Mary Jones Nabel has spent a lot of time alone this summer. “I guess I’m just a true single sculler,” she says with a 100-watt smile, “I’ve done a lot of training and coaching myself. Somehow this year has been kinda’ strange in that I haven’t linked up with normal training partners in the spring and summer.”
It’s a training program that’s come more by happenstance than design. But judging by the results it’s been a very effective strategy. Not only did she earn the right to represent the United States in the lightweight women’s single in the World Championships in Prague next month by winning the trials race on Lake Mercer in July. She’d warmed up for the trials with singles wins in World Cup I & II in Serbia and Poland in May and June. And in between her two World Cup triumphs, she threw in another win in an international regatta in Bled, Slovenia, which had been her training base during a six-week stay in Europe. The European races marked her first international competition since 2018, as Covid, an ill-timed back injury in 2019, and an ill-timed Thyroid illness to doubles partner Emily Schmieg before last year’s Olympic trials thwarted her “best-laid plans” over the last Olympic cycle. She had gone to Europe expecting little more than just the chance to get her feet wet again in international competition after such a long absence.
“Yeah, I’m pretty happily surprised,” she said of her results, and especially of her times, which have been the fastest of her career. She rowed a 7:29.47 in her heat at World Cup II in Poznan, Poland.
Jones Nabel, who just turned 36, has been a Charles River fixture since 2016. She came to Boston by way of Huntsville, Alabama, and the University of Tennessee when her husband Chris was beginning a medical residency at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Six years later, Boston is very much home. She and Chris, now an oncologist at Mass General, have bought a home in Cambridge; and she works her training at the Cambridge Boat Club around a full-time job at InterSystems, a Cambridge tech company specializing in health-care data.
And though the band of women she has trained with on the Charles has largely scattered this summer, they are still very much a part of her life.
“It’s different than the year before in that we’re not this cohesive group where we’re out training together every day,” she said. “Molly [Reckford] has been training in Sarasota and now Princeton. Maggie [Fellows] and Emily Kallfelz have been away at the national selection camps. Ali [Rusher] and Cicely [Madden] have been fighting some injuries. But what’s been great is that we all still all stay in touch, even though we’re not training in the same location. It’s nice to have the support of the BRF athletes, even when we’ve had to take different paths to get to our goals this year.
“I think It’s something that’s really nice, even though we’ve all been kind of pulled all over the country, we still know that we have this group, and we will come back together in the fall and have our long training rows in October, November, December to lay the base for next year.”
Jones Nabel declines to make any predictions about the World Championships; she’s not even certain who her competition will be. “It’s always interesting to see who will show up,” she says of the field. “Because [the lightweight single] is a non-Olympic event, people will sometimes race the lightweight double, or go into some of the open weight events. But with any race [it’s not about] your competitors. You hope that you’re the fastest one to show up and your job is just to come and put your best race forward.
“I’ll be ready to race.”
For Jones Nabel as with most any elite lightweight sculler, the single is a means to an end, the end being a spot in the lightweight double at the Olympics—the only lightweight event left on the Olympic calendar. A year ago, after missing out on the Olympic double for Tokyo, she wasn’t sure Paris in 2024 was in the cards—or if she even wanted it to be.
“It was a disappointing selection for me, and I said if I row at all I’m only going row the single,” she said of her mood after last year’s trials. “I’m just going to focus on myself and I just wanna’ do what I enjoy doing.”
Her thinking changed when she got a call from Josy Verdonkschot, the new high-performance director for USRowing.
“We had a great conversation in January, and we talked about what my plans would be and what my long-term goals would be. He could see that I’d been though a lot in the previous [Olympic] cycle, and he told me that the best thing was to stay in the single and have fun this year. He told me: ‘Be fit, be fast, be healthy’ and he told me there would be a plan to put together the fastest lightweight double and that I would be included in that plan.
“The plan is for Paris, and the single this year is a part of that plan.”