WINDSOR, England — The easy, convenient, and factually accurate story that played out under the sun Thursday afternoon at Eton Dorney went just as planned. The U.S. women’s eight rowing team took the lead at the start, led after 1,000 meters, and led at the finish, a glorious gold medal-winning performance that continued an American unbeaten streak that began in 2006.
“That is an American dynasty, baby!” declared Susan Francia, born in Hungary, raised in Pennsylvania, immediately afterward. “It’s just so special.”
But even in such a dominant, historic race — the Americans defended the gold they won in 2008, and added the third in rowing’s signature event — there are other layers. The Olympics are about sports and form and grace, but from the surface, there is no telling what informs each athlete who carries out each task. So shortly after the boat, steered ably by three-time Olympic coxswain Mary Whipple, crossed the finish line, Esther Lofgren broke down.
“That’s the best feeling in the world,” Lofgren said later. And she sobbed.
Four years ago, when the foundation of this dynasty was being laid, Lofgren was the last cut from the American team. She had to watch from afar as her training partners, her teammates, won gold in Beijing.
“I couldn’t have been prouder and happier for them,” she said Thursday. “But it’s about the worst feeling in the world not to be there.”
Somewhere else on the shores of Dorney Lake, Lofgren’s mother Christine wore a T-shirt with the words “Team Lofgren” on the back, and she celebrated. How often do parents of Olympians understand, truly understand, what their children have endured? In 1984, Christine Lofgren was an elite rower, in line for the Los Angeles Games. In 1984, she was the last cut from the team. And in 1984, the United States went on to win its first gold in the event.
“It’s certainly not something I would dwell on or have regrets about or whatever,” Christine Lofgren said Thursday. “Well, the regrets, yeah.”
This shared experience, mostly unspoken between mother and daughter, rode in that boat Thursday, right there with each stroke by Lofgren and her teammates — Erin Cafaro, Francia, Taylor Ritzel, Meghan Musnicki, Eleanor Logan, Caroline Lind, Caryn Davies and Whipple, barking the orders — as they built a lead over Canada, which would win silver, and the Netherlands, which would win bronze. Six of the women already had gold from Beijing. Three did not.
“Being with the team at this level is just such a dream come true,” said Ritzel, one of the first-timers. “It’s a real honor.”
Lofgren felt the same way, through the tears. As the naming date for the 2008 Olympics approached, her parents — Christine, a professor at the University of California-Irvine, and Karl, a consultant who also rowed as a young man — read the tea leaves, and prepared for what might happen. After graduating from Harvard, Lofgren had moved to Princeton, N.J., to train to make the ’08 team, putting off immersion in the real world.
“I thought if she got cut, it’s going to be very difficult for her to tell me, to call me,” Christine Lofgren said. “And then I wondered how she would react emotionally. You worry: How is this going to affect her?”
Lofgren’s belongings, almost all of them, were stored in her 1998 Toyota Camry. She lived with a host family in Princeton. At most, U.S. Rowing afforded her $1,000 a month, and paid for her health insurance. So she took odd jobs. “What haven’t I done?” she asked. She babysat. She tutored. She worked in a sandwich shop. She worked as a barista. She worked as a sommelier. She was pursuing her dream, as almost every athlete here has. But in a way, one which they did not discuss, she was pursuing her mother’s, too.
“There was a time where she would kind of say, ‘I’m trying to be as good as you were,’ ” Christine Lofgren said. “And I thought, ‘How would you know, exactly, how good I was?’ And there came a point at which we kind of said, ‘You know, you’re way better than we ever were.’ ”
When Esther Lofgren decided to dive back in for another go at the world championships, and eventually the Olympics, her family knew what it meant. Some members of the U.S. team that have trust funds, Christine said, but Christine and Karl Lofgren are paying down the loans that got their daughter through college. Her uncle helped with her car. Esther is 27, Harvard-educated, and living something of a destitute existence. Yet what could her parents say?
“I guess part of it is, having been there, I know,” Christine said. “I’m not going to say to her, ‘Look, you’ve got to pick up another 20 hours of work this week.’”
It all brought her to the starting line Thursday at Dorney Lake, where the Americans would ride between Canada and the Netherlands. After a quarter of the 2,000-meter race, they led by 1.5 seconds. It wasn’t enough.
“That’s our motto,” Francia said. “Be greedy.”
So by the midway point, the lead was 2.34 seconds. The Canadians eventually closed the gap, but it mattered not. The Americans finished in 6 minutes 10.59 seconds, and slapped the water in exultation.
When Lofgren reached shore, she could scarcely stop crying. “This is for her,” she said of her medal and her mother. When Esther, an American flag draped across her back, finally made her way through the phalanx and found Christine, they embraced. Then, together, they examined the medal draped around Esther’s neck, first the front, then the back. It was a prize won Thursday with a dream that dates back a generation, a medal for team and country and mother and daughter alike.
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