U.S rower dreaming of gold-medal defense in London

U.S rower dreaming of gold-medal defense in London

Published Jul. 27, 2012 12:43 p.m. ET

As an 11-year veteran of U.S. rowing, coxswain Mary Whipple has seen plenty of talented women's eight crews in her time.

She's been the driving force behind five world champion boats and was part of the lineup that won the Olympic title in Beijing in 2008, ending a 24-year wait for the gold.

Still, Whipple believes the crew at the London Games could top them all.

''We are working towards becoming one of the crews that future rowers and teams across all sports look to for inspiration,'' she said. ''That would be a dream come true.''


Certainly U.S. rowing is looking to them for inspiration when their heats start Sunday.

The women's eight stand out as the best - and possibly only - chance of U.S. gold at Dorney Lake over the next nine days. They're undefeated in the last six years, and they even slashed their own world-best time by more than a second in a World Cup race in Lucerne, Switzerland, in May.

Six members of the boat that won in Beijing are back for another shot at gold, again led by coach Tom Terhaar, who has helped turn the team into the most fearsome women's crew in world rowing since he took charge in 2001.

Like Whipple, Terhaar believes the class of 2012 can take the U.S. eight to new levels.

''It was definitely the most talented overall group we've had, that I've had,'' Terhaar said. ''The depth from top to bottom was better than in the past. There were athletes that didn't make the team that would have had a good chance to make it four years ago. There is just so much depth.''

Issuing instructions under overcast skies, Terhaar was at a muggy Dorney Lake on Friday as his crew took part in its penultimate practice before the heats, when the eight will be up against Germany, Britain and Australia.

That meant the U.S. avoided Canada, which is in the other heat (along with the Netherlands and Romania) and is regarded as the Americans' closest challengers. Canada lost to them by only three hundredths of a second in Lucerne.

That result didn't just keep the U.S. unbeaten run intact. It also ensured complacency wouldn't creep into the crew ahead of what is sure to be a gripping final.

''It's going to be a barnburner,'' Whipple told The Associated Press. ''This is what's driving us, the challenge and the excitement of competing with this field.

''I don't feel invincible, I feel lucky to have this chance. Rowing is a humbling sport, you have to put in the work every day. When I get in the boat, all my energy is focused on giving it my all, my heart in it every time.''

Terhaar settled on his lineup only last month, with Erin Cafaro and Eleanor Logan returning to the eight after a successful trial as a pair. They even came close to doubling.

''It was a tough decision ... but the coach felt that the new FISA racing schedule and the temperamental weather were too much of a risk for us to do both,'' Cafaro said in an E-mail to the AP.

''We had a lot of speed and continued to progress with every row. I feel that there was so much more speed to realize in that combination, so the decision to forfeit our bid in the pair was not an easy one. But we've been training for the eight for the last four years, which made it the unarguable decision.''

The three newcomers since Beijing are Meghan Musnicki, Taylor Ritzel and Esther Lofgren.

Ritzel, in particular, has had it tough over the last couple of years. Her mother, Lana, died of breast cancer in November 2010, and she was bothered by injuries to both ribs that affected her training toward the end of 2011. Then, last week, she was devastated by the deadly shooting in a crowded movie theater in Aurora, Colo., where she was born.

Despite all that, her integration into the eight has appeared seamless. The same can be said of Musnicki and Lofgren.

''The first-time Olympians have brought a new energy and relentlessness in practice,'' Whipple said. ''For the Olympics, the new members to the eight will bring a new level of enthusiasm and the returning rowers bring the experience and leadership that is a lethal combination.

''We are building our identity leading into the Olympics, and as a leader and voice on this team, I bring together their individual strengths so we can cross the finish line the way we've envisioned.''

The weight of expectation on the women's eight has grown because of the troubles experienced by their equivalents in the men's squad over the past year.

The men's eight only made it to London through the final qualifying regatta, after failing to guarantee a spot via their finish at a world championship for the first time in history. A medal will be a long shot for them, and also for the men's four, another high-profile U.S. boat, which could find Britain and Australia too tough.

Over, then, to the women's eight.

''This could be one of the greatest rowing races of the regatta,'' Whipple said, ''and it's awesome to think that I will have the best seat in the house.''