ability to command and lead a large group is second to none. So to answer your question, whether it be as an athlete or an assistant coach, I’ve been very fortunate to learn from some of the best. 

The women’s rowing team finished seventh out of eight at the Ivy League Championships last year. What coaching changes will you implement for more success next season?

JG:  Not sure who to attribute this quote to, but it comes to mind: “If you want something you’ve never had, you need to do something you’ve never done.” 

After working with the heavyweight men’s team, will your coaching style change at all when coaching the women’s team?

JG: Lightweight rowing coach Trevor Michelson gave me a piece of advice that has stuck with me: A major trap when taking over a team is to change too many things at once. I think former women’s rowing head coach Nancy LaRoque and the previous staff had things moving in the right direction, and my focus will not be on changing course but adding momentum. But obviously, I would be stupid not to try and emulate what Coach Allen has done to create a sustainable model for success here at Dartmouth. 

Athletic director Mike Harrity said: “[your] coaching approach is informed by [a] passion for the science of rowing combined with [a] rare ability to connect with and make the people around [you] better.” Can you explain what Harrity means by “the science of rowing?” 

JG: Our sport is changing quickly, especially at the international level, and we now have access to technology to quantify things that were previously unquantifiable. That being said, data without effective communication can be extremely misleading and even detrimental to a program. I try to strike a balance between being a coach that is stubborn about the standard needed to be successful while never wanting to be a coach that forgets what it feels like to be in the boat and how challenging it is to be making technical changes under pressure. As an athlete, I always wanted to be pushed out of my comfort zone, but nothing made me more angry than a coach that clearly was disconnected from what it took to move a boat. I try to remember that.

How does your experience as a former U.S. National Team member and collegiate rower at Trinity College help inform your decisions as a coach?

JG: Because Trinity is a NESCAC school, you couldn’t be coached from November until really late February. It required any team I was on in college to be really self-sufficient in training. I didn’t appreciate how much that shaped my habits as an athlete until recently. By necessity, you needed to learn how to train on your own without a coach cracking the whip. While we aren’t limited in the same way in the Ivy League, I think creating a culture of self-reliance and taking ownership of your own results is vital. I want to be on a team whose actions align with their goals. If we are serious about being fast in the spring, what are we going to do about it? 

Your wife finished fourth at the 2016 Olympic Games in rowing. Does she ever inform your coaching decisions?

JG: Absolutely. She’s the boss!

What’s your favorite workout song?

JG: Levels by Avicii. 

I heard from a heavyweight rower that your dog, Yoshi, often accompanies you on the erg and the boat. How does Yoshi help raise spirits during practices or races?

JG: I ask the guys to race like Yoshi, and I think that holds up pretty well. When he sees a squirrel, he doesn’t think, he just goes. No pacing — just wild animal instinct! He is also living proof that when you’re tired, you always have some energy left in the tank.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.