David Baker Banks demonstrates proper erging technique at Churchill Crew's winter practice.
David Banks graduated from Winston Churchill High School in 2001. He played basketball and ran track at Churchill. At Stanford University he joined the Crew team during his freshman year. After college, Banks decided to pursue the sport further and in 2008 made the U. S. Rowing team.
That year Banks also qualified for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. In the Beijing Olympics, his 4 boat placed ninth against fierce competition; they missed earning a medal by two or three tenths of a second. Banks’s 8 boat recently qualified for the 2012 London Olympics. Cheer David on this summer!
Banks visited Potomac over the winter holidays and attended a practice with Churchill Crew in December 2011. He spoke about his rowing career, offered advice to team members and took questions. He also helped coach practice and demonstrated proper technique on the rowing machine (erg). Here are some highlights of his visit:
What seat do you row?
It sort of depends on the day and the boat. Because of my size I will often be in the bow of the boat. I hang out with a lot of guys who are a lot taller, 6’ 8” or 6’9” and so a lot of times I’m in the bow or the stern. But, it can definitely vary. I have been in boats with guys of all sizes and it goes to show that you don’t have to be a certain height to be very effective and to win. Like we used to say back when I played basketball at Churchill, its not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.
Do you row port or starboard?
I’ve been on port my entire rowing career. They put me on port my first day and I’ve been there ever since. I’ve switched over to starboard a few times and it definitely is different. It is like eating left-handed for me. After you’ve known one side for so long and go to the other side, you can sort of teach yourself better than when you first started rowing. Sometimes you actually start to row better because you know how to properly apply your body. When we first start out we all learn some bad habits that are tough to get rid of. When you switch over, then switch back, you can have a new mindset.
What was it like to be in the Beijing Olympics?
It definitely was an amazing experience. It was my first international race so everything was extremely new to me. The rowing events took place in a small town an hour north of Beijing. We got there two weeks before the race and so we stayed very focused on just practicing and preparing for the race. I was calm before the race and then it hit me. There were helicopters overhead and fly-by cameras and I thought, “Whoa, this is Olympics” It took me a few seconds before the race to catch my breath and then it was just like any other race. Everything was a rush and happened really fast. In the end it was disappointing finishing ninth place, but we put it all out there and maximized what we had on that day. At the end of the day, that’s all you can ask for. But I still have fire and desire to do better and so I am continuing to train to qualify and compete in the London Olympics this summer.
After the Games, we moved into the Olympic Village and got to see more of the pageantry, all the different countries and athletes. It was a pretty cool experience. We got to see the NBA Dream Team walk by. Michael Phelps was right there. It was an amazing experience.
Did you have a coxswain in the Olympics?
In the Olympics we were in a straight 4, which is a 4 without a coxswain. The guy in the stroke seat steers the boat. The right footplate is connected to the rudder and if you move your foot right or left, you steer the boat. You get used to it. It’s not as hard as it sounds. But it’s another factor.
Sometimes it’s nice not to hear the coxswain’s voice during the whole race. Usually in a boat without a coxswain somebody will be delegated to call the race. They have to pretty much call the start, the moves and the sprint in the end. We row a lot of pairs while training and in competition and so I have had to do that a lot. It’s an important skill to get better at. You get learn to communicate and get to learn how to motivate you teammates as well gain a bit more awareness of what’s going on around you. The coxswains we have now are 5’6” to 5’8”. The weight limit for men is about 120 pounds.
What are the Winklevoss twins like?
I know them pretty well. In 2008, I roomed with one of them, Cameron I think it was. It is even hard for me to tell the difference. They dress alike, they do everything alike so it’s a 50-50 chance you’ll get it right. They’re good guys and very smart guys. They handle the fame and celebrity pretty well. In the sport of rowing, nobody has too much of an ego because it’s not that big of a sport. Like in anything, the more you continue with something, the more talented everyone is and so that can keep people grounded. They are humble guys for the attention they’ve received. I’ve known them since 2005 when they weren’t big at all. And I’m training with them right now in Oakland.
What is the level of commitment you had to give in college?
In college, athletics are definitely more serious and require more commitment than they do in high school. But it is not too much different. Like most high school athletics, we had practice everyday when we were in season. I am sure all of you on the team are learning how to balance the schoolwork and athletics. In college, it is a little different in that you have to manage yourself; your parents are not there to force you to do things. One thing you learn is it’s not just the time but it’s the time you’re preparing for it. You have to eat right and sleep right too. So it helps to get into a rhythm. In college, I remember sometimes I would leave for practice at 1:30 and my friends would be playing video games and I’d come back at 6:30 and they were still playing video games. In those five hours they didn’t do anything and I did something that was productive. You learn how to manage your time and your class work.
