LONDON — They’ve been on the gold standard for half a dozen years now, the five-time world champions and Beijing gold medalists. So what the US women’s eight-oared crew is looking for Thursday afternoon at Dorney Lake in Eton is not validation but affirmation.
The Americans are the biggest favorite on the 14-race board, the US boat with the best chance to pry a gold medal out of the hands of Great Britain and New Zealand, who are expected to corner the market after winning half of the events at last year’s world regatta. On Wednesday morning the British claimed the first one up for grabs just as their countrymen were on the verge of dragooning an alchemist to gild a few bronzes.
“Ecstatic and shattered at the same time,” declared Heather Stanning after she and partner Helen Glover had gone wire-to-wire to win the women’s pair over Australia and New Zealand’s world titlists. That was the beginning of a wrenching day for the Yanks, who came within half a second of winning three medals.
The one they got was the one they’d counted on, a bronze from the women’s quad of Adrienne Martelli, Megan Kalmoe, Kara Kohler and Natalie Dell.
Their fellow Americans would have rented their souls for a bronze. Sarah Zelenka and Sara Hendershot came out of last place after 500 meters to finish two tenths of a second off the podium. And the men’s eight, which trailed the field by open water midway down the course, just missed catching the fading Brits for the bronze by three tenths. “You can’t fault the effort,” said coach Mike Teti, who’d directed the US entry to gold and bronze at the last two Olympics. “They fought the whole way.”
Had they managed a medal, it would have been an great achievement. After finishing eighth at the global regatta the Americans had to win a last-chance qualifier in May in Switzerland in order to avoid missing the Games for the first time, which would have been a disaster for an octocentric country.
This boat, which had Northeastern grad and Duxbury native Will Miller in the 4-seat, had no returnees from the 2008 lineup. It had been assembled on the last day of April and had raced only three times before the final. Yet the US came back from the dead and was in the mix amid a blanket finish in which less than seven tenths of a second separated third place from sixth.
That was no consolation for the Americans, who were slumped over their oars at the finish with exhaustion and anguish. “It’s painful whether it’s close or not,” said 5-man Giuseppe Lanzone. “We didn’t get a medal. Whether we lose by point-one or five seconds, it’s the same.”
The Germans, who won the gold for the first time in 24 years, would have taken it to their graves if they hadn’t prevailed after collecting the last three world crowns. “In Beijing, the result wasn’t so positive,” observed bowman Filip Adamski, after his seatmates, among them Boston University grad Florian Mennigen, had held off Canada’s defending champions, who included Harvard grad Malcolm Howard, by just 1.23 seconds. “I wasn’t sure we’d won until we crossed the line.”
The US women may get the same challenge from their northern neighbors, who’ve chased them to the finish at the last two global regattas and lost to them by only three hundredths of a second at the World Cup in Lucerne.
While the two rivals will be adjacent to each other in the middle lanes, the Americans will keep an eye on the one boat that has been in the medals ever since 1980 and had won three consecutive golds before the US dethroned them in Beijing. “Romania is the one that I am always watching out for,” said coach Tom Terhaar.
It is, however, a six-boat race and the British, Dutch, and Australians also are expected to turn up at the line.
“We’re just going to focus on what we can do in our lane and execute what we’ve envisioned, what we’ve practiced and what we believe in,” says cox Mary Whipple, who steered her boat to the podium in both Athens and Beijing. “And the results are going to take care of themselves.”