American men’s eights crew advances to finals, holding off Australia

In jeopardy of missing an Olympic event that American men had long dominated, U.S. rowing officials didn’t stand idly by after the men’s eight failed to qualify last summer for the 2012 London Games.

They coaxed back Hall of Fame coach Mike Teti, who had led the prestigious boat to gold at the 2004 Athens Games and bronze in 2008. And after holding an open casting call in November, Teti culled more than 30 hopefuls to a squad of nine.

That retooled roster, which includes Potomac’s David Banks and Annandale’s Giuseppe Lanzone, earned its Olympic spot at the last possible minute, winning the final qualification race in Switzerland in May.

On Saturday, the opening day of the 2012 Games’ rowing competition, the Americans made a powerful statement about their plans to reassert a claim on the men’s eight, winning their heat to advance to Wednesday’s final.

The United States held off a stirring charge by Australia to cover the 2,000-meter course in 5 minute 30.72 seconds; Poland and Ukraine finished behind. Thus the Americans will skip Sunday’s repechage, or second-chance race, and head straight to the finals. Their stiffest competition will be Germany, victor of Saturday’s other heat and unbeaten in three years.

“They were happy for about 19 seconds that we won,” Teti said of his rowers, after he’d huddled briefly with them. “But if we want to get on the podium, we’re going to have to row better.”

The host nation wasn’t as fortunate.

Placed in the same heat as Germany, a study in power and precision in blistering the course in 5:25.52, the British boat could do no better than second. That relegates the Brits to the repechage to salvage their medal hopes.

It was an odd twist to see the Americans fare better than the British at Eton Dorney, an elegant rowing complex set in a 400-acre park about 25 miles west of London, not far from the grounds of Windsor Castle. Deemed one of the world’s finest rowing venues, it was built in 2006 for Eton College’s team.

Rowing is a revered sport in England. And a capacity crowd of 30,000 packed the stands that lined the course for the opening day of the Olympic regatta. Thousands more stood on the banks to watch and cheer the silent British boats on. Still others rode bicycles from the start to the finish, keeping pace with the boats and shouting encouragement with each stroke the rowers made.

No medals were awarded Saturday. It consisted solely of heats, with spots in the finals at stake for nine of the 14 Olympic rowing disciplines.

Under a sun-drenched sky, it started beautifully for Britain, with Helen Glover and Heather Stanning setting an Olympic record in the opening heat of the women’s pair. Americans Sara Hendershot and Sarah Zelenka also locked in a spot in the final by finishing second.

But Britain’s men’s eight faced a huge hurdle against Germany and did not get its bow out front.

Like Germany, the U.S. men’s eight also went wire-to-wire in its heat. It was a tremendous achievement for its rookie coxswain and the eight rowers who are still getting to know one another.

There’s not a bona fide rowing star in the bunch, certainly not on the order of Britain’s five-time Olympic champion Steve Redgrave. But with seven engineers among them (all but Lanzone), the U.S. eight has a knack for solving problems, Teti said, and a clear-headed approach to whatever challenge they face.

“They’re kind of boring,” said Teti, who coaches at Berkeley, with good-natured affection. “It’s not like they’re super-fiery guys. They’re very methodical. Systematic. Kind of all-business.”

In terms of group dynamics, Lanzone, 29, who sits in the middle, in the fifth seat, serves as the team’s glue, keeping spirits up with unflagging enthusiasm.

Banks, 29, serves as its boss, exuding rock-solid calm from the eighth seat, known as the stroke, and is the team’s most muscular and steady rower.

Both came to the sport late compared to their European rivals.

Lanzone, a standout football player at McLean High, was talked into rowing by former coach Jim Mitchell, who was initially taken with the youngster’s size but soon learned he boasted something more valuable.

“What made Giuseppe — and still makes him — a great athlete is he’s highly coachable,” Mitchell said in a telephone interview. “He doesn’t question his coaches. He believes in the system you put out, and he relies on that system. And when he’s racing, he doesn’t question what he’s enduring. He just goes and does it.”

Banks, who ran track and played basketball at Churchill High, didn’t start rowing until he enrolled at Stanford.

But under Teti, this retooled roster, with twins Grant and Ross James the only holdovers from the squad that struggled last summer, has become a family.

And when the men’s eight final is contested at these London Games, they’re determined to restore the family’s good name.

“It’s the flagship event of the U.S.; it’s about the eights,” Banks said. “It’s definitely an honor. And it’s an honor we want to represent well.”

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