What is a typical practice like for you now?
It depends on time of year. Rowing is pretty simple, right? There are no plays to learn or anything. You pretty much improve on you fitness, your technique and your abilities to move the boat and go faster. Practices depend on the time of year but it is primarily a mix between erging and rowing. Sometimes we will do a little cross-training and some weights. The longer out you are from competition, the more you work on volume and getting lots of miles in. When you get closer to racing season, it’s shorter and more intense. Right now we are on the water in the mornings and erg in afternoons. Every now and then we’ll do some cross-training, maybe some spin bikes and also do some weights too. There’s nothing too fancy about it.
Do you train twice a day, every day?
Yes, it’s twice a day. We train six days a week and have Sundays off, though sometimes we will practice once on Sundays. For me it is a little different, this like my job and what I primarily do in life right now; I have a specific goal I am trying to reach. I have also been doing it for a couple of years now, so for me it is normal.
What’s your 2K time?
Right now mine is in the mid-5:50s, but that was a few years ago. But I need to and will be faster this year. You should not compare it to the times on the Churchill team. I have been training for at least 10 years now and am much older than the kids on the team. So, it needs to be put in perspective.
What did you major in at Stanford?
At first I thought I wanted to do engineering and quickly realized it wasn’t for me. I got into public policy and urban studies, which combines sociology, history, engineering and physics. I did a one-year graduate program in construction management following that.
Is sculling (rowing in a single) part of your training?
Yes, at times it is part of our training. I’ve done a little bit of sculling. You have two oars and one goes over the other. It can be helpful because the boat goes much slower and gives you a different feel for the water. Also in a single is a good experience because it’s just you in there. Anything that you do is all because of you. It can be easier to learn balance and how to move a boat effectively. On our team we will do some sculling for these reasons.
Banks (center) with captains Alisa Dan and Julianna Hsing and coxswains Mac Dunmire, John Ishikawa and Brenna Means.
Does the U.S. team accept members based on your performance on the water or the erg?
The erg is very important because it gives the coaches an idea of your physiological capability. The erg can help get you noticed by the coaches. It’s hard for coaches to see all candidates so they look at the ergs to invite rowers to camps. You’ll see the same sort thing in college. A boat is not strictly made up of the top eight ergs on the team. How you perform on the water is probably the most important thing. You have to be able to move the boat. But by erging and improving your fitness it can be an easy way to get better. It is also really simple: if you want to better on the erg, just erg more. Still, a lot of coaches have different philosophies, but at the end of the day, you’re on a boat and you’re rowing so you have to have the skills to row.
Do your coaches still work with you on technique, or is it only power?
Oh we definitely still work on technique as well as our fitness. A lot of times at the end of a practice, I will feel like I’m the worst rower in the world. And that will never change. I think it’s good to always challenge yourself to get better. Technique and how to use your power effectively are always major components. It’s good if you have that power, but you’ve got to be able to use it efficiently through a whole race. It’s not good if you can go 500 meters at a super, super fast pace and still have 1500 meters to go. Sometimes practices that focus on technique can be just as draining as practices that are more physically challenging because you’re focusing so much mentally on improving.
Do you remember your goals along the way?
When I first started I was a novice and just wanted to get better. I wanted to be one of the top eight freshman. I kept dropping my times and slowly bringing it down. You always want to have a goal. You start out with something simple and think next time I want to go two seconds faster or one second faster. Then I didn’t want to be just the best freshman, but the best on the team. So you keep looking for new challenges and trying never to limit yourself.
How is the camaraderie on the team?
On a national team level we’re all there because we want to be there. We have made a life decision. It almost works out so that we have to get along with each other. We live together, go out to dinner together and practice together. If there is someone who doesn’t bond well with other people, they’re not going to last long. And you have to have the chemistry in the boat. It’s not that you’re going to work harder if your friend’s in the boat, but if you develop energy, and chemistry, together that can make a difference and little things can make important differences. If there’s anyone who doesn’t fit in, it doesn’t mean the boat will not go fast, but it can definitely help bring the group down.
It’s a little harder in high school and college, in that people’s motivations for being on the team may vary. But in the end of the day everyone is different and responds to motivation differently. You’re going to have good days and bad days. You learn to get together and cooperate and try to achieve that goal. Rowing is a total team sport. If somebody in the boat is not together with somebody else, it can make a big difference.
