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Olympic Team of the Year: The Great Eight

By Peggy Shinn | Sept. 20, 2012, 12:30 p.m. (ET)

Women's eight compete in LondonThe United States compete in the women's eight of the London 2012 Olympic Games at Eton Dorney on July 29, 2012 in Windsor, England.

Many U.S. “dream” teams competed at the London 2012 Olympic Games, with men’s and women’s basketball, and women’s gymnastics, soccer, beach volleyball, and tennis all bringing home gold medals.

But in the last six years, no team has dominated like the gold-medal-winning U.S. women’s eight that rowed at Eton Dorney.

The crew of Caryn Davies, Caroline Lind, Elle Logan, Meghan Musnicki, Taylor Ritzel, Esther Lofgren, Susan Francia and Erin Cafaro, and the “ninth seat,” Mary Whipple, the veteran coxswain, successfully defended their Olympic gold medal in London, and continued an unbroken string of seven Olympic and World Championship wins.

“That is an American dynasty, baby!” said Francia after the team won the 2012 Olympic gold, leading the 2,000-meter final from start to finish, never letting either Canada or Denmark have a stroke of hope.

This week, the U.S. Olympic Committee honored the U.S. women’s eight with the Olympic Team of the Year Award. The USOC’s Olympic Team of the Year Award, along with the Olympic and Paralympic SportsMan and SportsWoman, and Paralympic Team of the Year Awards, are the most prestigious awards given by the USOC.

The SportsMan and SportsWoman of the Year awards were first presented in 1974; the Olympic Team of the Year award was added in 1996.

Past Teams of the Year have included the 2010 Olympic gold-medal-winning four-man bobsled team piloted by Steve Holcomb, the 2008 Olympic gold-medal-winning men’s indoor volleyball team, and the 1999 World Cup winning women’s soccer team.

This is the first time a U.S. rowing crew has won the award.

Asked what the USOC award committee probably saw in the U.S. women’s eight, Esther Lofgren quipped, “Clearly it’s based on the amount of media coverage we’ve had and our huge fan base.”

Then she laughed. In the obscure sport of rowing, oarsmen and -women typically train far from the media and sponsorship spotlight.

But then Lofgren, who graduated from Harvard in 2009, grew serious.

“It’s definitely a testament to the depth of the whole squad that trains at Princeton together,” she said.

Of the 45 or so women who trained with the national team leading up to the 2012 Olympics, only 17 were selected to compete in London.

“That’s a pretty high percentage that are going to be out,” Lofgren said, adding that she was one of the final women to make the 2012 Olympic women’s eight — and one of the final women cut from the boat before the Beijing 2008 Olympics.

Stiff intra-squad competition made everyone train even harder for seats in the Olympic boats — making “the really good people that much better,” said head coach Tom Terhaar, who recently announced his commitment to coach the national team through the Rio 2016 Olympics.

In fact, Erin Cafaro said racing was actually easier than training because “at least I don’t have to race my teammates.”

“We’re just beating up on each other every single day,” said Lofgren. “It’s pretty exciting when you finally go to the line with these women. You know how hard they know how to push. It’s really exciting to be in the boat with some of the toughest women in the world.”

All nine athletes in the boat are ranked among the top 10 rowers in the world in 2012. And they are among the top 16 most-medaled female athletes in U.S. history at the world championship and Olympic levels.

But the winning culture on the team is not just about crossing the line first.

“The focus is much more on the process and what we do every day and what we do every stroke and not we have to show up at this race and beat this person,” Lofgren said. “It’s much more about pushing beyond what our limits can be on an individual basis and on a boat basis.”

Pushing those limits every year has made the U.S. women’s eight stronger and faster than the previous year, said Lofgren. The boat has lowered the world record several times in the past eight years, most recently at a World Cup in Lucerne, Switzerland, in May 2012 when they rowed 2,000 meters in 5:54.17.

“What we’ve been talking about is not we want to go out there and have a really good race and have a really good piece,” said Lofgren. “We know what our potential is, and we know we have the potential to redefine women’s rowing. … To know how hard everyone is working, we have the potential to go out and set a new standard for women’s rowing. It motivates us very, very much.”

The nine women will not be present at the Olympic Assembly dinner on Friday to accept the Olympic Team of the Year Award though. Instead, they will be together in Washington state at Mary Whipple’s wedding. The three-time Olympian is marrying Ryan Murray on September 22, 2012. Murray is co-owner of Cascade Powder Cats, a backcountry ski guiding company in Leavenworth, Washington.

Lofgren will fly to Washington from her current home in Washington, D.C. She no doubt spoke for the entire boat when she said, “I’m excited to see my girls!”

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.

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Mary Whipple

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Caryn Davies

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Caroline Lind

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Elle Logan

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Meghan Musnicki

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Taylor Ritzel

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Esther Lofgren

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Susan Francia

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Erin Cafaro