The women’s championship eight at the Head of the Charles Sunday was stocked with Olympians from many countries, not just the 2012 gold medal US team but also the silver medalists from Canada and the bronze medalists from the Netherlands.
Out of practice since their triumph at Eton Dorney in August, the US eight had to huff and puff through the last quarter of the race before coming through as they bulled their way down the 3-mile course in 16 minutes 13.49 seconds. As coxswain Mary Whipple said, “We gutted it out.’’
And still, they were nearly upstaged by an improbable group of international stars. It was not the Canadians, and not the Dutch, but the Great8, a boat full of Olympic scullers from eight countries put together by Newton’s Gevvie Stone, a US Olympian and winner of Saturday’s singles championship, that actually had the best raw time in the women’s event. The Great8 crossed the line in 16:12.15 but they were assessed a 10-second penalty for going outside a buoy as they came out of the left turn before the Eliot Bridge, and their added time pushed the US team into first.
The Great8, rowing under the Cambridge Boat Club banner, appealed, claiming they were forced outside the buoy line by the Yale boat, but the appeal was denied by a jury.
“There were people jockeying for position, but that was happening all the way down the course,’’ said Great8 cox Jill Carlson, a 2012 graduate of Harvard. “I felt like we were being pushed pretty hard into the buoy line, but the officials didn’t see it that way and that’s that.’’
The US team is on a seven-year victory run after winning two consecutive Olympic golds and five world titles, and these rowers — five from the London gold medal team bolstered by three from the US Olympic bronze-medal quad — were reluctant to let go of their status as lead boat. It didn’t matter that the Head of the Charles is billed as just a “fun” race and that a head race — against the clock with staggered starts — is often wildly unpredictable.
“You never know who’s going to bring it on race day,’’ said Susan Francia of the US team. “It would have been nicer to win it on time, but we said win or lose, we’re going to have fun and put down our best race.’’
“This is a humbling sport,’’ said Whipple, who retired after the Olympics but couldn’t resist an invitation to lead her team down the Charles. “We knew it was going to be a painful race because we hadn’t practiced since the Olympics. So we knew it was going to take guts and when it was starting to hurt, it got a little sloppy.’’
The US team got something in this race it hadn’t gotten in London, or in Beijing in 2008; raucous chants of “U-S-A!” from the home crowd packing the shoreline and the bridges over the Charles. It was a boost, particularly after Whipple said they hit the doldrums in “the middle powerhouse stretch’’ at about 2 miles. She reminded her crew they were rowing against the clock, and that every stroke counted, and then they reached the Eliot Bridge and got the loudest cheers of all.
“We sat up a little taller,’’ said Whipple, “and everyone dug a little deeper.’’
The US pushed to the finish line, then found the crowd murmuring about how close boat No. 8 — Stone’s collection of scullers — had come. The Great8, including three scullers who never had rowed with a sweep oar before this weekend, only trailed the pace of the US boat by 7½ seconds at the first split at Riverside Boat Club, then steadily made up time. They were just 2½ seconds off at the Cambridge Boat Club with half a mile to go, and they turned the advantage upside down to finish with a 2.6 second lead, which then dissolved when the penalty was added.
The teams were locked in a virtual staredown during a long, difficult wait for two hours after the boats left the course, until the results finally became official and the US boat was able to claim its trophy.