For US women’s eight, golden road begins in college
“That is an American dynasty, baby,” Susan Francia crowed this summer after the US women’s eight had continued its planetary reign with another gold medal at Olympus. Along with world championships, the number of titles is seven straight and counting, and nobody is betting against the Americans pulling off a three-peat at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro.
No crew in history has achieved what the US eight already has accomplished, and none of its rivals has anything close to the breadth and depth of the feeder system that keeps pushing talent up to the elite level.
“It’s a well-oiled machine,” said Mary Whipple, who coxed the boat to its victories in Beijing and London and will be at the tiller Sunday afternoon at the 48th Head of the Charles Regatta when the Olympic gold medalists take the line in the championship event against fellow medalists Canada and the Netherlands. “Someone retires and we get seasoned rookies.”
The star-spangled dynasty is the ongoing legacy of Title IX, the landmark 1972 law that banned gender discrimination in institutions receiving federal funds.
“Title IX was the cataclysmic reason for the growth of women’s rowing,” observed Head of the Charles executive director Fred Schoch, who has coached women’s teams at the prep school, college, and national levels.
Rowing traditionally had been considered a prohibitively expensive undertaking, a non-revenue sport that required a spacious boathouse, coaching launches, multiple shells, and dozens of oars. But given the numbers necessary to put a flotilla on the water, colleges soon realized that women’s crew was an effective way to create a numbers equilibrium with football.
The result has been an explosive and continued growth, with the number of women’s crews now dwarfing that of men. According to NCAA records, there were 2,053 men competing for 48 schools in 1982 compared with 1,187 women for 43 programs. This year there were 2,364 men at 60 schools and 7,282 women at 145 schools, many of them on scholarship.
The lure of a free ride to college and a chance at making an Olympic team has made for an upsurge of interest at the high school and club levels, which has shown up in soaring numbers at the Head, which didn’t have events for women until 1969 and didn’t add eights until three years later.
At this year’s regatta, there are 170 youth eights and fours for women plus 39 doubles as well as 15 teenagers in the club singles. All of them are aware that their predecessors have been at the top of the rowing world for a while now.
“It’s definitely raised American rowing as a whole,” said Francia, who was born in Hungary and rowed at Penn. “To get more girls involved is awesome. It’s important for these girls to have role models.”
The growth hasn’t been limited to schoolgirls. Most of the collegians have kept rowing long after collecting their diplomas, boosting club numbers that already have been augmented by women who have taken up the sport in middle age. In the masters division for those 50 and older, there were 31 entries in singles, 26 in doubles, 28 in fours, and 35 in eights.
“There are more and more community rowing programs popping up everywhere in the United States,” remarked Schoch. “They’re discovering the joy of being on the water.”
The pinnacle of joy comes at the Olympics, where the Americans have dethroned the Romanians at the top. Not that they hadn’t had success at the Games before. The US won the bronze at the inaugural regatta in 1976 in Montreal and gold at the boycotted 1984 Games in Los Angeles. There wasn’t another podium finish, though, until 2004 when the US collected silver behind Romania in Athens.
“You saw that glimpse of the pipeline starting in 2004,” said Whipple, who coxed the boat that year.
It produced the beginning of a gusher at the 2006 world regatta when the Americans outrowed the Germans at Dorney Lake, the site of this year’s Games. Since then, nobody has beaten them at the global level.
“USA are a Formula One crew,” Canadian rival Rachelle Viinberg said after her seatmates had been out-revved by their neighbors at the Games.
Five of the London oarswomen — stroke Caryn Davies, Elle Logan, Caroline Lind, Erin Cafaro, and Francia — had won gold in Beijing. How many of them will keep at it for another quadrennium is an open question.
“Caryn and myself are retiring,” said Whipple. “Everyone else seems to be a bit up in the air.”
Even if the rest of them call it a career, there are several dozen candidates in the wings. This year’s under-23 boat won the world title by open water over Germany and the juniors took silver behind Romania.
“It starts in college,” said Whipple. “People say, what are you going to do this summer?”
This year’s eight came from seven colleges.
“It doesn’t matter where you come from, it’s how strong you are,” said Whipple, who went to Washington. “Meghan Musnicki went to a D-3 school [Ithaca]. A woman in the pair [Sarah Zelenka] is from Grand Valley State. When we go to the World Championships, we have college ‘uni’ day, where everyone wears their college stuff.”
Though Great Britain, which won three Olympic gold medals in small boats this summer, has poured millions of pounds into developing an elite women’s program, no other country has the perpetual collegiate supply system that the US does.
“It keeps us all honest and makes sure we train hard,” said Francia.
The competition for spots has created an opportunistic diversity in the program, with sweep rowers often switching to sculling, as did Michelle Guerette, who won silver in the Olympic single in 2008, the first American medal in the event in two decades.
“We all do everything interchangeably,” said Francia. “The sculling team has elevated us and we’ve elevated them. They’ve seen the success of the eight and they want their own success.”
This year the quad earned a bronze in London, the first US medal in the event since 1984. Three of them — Kara Kohler, Megan Kalmoe, and Adrienne Martelli — will be in the eight Sunday afternoon for what will be a reprise of the Olympic final and, at the least, an autumnal victory lap as the American dynasty gets to show the flag before the home folks.