RIO DE JANEIRO — There’s this achievement that Eleanor Logan seems to relish as much as her third Olympic gold medal, this indelible memory of when she knew the current incarnation of the most invincible team in these Games — the United States women’s eight — had come together. It was four months ago after an especially rigorous training session. She looked in her mirror and saw the faces of teammates who couldn’t possibly give more.
“There was nothing left in their effort,” Logan said proudly. “It was all over their faces, and I said, ‘Wow, what an amazing experience to be a part of this group, where everyone is just giving everything they have every day.’ To not take for granted each moment, each practice and just keep getting better is just an amazing, amazing feeling.”
If you want genuine insight into the rowing tradition the U.S. women have established, don’t ask them about winning. Don’t ask them about not losing since 2006. Don’t ask them about finishing first in 11 straight major international competitions, including a third straight Olympic triumph Saturday morning at Lagoa Stadium. Ask them, simply, about competing.
The essence of rowing at this level lies in its struggle. There aren’t a whole lot of public events to provide happy little victories and mile-markers along the way. Much of their work is done in private, with little fanfare, and it’s all building toward one major competition a year that must be won. It is a grueling sport that tests the body, mind and spirit, requiring competitors to expand their physical and competitive limits, process disappointment and fully submit self to team all at once. All that matters is the boat – how well eight rowers and a coxswain can work together to make it go faster – and the boat has no bias about which combination of people will make it move with balance and efficiency.
We quantify dominance mostly by the ease and repetitiveness of victory. We see teams win again and again, by greater and greater margins, and we label them invincible. We wonder how demoralized an opponent feels entering a competition that it cannot win. It makes dominance seems like this mystical thing, ignoring the strain that great teams mask so well.
Beneath their invincibility, these rowers know pain. This sport makes you strangely addicted to punishment. They think the more they fight through the hurt, the more they can minimize it, the more they can achieve. They can’t stop competing because the U.S. women’s rowing program has built a machine. There are enough quality collegiate programs now, and they’re just feeding a system that seems fully stocked with talent. The U.S. women’s eight just might be the hardest team in the world to make in any sport.
“I would say these last four years have been the toughest in my life in terms of learning that complacency can’t be,” said Amanda Polk, who rows in the third seat. “Just when you think you’re fast enough, someone else is up there, going faster. You’re constantly pushing yourself, day in and day out while still maintaining your health and being uninjured and taking care of your body. It’s a full-day, full-week, full-year process.”
In 2012, Polk was an alternate on the Olympic team, a huge disappointment after winning gold medals in the eight during the 2010 and 2011 world championships. She had graduated from Notre Dame in 2008 with a degree in biochemistry, and after not competing in the London Olympics, she had to make a life decision. She thought about giving up rowing. Ultimately, she decided to stay in the program. She walked dogs, babysat children and worked in gyms and museums to make a little money.
On Saturday, after the U.S. took control halfway through the 2,000-meter race and beat silver medalist Great Britain by more than two seconds, Polk enjoyed the greatest reward for staying committed. But the journey taught her the most.
“These women have pushed me every day,” Polk said. “Individual [ergometer] tests, pieces on the water — any time I thought this was enough, it wasn’t. You could feel them pushing harder, and I would respond with them, and it was just one, solid unit. Basically, complacency is not there. It’s nonexistent.”
It’s funny to the rowers that we ask them about the pressure to sustain a winning streak that has lasted 10 years. They’re a team, but there have been many other teams that have contributed to the dominance of that U.S. boat. In fact, this combination of rowers and coxswain Katelin Snyder has only competed together for two races – the semifinal heat and final at these Olympics. Logan and Meghan Musnicki are the only holdovers from the 2012 gold medal-winning boat.
When you talk about the dominance of the U.S. women’s eight, you’re talking more about the tradition than the individual pieces. It’s a testament to the entire program, which U.S. Coach Tom Terhaar has built into the deepest in the sport. There’s pressure to keep winning, but there’s always new, hungry competitors wanting to make their mark.
“You have to learn how to let that go and just treat this as another race,” said Kerry Simmonds, who rows in the second seat. “But, yes, you definitely do feel the pressure that this is the third Olympics, and the women have won two Olympics before this, and you want to make them proud, too.”
When the U.S. needed motivation in the final half of the race, coxswain Katelin Snyder knew exactly what to say.
“This is the U.S. women’s eight!” she reminded her teammates. “This is USA women’s rowing!”
This is, among team sports, the surest thing at the Olympics. You’ll never think of them as entitled, however. The sport has an elitist reputation, but in reality, in the boat, rowers grind for every accolade they receive.
Always on the medal stand. Never on a pedestal. That’s why the women thrive. They competed past exhaustion to make the eight. And then they came together and proved ideal stewards of a dominant boat.
“You learn so much from each other if you’re open to it,” said Musnicki, who rows in the sixth seat. “It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been on the team. It’s an indescribable feeling. The entire way down, you could feel all nine of us fighting to push our bow ball forward, push our bow ball forward. It was very internal, but very shared.”
In celebration, the Team That Always Wins opted to depart from tradition, however. They didn’t throw their serious, soft-spoken coach into the notoriously polluted water.
“I have children,” he said, pleading with them. “Please don’t throw me in the water.”
Throw the mastermind of this greatness in that nasty stuff? No way. He has a tradition to uphold.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.