August 17, 2008

Modesto's Erin Cafaro, U.S. Women's 8 win Olympic gold

With Modesto's Erin Cafaro in the bow seat, the U.S. women's 8 rowing team won the gold medal today at the Olympic Games in Beijing. The Americans thwarted the Romanians, winners of the gold in each of the last three Olympiads, who were edged out for the silver medal by the Dutch. "We saw Romania push, we saw Netherlands push, but I think we had an answer," a jubilant Cafaro said.

BEIJING – Not since 1984, at Los Angeles, had the United States won Olympic gold in the women's eight rowing competition.

Sunday, inspired by that 1984 crew, Team USA was once again golden.

From Modesto's Erin Cafaro in the bow seat to coxswain Mary Whipple of Sacramento, the U.S. was a well-oiled machine.

Winners of the last two World Championships, the Americans rowed 2,000 meters in 6 minutes, 5.34 seconds at Shunyi Olympic Rowing-Canoeing Park.

Romania was trying for a fourth consecutive Olympic win in the event, having beaten the U.S. by nearly two seconds at the 2004 Athens Games.

The Netherlands used a furious final 500 meters Sunday to edge Romania by three-hundredths of a second for silver. The Dutch finished 1.88 seconds behind Team USA.

Cafaro brought a little magic from the site of the 1984 Olympic competition.

"We went to Lake Casitas two years ago, I believe, on a training trip," she said. "I bottled a couple bottles of the water from there and I brought it all the way over here. Sprinkled a little bit on everybody’s fingers and legs. I mean, I'm not superstitious or anything – I think (the key) was hard work – but it might have helped a little bit."

Others on the crew were Lindsay Shoop of Charlottesville, Va.; Anna Goodale of Camden, Maine; Elle Logan of Boothbay Harbor, Maine; Anne Cummins of Bellevue, Wash.; Susan Francia of Abington, Pa.; Caroline Lind of Greensboro, N.C.; and Caryn Davies of Ithaca, N.Y.

It was at Princeton, N.J., home of the USRowing Training Center, where the 1984 team became a rallying card for the 2008 rowers.

"Before we left Princeton, we all gathered together at my house and we watched the race. It was very inspiring just to see those women be so cool and resilient and … just pulling through at the last bit," Whipple said. "That's what we kind of envisioned. During the first part of the race where we just wanted to think about us, for what we could do, I made a call for the 1984 girls and 'we're gonna do them proud.' And we just started motoring to the finish line."

And the race was essentially over. Nobody was going to catch Team USA.

Once across the finish line, "it's amazing," Shoop said. "The first thing you want to do is jump out of the boat and jump out of your skin but you don't have enough energy left to do it."

The Dutch team was thrilled, too.

"We knew if we raced a perfect race things were possible,' Marlies Smulders said. "We kept trying really hard until the end and it feels great."

The Romanians didn’t feel so great. Several cried. Most looked stunned.

"Romania has won the gold medal for so many years and we hoped to do the same," Eniko Barabas said. "(But) it's a medal we are happy for."

After Romania came Canada, Great Britain and Australia.

Tom Terhaar, coach of the U.S. women, was asked what makes this eight great.

"They're real strong. Very strong," he said with a grin. "But they've just able to focus on what they need to do. They're very professional, but the most professional group I've ever worked with. No fear. … They came down smiling to the boat house, which was a good sign."

Team USA got out well and, perhaps 150 meters into the race, seized a lead that it would not lose. The Americans led Romania by 98 hundredths of a second at 500, 1.78 seconds at the halfway point and 2.05 at the 1,500 mark.

"It was weird," Cafaro said. "In the first 500, we were up ahead, and we were prepared for anything. We were prepared to be down, prepared to be ahead, and nobody turned their head to another boat.

"We were streamlined. We just looked straight ahead. I can't really remember any other boats out there, to be honest, because it was all about how fast we could go. It was the most beautiful peace."

Once the lead was theirs, Cafaro said, "our goal was to not lose any ground. We just wanted to row our race and we did. We got faster every 500; it felt like we got faster (but) I don't know. It got harder every 500, put it that way."

Whipple knew early on that things were going very, very well.

"I kept looking around and just feeling our length and then speed, and just knowing how commanding it was," Whipple said. "And I just started smiling. Everybody smiled because this was a sweet rhythm. And it just gives them confidence. I mean, I was almost having to be the calming aspect because they were ramping it up, and we just needed to let that Hunter go and just force that rhythm and just let that rhythm go. And it was nice."

The boat was named The Hunter –after the late rowing benefactor Hunter Simpson – as the Americans tracked down the gold.

Cafaro had pictured this over and over.

"I visualized every night that I would be first across the line and I would be able to see everybody in my peripheral vision," she said. "That's the great thing about being in that bow seat. You can see everybody ahead of you and if they were making a move, gosh dang it, I’m gonna make a move harder than that.

"So it was fun. It was fun being back there watching all that unfold. We saw Romania push, we saw Netherlands push, but I think we had an answer."

She planned to celebrate Sunday night with her parents, John and Vian, brother D.J., and best friend/college roommate (at Cal), Erin Hafkenshiel of Sacramento.

D.J. is her biggest fan, she said.

"He's been the one, the voice in the back of my head," Cafaro said. "I think this (medal) is more his than mine. I think it’s all my family's. It's not my medal; I think I share it with a lot of people."

Cafaro says she plans to move back to the San Francisco Bay area, and she'll continue to row. She plans to compete in the 2012 London Olympics, but with plans to put on a few pounds and gain a spot nearer to the middle of the boat.

"I'm ready to put some more work in. I've done extra workouts and I think those last 10 strokes, that’s all you think about: 'you know what, that was the day that I stayed after practice.' … It all adds up.

"And if there’s another athletic girl sitting there in Modesto watching this, that's how I got started. So just try it. You can be out here."

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