Erin Cafaro of Modesto says she has reached 95 percent of her potential. The number means a lot.
She has won collegiate and world rowing championships, an incredible run over the past seven years topped by an Olympic gold medal four years ago in Beijing.
Now she's in London to defend the USA's gold medal in women's eight and finish her rowing career on top.
"I'm almost satisfied," Cafaro said, leaving no doubt where she targets that final 5 percent.
Cafaro, 29, can become the first Modestan to win two gold medals. In 2008, she joined local Olympic champions Wilbur "Moose" Thompson (shot put, 1948), Cy Young (javelin, 1952) and Tisha Venturini-Hoch (soccer, 1996).
The graduate of Modesto High, only 5-foot-9 and 160 pounds many of her teammates top 6 feet always has beaten the odds. This time, she's dealt with two major issues: (1) injuries in 2011, and (2) a last-minute change in plans.
But stopping her has not yet happened. She again belongs on the 530-member USA Olympic team and is one of 228 returnees from 2008. She's also one of 76 who already own Olympic gold.
Now comes the hard part doing it again.
"This was a great year for me," Cafaro said. "I'm getting older, but faster."
Cafaro was slowed in 2011 when she broke two ribs in competition. Not only did it sideline her, it also dried up her training funds and insurance coverage. She limped from USRowing headquarters in Princeton, N.J., back to San Francisco to the home of her brother, J.D. Cafaro, to regroup.
Inspired by Ali Cox
Always athletic during her childhood, Cafaro discovered her niche after she read a feature in The Bee about Turlock's Ali Cox, an Olympic silver medalist in the women's eight in 2004. By then, the Modestan already was attending Cal. Before she left Berkeley, Cafaro and the Golden Bears claimed two NCAA titles.
J.D. Cafaro, a former defensive lineman at Cal (2001-04), shared a common bond with his sister both were undersized as athletes in their respective sports. As kids, they played home-run derby and other games together.
"The thing about Erin is that she just loves to compete. It doesn't matter what it is, as long as she's competing," her brother said. "Her determination is otherworldly."
So when Erin, injured and discouraged, retreated to San Francisco last year, J.D. lent more than a little support.
The CrossFit-hardened Cafaro could do the rehab. But it wasn't that simple. She believed her injuries were because of poor technique, a no-no in a high-rep discipline.
"If you have stresses in your life, they find their way into your body. It took a month to figure things out. I rebuilt myself," she said. "I realized I had to do it right, quality over quantity. I couldn't just hammer away. You have to evolve as an athlete or you'll be passed by or you'll break down."
Recovery was followed by a trip to Boston for technical work with stroke coach Charley Butt, the men's lightweight crew coach at Harvard.
"He took her in and got her going right again," said Vian Cafaro, Erin's mother. "God bless him."
Making rowing history
Physically and emotionally recharged, Cafaro and Eleanor Logan won the pair at this year's National Selection Regatta and then took silver at World Cup I in Belgrade, Serbia, to automatically qualify for the Olympics. The twosome then captured silver at World Rowing Cup II in Lucerne, Switzerland.
Though Cafaro still occupied the bow seat (the first to cross the finish line) for the USA in the eight, she devoted much of her training to the pair since Beijing. In 2009, Cafaro and teammate Susan Francia became the first pair in USA women's rowing history to win the world title.
They also contributed to a world championship in eight during the same meet, a stirring double that made Cafaro the USRowing's Female Athlete of the Year. She geared up for Olympic competition only in the pairs.
"The pair is a fun boat for me. It's honest," she said. "If the boat is not going well, there are not eight other factors. It's you."
All things changed in early June, however, when Cafaro and Logan seemingly bound for London in pairs declined their automatic berth and climbed back onboard the eight. Coach Tom Terhaar, determined to win another gold in the eight, abandoned earlier plans and not unlike "The Blues Brothers" movie "brought the band back together." Cafaro and Logan agreed to the change.
"In the U.S., the eight is the priority event. It was ultimately our decision," Cafaro said. "If we wanted to do the pair, we would have done it. But I had doubled before at the World, which is nothing compared to doubling at the Olympics. You've got scheduling, unpredictable weather and hard conditions in London."
The lineup is set, and Cafaro and five other veterans from 2008 again will chase the gold, beginning today. They have been tabbed the team to beat, though challenges will be posed by Romania, Canada and the English home team.
"The new girls are physical specimens and they can perform. It's a very focused and determined team," she said. "I feel I'm a better athlete now (than in 2008)."
Cafaro always believed she could outwork any problem. But to make the London Games, she reinvented virtually everything physique, stroke and mental approach.
Only her core, her self-belief, hasn't wavered. Orangevale's Mary Whipple, the team's coxswain, has roomed with Cafaro over the years. Cafaro will serve as one of Whipple's maids of honor at her upcoming wedding.
"Erin brings this courageous attitude into the boat that is contagious. I don't consider Erin being a bit undersized because her strength in the boat, in her head and in her heart is inspiring," Whipple wrote in a recent e-mail.
"I have complete faith in Erin and trust her completely," Whipple continued, "and that is why she makes boats go fast because her teammates respect her so much."
'More tough ... just as strong'
Cafaro fretted in the past because she lacked the size of her boatmates. Today, she embraces it. She still adds 22 to all her workouts be it reps, seconds or minutes, to remember her baseball idol and former San Francisco Giants star Will Clark but her work ethic remains steadfast.
"I'm smaller but I have to be more tough and just as strong," she said. "I can't do anything about my genetics, but I have other things I can control."
Unlike 2008, Cafaro attended the opening ceremony Friday night and also will stay for the closing ceremony. The rowing schedule calls for the beginning of heats today, leading to the finals on Thursday. On that day, Cafaro again surveying the landscape from the bow expects to find that final 5 percent.
"Mentally, I had to become a lot tougher. It's been a fight," she said. "But I don't know any other way."
Bee staff writer Ron Agostini can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2302.
ERIN CAFARO OVER THE YEARS
2005-06: Won the eight at NCAA championships for Cal
2007: Won gold in the eight at World Championships at Munich, Germany
2008: Won Olympic gold in the eight at Beijing
2009: Won the eight and pairs with Susan Francia at World Championships at Poznan, Poland
2009: Was named USRowing's Female Athlete of the Year
U.S. WOMEN'S EIGHT
Mary Whipple*, Orangevale (coxswain)
Caryn Davies*, Ithaca, N.Y.
Caroline Lind*, Greensboro, N.C.
Eleanor Logan*, Boothbay Harbor, Maine
Meghan Musnicki, Naples, N.Y.
Taylor Ritzel, Larkspur, Colo.
Esther Lofgren, Newport Beach
Susan Francia*, Abington, Pa.
Erin Cafaro*, Modesto
* 2008 women's eightOlympic champions