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Peter Mallory's Blog


By pmallory - Posted on 24 August 2012

20 August 2012

(To my new friends from Craftsbury Sculling Camp, welcome to my newsletter! Thanks for a wonderful week!)

Au Contraire!

Susan and I have been back in the States from our trip to the London Olympic Rowing for a couple of weeks now, and I have been receiving quite a number of emails from longtime newsletter recipients impatient to receive my personal reactions and reflections, several adding some version of “Too bad about the poor showing of the American crews at Eton-Dorney.” My response? “Au contraire!”

I believe that periodically it is useful to remind ourselves how very extraordinary an accomplishment it is just to make the U.S. Olympic Rowing Team. Most of us only get to watch our rowers and scullers on television during the Olympic Trials or at one of the World Cups or once they get to the Olympics, but even on a big screen in high definition, the sense of context and scale is completely lost.

One cannot see the years of dedicated effort that got them to this exalted level. One cannot see the families . . . or the thousands of other athletes who challenged and supported them and were left behind as each future Olympian slowly made his/her way from the pollywog stage of learning to row, progressing through schools, colleges and clubs to developmental squads, perhaps with intermediate apprenticeships with the Under-23s, to sometimes years of training with the senior National Squad, enduring all, even Olympic Trials. Many began in eights before moving on to pairs and singles, learning watermanship skills unimaginable to them before they were first noticed by the national coaches. None of this is visible on the television screen.

But those of us who were lucky enough to actually be there at Eton-Dorney could see these American heroes and their worthy counterparts from other countries. We could walk right up to them and see the grace under unimaginable pressure with which they carry themselves. We could renew old acquaintances and make some new ones.

But we could also see the psychological weight of expectation the Americans in particular seemed to carry. U.S. fans tend to appreciate Olympic Gold . . . and nothing else!

The joy of the winning American Women’s Eight was exuberant and infectious and well deserved, but for everyone else on the squad in 2012, even our magnificent Olympic finalists and medalists, one seemed to occasionally detect a certain wariness in some of their eyes. There was more than one apology offered to teammates or parents or friends and countrymen when it is we who should be doing the apologizing. These are our knights in shining armor. They did their best, invested everything, risked it all for a shot at a few short minutes flying down the thunderous tunnel of noise that was Eton-Dorney during the Olympic regatta.

What funds did our government invest in our team? Compared to the Brits and the Italians and Germans, pennies to their pounds. Compared to New Zealand, for instance, our athletes were striving for 15 minutes of fame – no, more like 15 minutes of mild interest – compared to life-long national hero status for Kiwi Olympians.

In fact, several 1968 and 1972 New Zealand Olympic Medalists were right at the heart of the boisterous Kiwi cheering section up in the FISA Family & Friends grandstand. Another one of their teammates was down at the launch ramps as the New Zealand head coach.

Photo included in original newsletter: Dudley Storey and NZ Head Coach Dick Tonks, both from the 1972 Olympic Silver Medal Coxless-Four. Dudley also won 1968 Gold in the Coxed-Fours.

These men, heroes to their countrymen, laughed and cheered for everyone, pleased as punch each of the three times a Kiwi boat won Gold, but just as supportive when one of their boats fell a bit short. They cheered for American boats just to share the moment with their lucky friends sitting amongst them, Susan and me. They cheered good rowing across the board, and there was certainly plenty to cheer about, day after day, race after race.

The day after their magnificent win, the Kiwi Men’s Double came into the stands to sit with their families and friends, slightly embarrassed as they showed off their Gold Medals to everyone.

Mahe Drysdale and the Kiwi Men’s Pair seemed equally humble as they in turn were surrounded by their countrymen in the stands the day after their own Gold Medals.

You look at these men, some still in the flower of youth, others comfortable in themselves as old age encroaches, and you realize just how extraordinary an accomplishment being an Olympian is and always has been. Everywhere you turned, there was another inspirational role model. Anita DeFrantz, U.S. 1976 Olympic Bronze Medalist, was handing out medals down below us. Tim McLaren, 1984 Olympic Silver Medalist for Australia, with only a few age lines earned during a quarter century in our sport indicating he was in Dorney coaching the U.S. men and not still competing himself. Australian Drew Ginn adding Olympic Silver at Eton-Dorney 16 years after his first of two Olympic Golds. Elder statesmen like Ekaterina Karsten and Olaf Tufte pushing 40 alongside new young bulls just starting their Olympic careers. A week-long celebration of the Olympic ideal.

