When the U.S. women’s eight rows to the starting line in Rio, the oarswomen will be defending more than an Olympic gold medal. Should they win their third consecutive gold medal — and they are heavy favorites — they will continue a winning streak that dates a decade.
The streak began at the 2006 World Rowing Championships, which the U.S. women’s crew won in world-recording setting time. They have won every world championship and Olympic race since then — 10 in a row.
What has led to such dominance?
Meghan Musnicki, who was named to her second Olympic team, and coxswain Katelin Snyder, who will make her Olympic debut, provided insight. Joining Musnicki and Snyder in the boat for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games is Tessa Gobbo, Lauren Schmetterling, Kerry Simmonds, Amanda Polk, Emily Regan, Amanda Elmore and Eleanor Logan.
1. A Deep Pool Of Talent
Both women credit the depth of talent in America. All of the women who competed for a spot on the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team came from strong NCAA programs, including Harvard, Yale, Princeton, University of Washington, and University of Wisconsin, to name a few. It’s a testament to Title IX, the 1972 legislation that mandated gender equality in educational programs receiving federal funding, including sports. Women’s rowing exploded as colleges and universities tried to equalize sports offerings, especially to offset football programs.
Many women who have never tried crew until college have gone on to make Olympic and world championship crews. In the 2016 selection camp, 28 women were competing for 13 Olympic berths (in the eight and quadruple sculls), and about half were walk-ons to their college programs, including Musnicki.
“Everyone has this incredible drive to be faster and be better and to make their teammates faster and better,” said Snyder, who first coxed the U.S. women’s eight in 2013 after Mary Whipple, who coxed the eight through three Olympic Games, retired. “The team is so deep that really anyone can get in the boat and it will go fast.”
2. Friends And Rivals
With so many strong women competing for so few seats, the atmosphere at the selection camps could be a cut-throat game of musical chairs. But it’s not. The women actually encourage each other.
“You want the other athletes to do well because if the girl who is the next fastest to me is doing well, then she’s pushing me to be better,” said Musnicki, who was one of the newer rowers in the 2012 Olympic eight and is now one of the veterans. “It means that the team is going to be better as a whole, and that’s the goal.
“I don’t want to just be individually fast. I want to be one part of a very fast team.”
3. Eyes In The Boat
Other countries have been gaining on the U.S. women’s eight. At World Rowing Cup II in May, both Britain and New Zealand had faster times in the second half of the race, although neither boat could catch the U.S. crew.
But the Americans are keeping their eyes in their own boat.
“We can’t really worry about (other countries) because, as one of my teammates once said, rowing is an offensive sport,” said Snyder. “You can only dictate what happens in your boat. There’s no defense. You can’t counter anybody. It’s just how fast your boat goes from point A to point B. That’s what we try to focus on.”
4. Coaching To Win
Coach Tom Terhaar has also been instrumental in the women’s success. Terhaar became the head women’s coach in 2001. The following year, the women’s eight won its first world title since 1995. Two years later in Athens, they were back on the Olympic medal stand for the first time in 20 years, taking silver.
“He’s a phenomenal coach,” said Musnicki. “He gives us programs that are incredibly challenging and at the same time pushes us to be better, to push yourself farther than you thought you could go. It’s exciting.”
Terhaar is also a master of motivation. As Mary Whipple explained after the eight won gold in London, “Tom knows us really well; 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.”
5. Culture Of Excellence
Perhaps most important, the U.S. women’s rowing team has a culture of winning. And new women who come into the program are inspired by it.
“The women who came before me, I wanted to train just as hard, if not harder, than they did,” said Musnicki. “And the women who come after me, I want to lead by example. I followed the example of the great female rowers who came before me who I watched and was like, ‘Wow, someday I would like to be as good or as competitive or as strong or as dominant as that person.’ It feeds on itself.”
The culture stretches back over 40 years. The women’s eight became a world championship event in 1974 and the following year, legendary Harvard coach Harry Parker led what became known as the “Red Rose Crew” to second place at the 1975 world championships. A year later, the U.S. eight won bronze when women’s rowing made its Olympic debut in 1976. Since then, American crews have won medals in 20 world championships and four Olympic Games.
The winning streak that began in 2006 is rooted in these earlier crews. In particular, Snyder pointed to the women who earned an Olympic silver medal at the Athens 2004 Games. It was the first medal for the U.S. in the women’s eight since 1984.
In the boat were three women who then won gold in 2008 in Beijing. From the eight that competed in Beijing, six went on to win gold at the London 2012 Games. Laurel Korholz, who was in the eight at the Athens Games, is currently an assistant coach.
“There is a certain amount of pressure when you’re trying to keep winning over and over again,” said Snyder. “But we’re lucky because there is always someone on the team who has done it before and knows what it takes.”
But at some point, it comes back to the present.
“You learn to work as a unit together, and what has happened before doesn’t really matter anymore because you are a new group,” said Musnicki. “You’re a new group of nine trying to do something that that particular group of nine hasn't done before.”
And this particular group of nine wants to win an Olympic gold medal.
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered three Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.