Scott Frandsen: The psychology behind success

Photo of rowing coach Fransden
Matt Carter/Courtesy

For Scott Frandsen, victory was never a luxury: Throughout all aspects of his life, winning became a necessity.

“I have always had an insatiable need to win,” he said. “It sounds kind of obnoxious to say that; everyone thinks they want to win. But for me, it was something more. Everything I have ever done has been a competition.”

Frandsen’s competitive streak has pushed him toward athletic and academic achievement. An Oxford graduate, three-time Olympian and three-time national champion during his time at Cal, Frandsen has an undeniable track record for competitive success. However, throughout his career, Frandsen learned that the demands of perfection can cause painful disappointment.

Although he loved rowing, Frandsen admits that the sport wasn’t a natural fit. At 6’1” and 170 pounds, he was nearly 40 pounds lighter than the average elite rower. But, to Frandsen, his stature never made a difference. Despite the size disparities between him and his competitors, Frandsen found that winning was well worth the struggle.

“Rowing comes with hard work,” Frandsen said. “But it also came with the ability to row away from people and win. There was something that really satisfied that drive in me. I do think that’s what’s driven me to some success in rowing: my slightly unhealthy need to win everything.”

His high school coach, Anthony Carr, noticed Frandsen’s attitude from the onset. Carr, a chemistry teacher and the coach of Olympians and world champions, first met Frandsen when he began rowing at Brentwood College School. Taking advantage of the underclassmen-heavy roster, Carr was able to devote his attention to Frandsen and the rest of the rookies. Frandsen did not disappoint.

“From the beginning his competitive juices flowed like a river in flood. He got really angry with himself when he made a mistake or lost a competition,” Carr said in an email. “No coach can instil those qualities in an athlete . You can only stand back in awe and remind yourself that this may only happen once in your career.”

The competitive drive Frandsen cultivated in high school eventually drew him to Cal. Its academically and athletically rigorous culture seemed like the perfect fit.

“The competitive drive within the student body is for sure there,” Frandsen said. “It was at another level with the group of guys on the team that were there. I feel really lucky to be a part of that group. It is that concentration of driven, athletic, intelligent and good-natured guys that makes it a special experience.”

Frandsen credits the motivating community he built at Cal with much of his later success.

Three national championships, two Pac-12 All-Academic awards and one degree later, Frandsen took his talents to Oxford, where his team’s tenacity was exemplified in a race that is widely known as the greatest in rowing history.

In this race, Frandsen’s competitiveness was a key contribution to his team’s success.

On April 6, 2003, Oxford and Cambridge renewed their historic rivalry at the 149th Boat Race. The Oxford Blues were, on average, 15 pounds lighter than their Cambridge counterparts, representing the largest weight disparity in the Boat Race since 1990. After two lead changes, the underdog Oxford boat rallied to the finish, beating Cambridge by the smallest margin of victory in the history of the event: 1 foot.

“We held in, and held in, and held in,” Frandsen said about the race. “We were in a pretty bad spot tactic wise for most of the race. And then we started to gain some momentum, and we were able to scratch and claw and hold on to the end. It was definitely a very memorable experience and one that I’m glad we won.”

After his time at Oxford, Frandsen began a new chapter of his rowing career by setting his sights on the 2004 Olympics. For the first time, it seemed his insatiable drive to win was met with disappointment.

Leading up to the games, Frandsen had won a pair of gold medals on the world circuit as a part of the Canadian men’s eight. However, while the Canadians were favored to win the event in Athens, they missed the podium and finished fifth. The 2004 Games saw Team USA earn the gold for the first time in 40 years.

While Frandsen internalized his personal disappointment at first, he’s since developed a sense of pride in his team’s accomplishments, medal or not. The lessons he learned from Athens have informed his own coping mechanisms with inevitable losses.

“The Athens Olympics didn’t go the way I wanted,” Frandsen said. “On the scale of things, they were good results, but they weren’t gold. … But, (I was) proud of the effort and proud of the pursuit. It’s easy to sit from the sidelines and to not get into a lifestyle that has the goal of being the best in the world. Being in that fight, being the gladiator and putting yourself out there, highs and lows, there’s some honor in that.”

Frandsen would encounter a major obstacle once again when he decided to retire after the 2008 Olympics. With a silver medal in hand, Frandsen was seemingly at the top of his game. But for the first time, he was forced to make the transition from elite athleticism to another career. It was a switch Frandsen admits he wasn’t ready for.

“Once that national championship, the boat race or the Olympics are over, that structure to your life and that purpose is gone,” he said. “I thought I was done with rowing after Beijing, and I moved on to the next phase of my life, and it was a struggle. I drifted for nine months or so and then found my way to a job in Vancouver.”

After spending nearly two years in banking, Frandsen decided to return to rowing for one last hurrah a year and a half before the 2012 Olympics. Just two weeks after a fifth-place finish in London, Frandsen returned to familiar soil: He came back to Cal. This time, however, his role was outside of the water.

Frandsen assumed the role of assistant coach and was promoted to the head position in 2019. Now entering his 10th year of coaching, Frandsen prioritizes his athlete’s futures in addition to their current successes.

“It seems counterintuitive to a lot of people,” he said. “You have these confident, driven people that have a purpose to everything they do. Then they achieve their goal or don’t achieve their goal. Some move on just fine, but some go through a period of intense struggle.”

With nearly a decade of professional rowing experience behind him, Frandsen embraces his career, through the good and the bad. For now, he prioritizes his time with his student-athletes and family.

“It sounds old to say all this, but every athlete goes through a transition where their time to compete has passed,” he said. “All of my energy is completely shifted to organizing everything for the Cal team to win and obviously my family as well.”

Frandsen’s happy ending is one his former coaches are also proud of.

“The skinny and gangly kid had to do a lot of growing and filling out to become the top class Cal Crew guy and then the stroke of the Canada 8 that won the world champs,” Carr said in his email. “He took those lessons to heart and became a top class Crew Coach in his own right.”

For now, Frandsen seems to have hung up his oars. But the determination he developed in the boat will surely never leave.

Aiko Sudijono is the deputy sports editor. Contact her at [email protected].