The U.S. Team

What did our American team give to us in 2012? Extraordinary passion! Human drama. Some heartbreak for sure.

A crab after 400 meters transformed our men’s quad from medal contender to missing the semi-final. No one will forget that race. From all even . . . in a heartbeat to open water behind . . . back to just a deck from qualifying in a race that seemed like it would last forever with success just beyond their fingertips. Everybody watching was pushing their mental rewind buttons. “Let’s have a do-over!!!” Alas, life is not like that . . . but my admiration for these young men who risked everything with the whole world watching . . . my admiration is boundless. Bow Wes Piermarini, 2 Alexander Osbourne, 3 Peter Graves, Stroke Elliot Hovey.

Who will forget the last 500 for the Two Sara(h)s?

Who will forget the 1500 meter fight-back of Mike Teti's U.S. Men’s Eight?

Real character. Real courage. And what would have happened if they had redrawn the lanes that day, as they would do for all the rest of the finals? But take nothing away from Hartmut Buschbacher's German Men's Eight. They rowed like the champions they are, surviving three monumental charges from the Brits and then a fourth from Mike Spracklen's very determined defending champion from Canada. The Germans, three-time defending World Champions, won that Gold Medal. (Lot of personal friends in that race!)

I was thrilled to identify with all the American boats, each a story of its own, but the Men’s Coxless-Fours race on the final day was truly memorable for me. Britain’s priority boat. Australia’s priority boat. The last time a boat not from one of these two countries won Olympic Gold in the men's coxless-fours was 1988, before the Berlin Wall came down!!! President Reagan was still in office. But as the Olympic final unfolded at Eton-Dorney there were three boats, not just two, separating themselves from the rest of a truly stellar field. The U.S. was right there.

After just four years, Tim McLaren’s program had put itself into the mix against the three-time defending Olympic Champion British jugernaut of Jürgen Grobler. Jurgen’s priority boat, starting for GDR, has won Olympic Gold in every Games he has entered since 1972 – when Richard Nixon was in office! – and he has been assembling Olympic Champion boats for his adopted home country of Great Britain for twenty years now, since 1992! But there they were, Glenn Ochal, Henrik Rummel, Charles Cole and Scott Gault.

The Americans surrendered a length to the Brits in the first 500, but it was basically even the rest of the way. Imagine what another year of maturity will do for the program and for the individual athletes.

The magnificent win by our American Women’s Eight, undefeated since 2006, the superb medal won by the Women’s Quad along with the extraordinary performances by the Women’s Double and Pair, all these separately and together brought pride to their parents and country and universal admiration from followers of rowing from around the world . . . but the overall reaction seemed to be a knowing nod, quiet satisfaction. “Yes, this success comes as no surprise. It is the culmination of years of very hard work superbly executed. They have set a new standard for the world. This is the new normal.”

Not so with the U.S. Men’s Coxless-Four. Not since the 1960 Olympics, when Dwight Eisenhower was the U.S. President, has America won this event that defines elite rowing for much of the rest of the planet! Not since the series of great Penn A.C. Fours of the 1980s and early ‘90s (under 1960 Gold Medalist Ted Nash) has the United States sent their priority men’s boat to battle the world’s best in the men's coxless-fours. The U.S. Olympic Bronze Medal won two weeks ago was not exactly unprecedented, but it surely caught the eye of every knowledgeable onlooker I spoke to at Dorney.

Pish-Posh!

So when somebody says to me “Too bad the Americans didn’t do better,” I say “Au contraire!” I say "Pish-Posh!" They did us proud, they did themselves proud, and they did the sport of rowing proud.

My Greatest Thrill

My greatest thrill? Meeting Giuseppe Moioli and Franco Faggi of the 1948 Olympic Champion Coxless-Four.

Young workers at the Moto Guzzi motorcycle factory in the lake country of Northern Italy during the immediate aftermath of crushing defeat at the end of World War II, these two men and their teammates and coach went on to dominate international rowing for nearly a decade. Even though they went unrecognized by most at Eton-Dorney, they are gods in Italy and they are gods to me, another reminder of how extraordinarily difficult it has always been to become an Olympian.

Shout-Out to the Most Successful Coach

My friend Paul Thompson, British Women and Lightweight Men. OMG!!! You rock, Paul!

