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Linwood Olympian's life consists of eat, sleep, row to prepare for Rio

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Sam Ojserkis is up at 5 every morning.

The coxswain for the United States men's eight boat eats some breakfast, reads the newspaper and heads to practice in Princeton around 6:30 a.m. The Linwood native and the rest of his boat are there until roughly 9:30 a.m.

Then, he heads back to his host family, the Borups in Monmouth Junction, about 15 minutes away from the boathouse, and winds down for a bit.

But not for too long. The next practice is at 2 p.m. for another two-and-a-half hours. He'll be in bed by 8 p.m.

Eat. Sleep. Row.

"I can become very monotonous," said the 2008 Mainland Regional High School graduate.

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Sam Ojserkis at the Shea Rowing Center, Princeton University. Friday July 8 2016 Mainland Regional graduate Sam Ojserkis of Linwood is the coxswain on the US Rowing Team heavyweight 8 boat that's competing at the Olympics in Rio. (The Press of Atlantic City / Ben Fogletto)

Crew has completely consumed his life. Next month, Ojserkis and the rest of his boat will compete against six other countries - Germany, Great Britain, Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland and Russia - at the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

Ojserkis' boat qualified for the Olympics in May when they took first at the Final Olympic Qualification Regatta in Lucerne, Switzerland.

But to get that shot at gold, Ojserkis relies on repetition.

For about eight months out of the year, it's been the same schedule for the 26-year-old. When it gets colder, they'll head to San Diego for a few months or to Europe a handful of times during the year.

Crew is the ultimate team sport.

In most boats, four or eight rowers work together with a coxswain as one unit to win a race. In the Olympics, that goal is 2,000 meters from start to finish.

Ojserkis leads the men's eight, considered the pinnacle of rowing in the United States. Being in this position wasn't luck, and it's wasn't easy either.

"Sam is in an interesting situation," said Dave Funk, a former Mainland coach who exposed Ojserkis to the sport in 2003. "He's the driver of the boat. He's got a lot going on; he's not just pulling hard. He has so many things to be aware of, and that's really cool."

The coxswain is the smallest person in the boat - Ojserkis is 5-foot-8 and 120 pounds.

For the rowers, what the stopwatch says is likely the deciding factor of who's in the boat. For a coxswain, it's a whole lot more.

"There are certain things you have to do - steering and bringing the guys' form together. That's pretty black and white," Ojserkis said. "You have to be able to motivate the guys and get the most out of them. You have to have the guys' respect and that takes time."

Earning that respect to coordinate the power and rhythm of the rowers in the boat had to start somewhere.

Unlikely beginning

Amy and Dan Ojserkis gave their high school freshman son a choice - get a job or play a sport at Mainland Regional.

They wanted him to get off the couch. Fortunately, it wasn't a difficult task.

In the fall of 2003, Sam and his parents went to an activity day at the high school. The crew team, coached by Funk at the time, had a table.

"We didn't know anything about crew," Amy, 58, said.

So Sam considered crew, not because his parents rowed - neither have ever been in a shell - but because classmate and fellow coxswain Bob McGee told him about it.

"Even though, once (McGee) did that, they would start competing for the seats," Dan, 58, said. "I was always impressed by that."

There absolutely was competition. In his four years at Mainland, Ojserkis never led the varsity eight boat. That honor went to McGee.

"One of the hallmarks about Sam that I'll never forget about is every day after practice his junior and senior year he would ask what did he need to do to get better," said Funk, 38, who was an assistant and head crew coach at Mainland for 16 years. "He was always trying to get better."

Sam would keep detailed logs and notebooks about what he did as a coxswain. It became Ojserkis' craft.

"He went to a couple of seminars when he was a junior, including one that came through Philadelphia," Dan said. "Mary Whipple was a famous coxswain of the (2004, 2008 and 2012 U.S. Olympic) women's eight, and she had a seminar outside of Philly."

Amy Ojserkis added, "Sam went to her clinic and that was what lit the fire for him."

Several incentives drove Ojserkis, and it showed when he went to the University of Washington in Seattle, considered an NCAA Division I power.

He was a small kid from a small East Coast town who worked his way to the college's varsity eight boat. In 2011 and 2012, he was an Intercollegiate Rowing Association (IRA) National Champion.

"Dave Funk had mentioned Washington to Sam and made him aware of where rowing is a really big deal," Dan said. "I think he and Bob McGee get a big chunk of credit for drawing Sam into rowing and making him enjoy it and really understand the world of rowing more than we ever could."

Ojserkis has also worked his way through the ranks of U.S. Rowing. He was the coxswain of the under-23 eight boat, along with St. Augustine Prep graduate Ted Baumgardner, that won the world championship in 2012.

Ruled by repetition

Eat. Sleep. Row.

It's a lifestyle that Ojserkis has accepted.

"How's it been? It's been nerve-wracking, sometimes really frustrating," Ojserkis said. "I think if you talk to any rower, probably the most common emotion in rowing is frustration."

It could be frustration in time trials. It could be rowers not following Ojserkis. Or it could simply be everyone growing sick of each other.

But despite those moments of frustration, Ojserkis speaks for his teammates when he says they try to enjoy every practice and every step of the process. The hard work they put themselves through is for an ultimate goal - taking gold in Rio.

"I've been with all these guys the past four years, day in and day out," Ojserkis said. "We all work together pretty well. We have our fights now and then, like any siblings would."

Just now, Ojserkis is finally starting to reflect on his journey. As it gets closer, the honor of being an Olympian is settling in.

"It's a whole range of emotions," he said. "I can't wait, but at the same time, it's terrifying. I'm nervous. I've got a lot riding on this. This has been my life for a long time. I want to make it count."

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Sports reporter

Sports Reporter

I graduated from Rowan University in 2011 where I studied journalism. I covered local high school and college sports at the South Jersey Times and Vineland Daily Journal. I have been a sports reporter with The Press since July of 2013

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