A Great Eight
LONDON — The U.S. women’s eight has not lost a major international rowing race in seven years. And they were not going to start at the 2012 Olympic Games.
On a breezy day at the Eton Dorney rowing venue, the U.S. boat led the women’s eight Olympic final from start to finish, never letting either Canada or Denmark have a stroke of hope.
“That is an American dynasty, baby!” said Susan Francia, who also rowed to gold in the eight at the 2008 Beijing Games.
Despite the U.S.’s domination in the event — now seven consecutive world titles, including two Olympic gold medals — coach Tom Terhaar was still nervous on Thursday morning. Before the race, he told the nine women — eight rowers and Mary Whipple, the veteran coxswain — to “just do what we do all the time, do what you do in practice.”
The win again validated the team’s hard work under the guidance of an exceptional, yet unassuming coach. Terhaar became the head women’s coach 12 years ago. The following year, the women’s eight won its first world title since 1995. More world titles followed, along with the 2004 Olympic silver and 2008 gold medals. These were the first Olympic medals since 1984, when women rowed only 1000 meters, not 2000.
“Tom knows us really well,” said Whipple. “He knows what buttons to push, and he knows how to motivate us. He knows when to say good job, but not good enough.”
“But the best thing about Tom is that he gives us the tools to go out there, he gives us the belief that we can do it, and he really likes it when we take hold of it and make it our own,” she added.
When asked what makes the U.S. women’s eight so dominant, Terhaar responded “a lot of competition all the time.” Meaning competition within the team, not just with other countries.
“We have a lot of depth, a lot of competition,” said Terhaar. “Just going through that, it makes the really good people that much better.”
“We beat up on each other every day, you gain so much respect for your teammates,” said Erin Cafaro, who along with Elle Logan qualified to row the pair in London but declined so they could compete in the eight.
“To be able to come together at the end of the season and be in a boat with them, it makes competition easy because you’re like, at least I don’t have to race my teammates,” she added.
In fact, there were athletes who didn’t make the 2012 Olympic team who would have made the 2008 team, added Terhaar — and women who made the 2012 Olympics in other boats but did not earn seats in the women’s eight, considered the premiere women’s rowing event.
Included on that list are Sara Hendershot and Sarah Zelenka, who barely missed a medal in the women’s pair, and Adrienne Martelli, Megan Kalmoe, Kara Kohler, and Natalie Dell who medaled in the women’s quad on Wednesday.
After a competitive selection camp earlier this summer, the 2012 Olympic eight was selected. It was stroked by three-time Olympian Caryn Davies with 2008 Olympians Caroline Lind and Elle Logan behind her. In the bow was 2008 Olympian Cafaro, and in front of her was fellow 2008 Olympian Francia, who rowed to world championship gold with Cafaro in the pair in 2009. Three-time Olympian Whipple coxed the boat.
Sandwiched between these veterans were Olympic rookies Meghan Musnicki, Taylor Ritzel, and Esther Lofgren.
Six years ago, Ritzel, from Colorado, did not even know what crew was until she attended Yale. It’s a testament to the strength of U.S. collegiate rowing that serves as a feeder to the national team. Similarly, Francia did not start rowing until her sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania.
Davies, the eight’s stroke in the past three Olympics, said she decided to stick with rowing through the 2012 London Games thanks to something Whipple said to her a few years ago.
“[Mary] said, I want to feel what it feels like to sit on that start line and have that excitement running through me,” said Davies, who as stroke looks at the coxswain, “and I want to look you in the eye and know that we can have a great race.”
And it was a great race.
“When that boot went down, we just launched and it was game on,” said Whipple, referring to the mechanism that holds the shells at the start. “I felt so much power.”
The boat surged into the lead, and neither Canada nor the Netherlands could gain a seat.
“Our motto was be greedy,” said Francia. “If we get an inch, take another inch, never just settle.”
After the start, the eight oarswomen found their rhythm, “but it was just a crushing rhythm,” said Whipple. “It was relentless.”
But, Whipple added, it was also magical.
For the United States, it was the perfect finish to a day that saw the men’s four crew of Scott Gault, Charlie Cole, Henrik Rummel, and Glenn Ochal race to a first-place finish in their semifinal. They will compete for an Olympic medal on Saturday.
In addition to the eight and the four, the lightweight men’s four of Robin Prendes, Nick LaCava, William Newell, and Anthony Fahden finished second in the B final to put them eighth overall at the 2012 Olympics.
Julie Nichols and Kristin Hedstrom in the lightweight women’s double scull raced hard, but fell just short in the end, missing the A final by one spot. Gevvie Stone, in her second international season, also missed the A final in the single sculls event, finishing fourth to a deep field of experienced women scullers.
Peggy Shinn is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.