When the U.S. women’s eight puts to the water of Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon on August 8, for its opening race of the Games, the eight oarswomen and their coxswain will be seeking to continue the longest-running dynasty in Olympic sports. Beginning with a victory in world-record time at the 2006 world championships, the U.S. women’s eight has won 10 straight world or Olympic titles (matching the Soviet Union’s 10 world and Olympic golds in men’s ice hockey, from 1963 through ’72). The Americans head to Rio as heavy favorites to pick up a third straight Olympic gold.
As Martin Cross, a former gold-medal-winning rower for Great Britain who is now World Rowing’s lead TV commentator, puts it, “In terms of their competitors, I think everyone is in awe and in fear of them, probably in equal measure.”
Only two of the rowers in the U.S. eight—Eleanor Logan and Meghan Musnicki—are returning Olympians, but all told the crew owns a total of 28 world championship gold medals, testimony to the extraordinary depth of the U.S. program under head coach Tom Terhaar. The soft-spoken Terhaar, 46, a former rower at Rutgers and coach at Columbia, took over as women’s coach for USRowing in 2001 and brought immediate success. The year after he arrived, the U.S. women’s eight won its first world title in seven years. Two years after that, in Athens, the boat took second, claiming its first Olympic medal in 20 years.
Mary Whipple, the coxswain on that boat, who would go on to cox the winning eight in 2008 and ’12, calls that Athens silver “the opening of the floodgates,” and credits Terhaar with providing the key. With a focus on developing “boat feel,” which he describes as “using the water to move the boat,” Terhaar produces rowers who mesh perfectly in the eight, their power and stamina balanced in the rhythm that current coxswain Katelin Snyder calls “rowing’s holy grail.”
It is a grueling program, though, and a highly competitive one. Rowers in the U.S. program train together for years but in the end must compete against one another for one of the eight seats in the Olympic boat. “To go to Rio without so many of the women you’ve been so close with is brutal,” says Snyder. But that selection process—which saw women who had won a combined 15 world championship golds left off the U.S. eight—has consistently produced winning boats.
In Rio, the U.S. will face six other boats—from Canada, Great Britain, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Romania and Russia—all of which are, in the words of Terhaar, “getting more and more professional and more and more competitive all the time.” In the end, though, he will keep his rowers focused on their own boat and their own race.
“We’re just trying to take in the moment,” says Logan, “We can only control what we do.” Says Musnicki, “We try not to dwell on the past success. We know where the bar has been set. Now we’re trying to push past it.”
Athletes to watch
• Helen Glover and Heather Stanning, Great Britain Women’s Pair
Glover and Stanning began rowing together in 2010, world-ranked just 16th and 17th, respectively. Under the guidance of coach Robin Williams, however, they took silver at the world championships that November. In 2011, they again took second at worlds, just 0.1 seconds behind New Zealand’s Juliet Haigh and Rebecca Scown. The following year Glover and Stanning took the gold at the 2012 Games in Olympic record time. It was the first gold for the home country and Britain’s first-ever gold in women’s rowing.
After their Olympic triumph, Stanning, a captain (and now a major) in the 32nd Regiment Royal Artillery, took a year off from rowing. Glover, partnered with Polly Swann, won the 2013 world championships. Stanning returned in ’14 and, together again, she and Glover claimed another world title, setting a new world record in the final. They have not lost since. With a European title and a World Cup record time already stowed away in ’16, they head to Rio as prohibitive favorites.
• Eric Murray and Hamish Bond, New Zealand, Men’s Pair
Given that Murray and Bond have not lost a race since 2007, anything less than a third straight Olympic gold for the Kiwi Pair (that’s the title of their Facebook page, by the way) would be one of the major upsets of the Rio Games. Though not always the fastest in the field in the first 500 meters, the six-time world champs’ pace and precision—Murray supplies the explosive power and Bond the enduring drive in each race—invariably brings them past their competitors well before the finish.
• Valent Sinkovic and Martin Sinkovic, Croatia, Men’s Double Sculls
Twenty-seven-year-old Valent and brother Martin, 26, are close out of the boat and seemingly perfectly matched in it. Introduced to the sport by their older brother, they initially rowed in the quad before teaming up in double sculls in 2014. They haven’t lost a race since. In their semifinal at the world championships last year they set a world record, becoming the first double to break the six-minute mark. They appear on their way to winning Croatia’s first Olympic gold medal in rowing.
• Mahe Drysdale, New Zealand and Ondrej Synek, Czech Republic, Men’s Single Sculls
For more than a decade now, the competition between Drysdale, 37, and Synek, 33, has been of rowing’s great rivalries. Between them the two have taken 17 world championship medals. At Beijing in 2008, Drysdale, suffering from a severe gastrointestinal infection, took the bronze, and Synek the silver (as Olaf Tufte of Norway took the gold). Since then, the two have dominated their event, Drysdale winning the worlds in 2009—setting the still-standing world record of 6:33.35—and ’11 (to go with his previous titles in 2005, ’06 and ’07) and Synek in 2010, ’13, ’14 and ’15. At London in 2012, Drysdale edged Synek for the gold. Look for another one-on-one singles showdown in Rio.
• Ekaterina Karsten, Belarus, Women’s Single Sculls
When she takes to the water in Rio, the 44-year-old Karsten will be competing in her seventh Olympics. She won the single sculls in 1996 and 2000, took silver in 2004 and bronze in 1992 and 2008. In addition, she has won six world championships. While not as fast as she once was, Karsten remains competitive on the international level, having placed third this year in the the Olympic Qualification Regatta in Lucerne, Switzerland.
All races are 2,000 meters and will be held on the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon, located in the heart of Rio.
Wed. Aug. 10
Men’s Quad Sculls
Women’s Quad Sculls
Thur. Aug. 11
Women’s Double Sculls
Men’s Double Sculls
Men’s Lightweight Quad
Fri. Aug. 12
Women’s Lightweight Double Sculls
Men’s Lightweight Double Sculls
Sat. Aug. 13
Men’s Single Sculls
Women’s Single Sculls