RIO DE JANEIRO — Just when the U.S. women’s eight needed it the most on Saturday, when other crews threatened to pull away and win the Olympic gold medal, coxswain Katelin Snyder shouted something special into her headset. Her voice echoed inside the Americans’ 60-foot shell.
The words were meant to make the rowers pull harder, to make the U.S. eight surge ahead. They were supposed to remind the rowers that they could push through the searing pain in their legs and lungs, and push through it together, because they had done it so many times before.
Snyder said, “This is the U.S. women’s eight!”
Hold it. That was it?
That was the inspirational phrase Snyder chose at a crucial moment in the 2,000-meter race, not long after her eight had crossed the 1,000-meter mark in third place? Sounds kind of flat. Like, no kidding: The rowers knew which boat they were in.
But in those words, there was brilliance.
Snyder wasn’t shouting nonsense. She was reminding her rowers, and those in the boats around them, that a legend was on the course. Make way!
Going into the final on Saturday, the U.S. women’s eight had won every major international race for a decade. Two Olympic gold medals. Every world championship gold since 2006. The Americans had won with a different lineup every time, too.
Rowing gets little attention outside the Olympics, but the U.S. women’s streak is astonishing. Saturday’s victory gave the team its 11th straight major title.
When Snyder said, “This is the U.S. women’s eight,” her words carried a deep meaning.
Her rowers were inspired.
In the stroke seat, Amanda Elmore could feel a spark of electricity travel down the boat.
“I guess we were going now,” Elmore said. “It was all such a blur.”
In the bow seat, Emily Regan could feel her end of the boat rise, as if the whole shell were taking flight.
“It was like I wasn’t even touching the water,” she said.
When the Americans won in London four years ago, they led from start to finish. Not Saturday. Here, with the Christ the Redeemer statue towering in the distance, the team won its third Olympic gold in a row, but this time it had a race on its hands.
The rowers were not surprised by the difficulty. They’re pragmatists; they know their streak can’t last forever.
“There was all the outside chatter that we haven’t lost and that we were supposed to win and had to win,” said Meghan Musnicki, the six seat, one of only two returning rowers from the gold-medal-winning boat in London. “That could be pretty overwhelming. But we put that aside and said, ‘Let’s do this; let’s do this for each other.’”
And they did.
Snyder kept saying: “Believe! Believe!” She led the United States to the finish line in 6 minutes, 1.49 seconds, nearly 2.5 seconds ahead of Britain, which won silver. The Romanians took the bronze.
Even for a dynasty, the racing was agonizing.
Elmore said she had blacked out with 300 meters to go and didn’t remember a thing afterward. She didn’t recall letting go of her oar as they crossed the finish line or seeing Snyder smack the water with her hands, sending water splashing high into the air. All Elmore remembered was downing a Coke and a Snickers bar at the dock. She needed them so she wouldn’t pass out, she said.
Later, the British rowers said the Americans had been so dominant because of the strength of their collegiate rowing system. When the British visited the University of Washington’s boathouse a few years ago, they thought the training center was better than anything they had back home.
The Romanians said the Americans’ dominance made sense.
“If we could have half of what the USA has, we could have the same results,” said Roxana Cogianu, the bow seat, explaining that the Romanians had only 10 women from whom to choose their team of eight.
The Americans had about 28 women to choose from, said Tom Terhaar, the U.S. coach. That depth, Terhaar said, is what makes his team so formidable.
Others say, and I say, that Terhaar has something to do with it, too. Mary Whipple, the coxswain who won two Olympic golds with the team before the Rio Games, called Terhaar “the backbone and the quiet orchestrator of this legacy.”
Terhaar, 46, has coached the team since 2001. He often deflects praise for the team’s success.
On Saturday, he praised his rowers, like Eleanor Logan, for making him look good. Logan now has three Olympic gold medals.
“Elle is incredible; she sets the standard,” Terhaar said of Logan, who has the team’s best score on the ergometer, or rowing machine, which coaches use to gauge athletes’ fitness. “She may have lost one erg piece in three years.”
Terhaar added: “I got in at the right time. I’ve got great athletes to work with.”
In Rio, though, Terhaar and his assistant coach, Laurel Korholz, had to work harder than usual. Because the water in the lagoon was polluted and could possibly make rowers sick, the coaches scrubbed each oar handle and washed down the boat after every row. They even made sure the rowers’ uniforms were extra clean, race after race.
So everybody on the team played a role in keeping the U.S. winning streak alive. It’s just that the rowers and the coxswain celebrated with the most panache.
As it turns out, a dynasty celebrates just like any other winning crew. Following the sport’s tradition, the rowers tossed Snyder into the water — the putrid lagoon water — and her entire body submerged.
She came up dripping wet, not cringing, but smiling.
“I earned it,” Snyder said before correcting herself. “We earned it.”