Most Memorable Moment

The most memorable moment? The final of the Men's Lightweight Coxless-Fours, arguably the closest field of the regatta, and who should win but South Africa, and just a couple of days before Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday, they were stroked by Sizwe Ndlovu, the first rower of black African descent to ever win Olympic Gold, leading three white countrymen across the finish line.

All of us in the stands felt like pinching ourselves to be sure we weren’t dreaming. We were witnessing true history, a huge symbolic step forward in FISA’s efforts to spread rowing around the world, a true Golden Olympic moment.

Bow James Thompson, 2 Matthew Brittain, 3 John Smith, Stroke Sizwe Ndlovu

Most Poignant

The most poignant moment? The Men’s Lightweight Doubles final.

The top two doubles of the last two years, New Zealand’s Storm Uru and Peter Taylor and Britain’s defending two-time World Champions and 2008 Olympic Champions Mark Hunter and Zac Purchase were expected to battle for Gold. To make it more interesting and nerve-wracking, Purchase had had health and injury problems this spring, indeed for the whole Quadrennial, and as recently as the Munich World Cup they had finished only sixth.

But when these two boats met in the semi-finals at Eton-Dorney, the Brits had powered away in the first 500 to record a resounding win.

Meanwhile, the other semi was won by Denmark’s Rasmus Quist and Mads Rasmussen, the 2006 World Champions who had been just off the pace in the years since.

In the Olympic final, Hunter and Purchase again asserted themselves early. A pattern was being set. Uru and Taylor fell back a ways, but I noticed the Brits never got more than half a length on the Danes. Our Kiwi friends surrounding us in the stands kept hoping that their countrymen would begin to move back, but as the overhead camera paced the field down the course and as the coaches’ bicycle peloton came ever closer to our vantage point around 100 meters from the finish, it became clear that Uru and Taylor were destined only for Bronze. When the Danes made their move with 500 to go, a quick calculation of the eye, watching the field directly, checking the Jumbotron across the course, then again watching them directly, indicated it was going to tighten a bit . . . but the Brits soon stanched the flow, and I relaxed for a moment.

Then the Danes made a second push at 250, and inch by inch they resumed closing the gap.

All that was left was what seemed like an eternity . . . watching the inevitable unfold. The world slowed down as Mark Hunter and Zac Purchase succumbed inch by inch. Time slowed down . . . but not enough. The bowballs were dead even as they crossed the buoy line with 70 meters to go.

And then it was over.

This was personal for me. Mark is a good friend. He has been to our house in Los Angeles. Zero degrees of separation.

Mark and Zac sat past the finish line inert. The Danes were celebrating. Soon the other boats pulled themselves together and moved away to the FISA dock or to the warm-down lanes. The television cameras turned away. Still the Brits remained . . . motionless . . . seemingly in shock . . . Zac crying unreservedly . . . and my heart went out to them both. There are no guarantees in sport . . . and it takes more than skill and talent and fitness and commitment. You have to have luck as well . . . to win even one Olympic Gold Medal, let alone repeat. Even on the awards dock 20 minutes later, their arms surrounded one another, reality only slowly sinking in.

Meanwhile in the stands, I began to think of Rasmussen and Quist, who had suffered as members of the chorus for six years after singing the lead in 2006. Quist, all of 5’8”, climbed his partner like King Kong climbed the Empire State Building.

The stands recovered from the shock and began to warm to this singular triumph of patience and persistence. Sport is cruel. The King is dead. Long live the King.

Even as the Brits still seemed to be sleepwalking, the Bronze Medal Kiwis hugged themselves in relief. Perhaps they were looking forward to the expected retirements of the Gold and Silver Medalists, leaving the stage to New Zealand in the next Quadrennial. Patience and persistence.

During the row-by, the British fans erupted in applause for Mark Hunter and Zac Purchase . . . and Mark was finally smiling. I hear that Zac kept apologizing to Mark for letting him down. No more intense drama would be seen at Eton-Dorney in 2012. I hope Mark and Zac quickly realized how much every person in the stands felt their pain with them. Susan cried. I cried. The people around me cried . . . and they weren’t Brits. This was about sport, not countries.

Mark Hunter, my friend. a Cockney born of waterman stock, a licensed waterman himself, multiple World Champion, Olympic Champion, former Captain of Leander Club. And his young partner, Zac Purchase, World Singles Champion on his own and worth teammate through all kinds of adversity. What a story!

Note to Queen Elizabeth: "Knight these worthy loyal subjects of yours. Please, Your Majesty."