WESTON, Conn. – When Nick LaCava started rowing as 12-year-old at Saugatuck Rowing Club in Westport, no one had Olympic dreams for the Weston native. “The first time I went out on a single, I flipped the boat,’’ LaCava said. “I spent 30 minutes holding onto the boat.”
Even after that inauspicious start, LaCava’s ascent on the rowing scene was slow. But now he’s deep into training for next month’s Summer Olympics, where the late bloomer will be a member of the U.S. Lightweight 4.
“I have to give a lot of credit to James Mangan,’’ LaCava said, identifying his first coach at Saugatuck. “I was this puny, skinny kid. He made me believe I could be good at this thing. That was the motivation. Even though I was terrible, he made me believe if I worked hard I could be good at this. That’s an exciting thing for a 12-year-old kid.”
LaCava, 25, began rowing on the advice of his mother, Zizi, who still trains at Saugatuck. He also played lacrosse, baseball and soccer. Zizi thought he might like rowing, too. “We always thought sports were a great thing to do for both of my boys,’’ she said. “We didn’t do it with a future in mind.”
Slowly, LaCava’s career came into focus. He attended Phillips Exeter Academy and then Columbia University. It was not until late in college that LaCava developed a national profile as a rower. “It took me a long time to grow into my body,’’ LaCava said. “I was always kind of an awkward kid. In college, I learned how to train properly.”
LaCava graduated from Columbia in 2009 and was named to his first national team. He finished 12th with the Lightweight 4 at the 2009 World Rowing Championships. He progressed steadily and was on the Lightweight 8 that finished fifth at the 2011 World Rowing Championships. He earned a berth in U.S. Lightweight 4 boat in April. In May, the team won the race in the Final Olympic Qualification Regatta in Lucerne, Switzerland. The race was tight, with only 1 ½ seconds separating the top three crews. The third place team from New Zealand did not qualify for the Olympics.
“It just shows you how close everything is,’’ LaCava said. “It’s only a second that separates you going from the Olympics. It’s not even a boat length. It’s a difference of tenths of a second.”
Before his rowing career came together, LaCava and college friends Fabian Kaempfer and Eric Heinbockel started Chocomize.com, which allows to customers to create their own personalized chocolate bars. The young entrepreneurs started their business at the height of the recession in 2009, but it has flourished. Although LaCava has taken a reduced role to train for the Olympics, he is still involved in the company.
LaCava is training in Princeton, N.J., and will be heading to London next month. His family, including his father, John, and brother, Lukas, will attend the games.
“I think one of the great tests of the parents is to trust the instincts of your child,’’ Zizi LaCava said. “I think Nick knows what he’s doing. It was just so inconceivable, the thought of him being an Olympian. You just don’t think that way. He has had a strong sense of himself and where he wants to go. I think that has been crucial. I remember when he was 8 years old, he said he was going to be an astronaut. I said sure, go ahead. With children, it’s always interesting.”