A WEEK BEFORE the U.S. rowers left for Beijing, Mary Whipple, the wispy coxswain of the women's eight crew, invited her boatmates to her house in Princeton, N.J., to watch a video. Whipple popped in a tape of the women's eights race from the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, where the U.S. won its only Olympic gold in the event by holding off the favored Romanians. She noted the fire in her teammates' eyes as they viewed the performance, and filed the memory away.
On Sunday, as the U.S. women's eight was again trying to outpull Romania, the three-time defending Olympic champion, Whipple thought back to that moment. Just 250 meters into the 2,000-meter race, her squad had already built a two-seat lead in the boat the women call the Hunter. "We're doing this!" Whipple shouted, trying to fire up her teammates as the tape had that night. "Steady!" At 500 meters, with the lead up to four seats, she implored, "Pick it up! Let the Hunter go!" The crew did just that, using the same strategy that the U.S. men's eight did four years earlier when it stunned the field in a wire-to-wire win in Athens. At 1,000 meters, with the lead up to six seats—nearly two full seconds—Whipple broke out the verbal artillery. "Eighty-four!" she shouted. "Remember 1984!"
"That was the perfect reminder, the perfect call-out," said Caroline Lind, the team's number 7 seat. "We knew we were taking a chance going out so hard like the guys [did] last time, but we were inspired by what those women accomplished before us, and we didn't want to be shut out."
By finishing in 6:05.34, holding off both the Netherlands (6:07.22) and Romania (edged for silver by .03 of a second), the women's eight crew snared the U.S.'s only rowing gold of these Games. A day earlier, Michelle Guerette couldn't overcome a five-second deficit in the single sculls, settling for silver, .44 of a second behind Bulgaria's Rumyana Neykova. And on Sunday, minutes after watching the women's gold medal showing, the U.S. men's eight took bronze behind Canada and Great Britain, missing silver by .23 of a second.
"We don't have superstars," says Anna Goodale, the women's eight's number 3 seat. "We're not a superstar sport. We're a great example of a real team exceeding the sum of ordinary parts."
That could certainly describe Goodale, who as a clumsy, overweight child was homeschooled on a Maine sheep farm until age nine. She had never even considered the sport before her father, Nat, suggested it might help her get into college if she noted on her application that she wanted to row. Goodale went to Syracuse, where she majored in illustration, and fell for the sport's camaraderie. "My confidence shot up once I started rowing," said the 6-foot, 180-pound Goodale, trailed by 14 relatives on her way out of Shunyi Olympic Park. "It's like a second family. Success is based on your ability to be in sync, to come together as a team. Those moments off the water have made us stronger on the water." Future U.S. female rowers now have another source of strength.