What was your most memorable race?
It’s probably one of my first races. It was before the Olympics in 2008 in Lucerne, Switzerland. If we got a medal at this race, we had a chance of sticking together and going to the Olympics and winning a medal there. It was my first international race. And it was an incredible experience. We ended up winning a medal was definitely a pretty cool feeling.
What’s your favorite distance for racing?
Probably 2Ks. That’s one you really focus on. It’s a good mix between endurance and short pieces. But it is also the distance we race.
What was your most difficult experience in rowing?
There have been a lot of tough moments and that’s one thing you will learn. There have been a bunch of times I thought were the lowest. You’re going to have ups and downs. I remember in my sophomore year in college we were racing in the Pac 10 Championships. We had a bunch of seniors and we were up and the cox box went out and all these things went wrong. We were almost in third and then we got passed. It hits you really hard but you pick yourself up and the next time we got faster.
In 2007, the year before Olympics, I was cut. It’s a tough experience but I told myself I’d come back better the next year. You’re going to have a ton of those moments, whether it’s in rowing or whatever else you do, that just suck. The good thing is that the next day could be one of your best days ever.
Have you ever capsized?
Once, back in grad school I was in a channel of the San Francisco Bay; I was out in a single and got stuck in the mud. I had to get out and push the boat out of the mud and when I got back in, I forgot to strap my feet in. I flipped the boat and went right back in the water.
Do you still catch crabs?
We were doing some racing the other day and one of the guys caught a crab. You learn it’s not necessarily that person’s fault. Anything can happen if you lose focus and don’t pay attention to what you are doing. In terms of rowing, the best way to think about it is to make sure you blade is properly prepared when you’re going in the water and that you accelerate the blade through the rowing stroke so the blade exits the water naturally. When you are still learning things can happen, and you just have to shake things off.
I remember once we were racing and we were leading and this guy caught a crab behind me. We pretty much stopped and had to gather ourselves; we came back and just beat them barely at the end of the race. So you have to stay composed. As with anything in life, problems will happen, and you have to stay composed and find and create a solution. Stuff happens and you just deal with it.
Do you get advice on the national team on how to eat?
We don’t get too much direction from our coaches. I remember when I first started training, I started living on my own and had to cook for myself. I would eat hamburgers every night and started feeling sluggish. So I made some different choices on what I ate and felt better. Nutrition is very important. Not that it’s going to make or break you, but overall being balanced and keeping a healthy lifestyle are important.
Does eating carbs before a race help you?
I don’t know enough to really know. You hear both sides of this debate. I’ve done carbs and no carbs and have good and bad results. I think it’s good to eat smart before a race. You probably don’t want to eat a cheese steak the night before a race. What I suggest is to eat as smart as you can be before a race. And not just the day before—you want to be in the habit of eating healthy all the time.
What advice do you have for coxswains?
I guess the best advice would be to be as open minded as possible. Think like an athlete and consider yourself an athlete in the boat. Always try to learn and to work on your communication; sometimes less is more. Like an athlete, you want to have that competitiveness and aggressiveness. However, one of the most important things a coxswain can do is go straight. It’s not easy. When you have wind and things going on all over the place, it’s tough.
Have you ever experienced kids saying ‘Crew is a joke’ and how did you handle it?
Yes, even at Stanford. I tried to do well and show that it wasn’t a joke.
You’re going to have that everywhere and I think the best thing you can do is treat it very seriously. Treat it like it’s a varsity sport. That means trying to win and showing that you’re not just here for social hour. If you treat it very seriously and try to improve and to get faster then that’s the best thing you can do. You never know where it may take you. Anybody who’s done the sport knows it’s not a joke. Crew teaches you a work ethic. It’s something that the sport brings out in people that you don’t see in many other sports. It’s something to be proud of and hold onto and to use.
How challenging is rowing compared to other sports?
I think our sport is pretty unique. It’s aerobic so it’s about endurance; you have to have power. And you’re using your whole body and you’re using your heart. Mentally, you have to be engaged. So it brings out all elements of competition and athletics. For a simple concept it can be quite difficult.
What are you plans after the 2012 Olympics?
We’ll see what happens and if I want to continue rowing.
There are some other things I want to do in life. First I have to make the team and then if I make the team I have to qualify a boat. And then once we qualify we have to win a medal. There are a lot of steps in between. Right now I’m taking it day by day.