No boat carries more prestige in international rowing than the eight. That is where American rowers put their emphasis as they geared up for the Olympic Games, and that is where they made their boldest statement in decades as the Olympic Regatta came to a close Sunday under a searing August sun.
The U.S. men won gold for the first time in 40 years and the U.S. women claimed silver, edged by a veteran crew from Romania, whose female rowers have now won the last three golds.
The U.S. men had served notice that they intended to avenge their poor showing at the 2000 Games in Sydney by setting a world record time in their qualifying heat at the Schinias Olympic Rowing Center earlier in the week. Faced with a headwind instead of a tailwind Sunday, their time was a bit slower but the result couldn't have been more sweet, as they completed the 2,000-meter course (roughly 1.25 miles) in 5 minutes 42.48 seconds, leading the race from start to finish.
The Netherlands finished with silver (5:43.75), and the bronze went to Australia (5:45.38).
"The experience was unforgettable," said Jason Read, a New Jersey firefighter whose unit was among those that responded to the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. "To be able to represent your country at the pinnacle of the sport with my teammates -- I couldn't ask for anything more."
U.S. Coach Mike Teti assembled the country's strongest rowers for the eights, drawing heavily on youth and power.
Among them was stroke Bryan Volpenhein, one of just two holdovers from the 2000 Games, who couldn't sleep for three days after U.S. finished a disappointing fifth in Sydney. After Sunday's triumph, Volpenhein said he was overcome by a feeling of utter peace and freedom.
The U.S. women were thrilled with their silver, which represented the country's first medal in the women's eight in 20 years. Members of the 1984 team were among their biggest supporters, sending their 2004 counterparts flowers and water from the 1984 Los Angeles rowing venue to christen their boat.
"I guess losing has never felt so good, so we'll take silver," said Lianne Nelson, a Princeton graduate and the sole holdover from the 2000 Sydney eight.
Alison Cox called it a privilege to line up against the Romanian women and said she would return home proud knowing that they had pushed Romania harder than they had ever been pushed in an Olympic final. "There's not another country I'd rather lose to," Cox said.
The Romanians won gold on a blistering pace, crossing the finish in 6:17.70. The U.S. women followed at 6:19.56, and the crew from the Netherlands took bronze (6:19.85).
For the first time, the U.S. men and women prepared for an Olympics together, training side-by-side in Princeton, N.J. Both teams credited their success to the camaraderie and synergy of the experience, as well as the high-tech video equipment that enabled them to dissect and perfect their technique.
Afterward, with sun-burned cheeks and medals around their necks, they held a joint news conference to discuss their achievement, clapping for one another's answers just as they had cheered each other's success in the water.
Pete Cipollone, the 5-1 coxswain of the men's boat, insisted on wearing his olive wreath on his bald head hours later, in addition to the gold medal that hung from his neck. Noting that the olive wreath was the ancient reward for victors just as the gold medal is today, Cipollone said, "I plan to wear both until I'm thrown in jail or tossed out of the country."