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Rowing

US women’s eight conquers

Americans win 2d straight gold

By John Powers
Globe Staff / August 3, 2012
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LONDON — The challenge to the rest of the world was the same as it has been for the last half-dozen years: Catch us if you can. The result, now as before, was the same, too. The US women’s eight-oared crew burned rubber off the starting line at Dorney Lake on Thursday afternoon and won this five-ringed drag race just as they did on the Beijing strip four years ago and at the last five world regattas.

“Yeah! That is an American dynasty, baby,” crowed Susan Francia after she and her seatmates, who included Harvard graduates Caryn Davies and Esther Lofgren plus Elle Logan of Boothbay Harbor, Maine, had held off the onrushing Canadians by half a length in a stiff crosswind, with the Dutch third.

While it was far from a row­over, the Yanks went wire-to-wire and never were in trouble. “It was just a crushing rhythm,” said coxswain Mary Whipple, after she’d steered her turbo-boat to a third straight Olympic medal, and second straight gold. “It was exactly what we envisioned, what we practiced and visualized.”

It was the performance that their rivals have become used to ever since the US won the global crown on the same course in 2006. “USA are a Formula One crew,” said Rachelle Viinberg, the Canadian 2-seat. “They have heart and endurance.”

Not to mention a massive amount of experience atop the international podium. Five of the oarswomen — Davies, Francia, Logan, Caroline Lind and Erin Cafaro — are Beijing veterans. Six of them rowed in last year’s championship boat. Among them they own 18 global golds. And in Tom Terhaar, they have a coach who drives them fiercely.

“Our coach is a very severe person,’’ said Francia. “At every training, he says that we were not good enough, we should row harder. Finally, he said today that we had gone well.’’

What the Americans understand is that they’re not so far ahead of their rivals that they can afford to go on the paddle. Of their seven global titles, only one (in 2010) was by more than two seconds. Last year the Canadians were less than three quarters of a second behind them. At this year’s World Cup in Lucerne the margin was three-100ths.

But their northern neighbors haven’t yet beaten them for table stakes and the Yanks weren’t about to let them get any gilded ideas now. So they hit the throttle at the beep and kept motoring. “Oh, my God, it was beautiful,” said Whipple as the boat’s engine room kicked in immediately and kept humming even when the water got choppy. “We knew from the start we were just tapping into the power we could develop.”

At 500 meters, they were up by a third of a length on the Dutch but wanted more. Midway along, the margin was three quarters and it was unchanged at 1,500. From there, the Americans simply brought it home the way they always do, winning in 6:10.59, nearly a second and a half ahead of the Canadians. “We just went,” said Lofgren, who was the last person cut from the 2008 team and whose mother Christine was cut from the 1984 team. “We were going with everybody in the boat and we were having the best race of our lives.”

So were the Canadians and Dutch, who hadn’t counted on having to keep their tachometers revved that high for that long. “We made a move and not quite enough,” said Viinberg. “The USA are an amazingly fast crew.”

The standard that the Americans have to meet is the one that they’ve set for themselves. “There’s lots of outside pressure, but the biggest pressure is the one that we put on ourselves,” said Davies, who stroked the 2008 boat but had taken a sabbatical from it since. Davies had won silver with the Athens boat and knew how complete the commitment had to be. Was she up for a third go at the Games?

“I’ve been thinking of what Mary told me about three years ago when she asked me if I wanted to get back [into rowing],” said Davies, “She told me, ‘On the start line I want to feel the excitement. I want to look you in the eyes and know we’re going to be there and know we’re going to do this.’ Thankfully that’s what I’ve been able to do for three Olympics. There’s nothing like being able to share that.”

With Davies back in the stroke seat it was like old times. Her seatmates had filled a bottle with Beijing water, kept it for the full quadrennium, then poured it into the shell before their first race here. The thread of DNA goes back more than a decade, with one or more of these women in every boat. It indeed is a dynastic succession, the female rowing version of Macbeth’s procession of kings.

One dynasty died here when the Romanian women, who’d made the podium at every Games since 1980 and won three straight gold medals between 1996 and 2004, finished fourth. The East Germans, who once owned the sport with their steroid-stuffed madchen, are long gone. Forty years after Title IX gave birth to women’s collegiate rowing, the US women have left the rest of the planet in their backwash. “An Olympic gold medal,” mused Whipple. “It never gets old.”

John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com.

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