WINDSOR, England — As an 11-year veteran of U.S. rowing, coxswain Mary Whipple has seen plenty of talented women’s eight crews in her time.
The 2002 University of Washington graduate has been the driving force behind five world champion boats and was part of the lineup that won the Olympic title in Beijing in 2008, ending a 24-year wait for the gold.
Still, Whipple said she thinks the crew at the London Games could top them all.
“We are working towards becoming one of the crews that future rowers and teams across all sports look to for inspiration,” she said. “That would be a dream come true.”
Certainly U.S. rowing is looking to them for inspiration when their heats start Sunday.
The women’s eight stand out as the best — and possibly only — chance of U.S. gold at Dorney Lake. They’re undefeated in the past six years, and they slashed their own world-best time by more than a second in a World Cup race in Lucerne, Switzerland, in May.
Six members of the boat that won in Beijing are back for another shot at gold, again led by coach Tom Terhaar, who has helped turn the team into the most fearsome women’s crew in world rowing since he took charge in 2001.
Like Whipple, Terhaar said he thinks the class of 2012 can take the U.S. eight to new levels.
“It was definitely the most talented overall group we’ve had, that I’ve had,” Terhaar said. “The depth from top to bottom was better than in the past. There were athletes that didn’t make the team that would have had a good chance to make it four years ago. There is just so much depth.”
Issuing instructions under overcast skies, Terhaar was at a muggy Dorney Lake on Friday as his crew took part in its penultimate practice before the heats, when the eight will be up against Germany, Britain and Australia.
That meant the U.S. avoided Canada, which is in the other heat (along with the Netherlands and Romania) and is regarded as the Americans’ closest challengers. Canada lost to them by only three hundredths of a second in Lucerne.
That result didn’t just keep the U.S. unbeaten run intact. It also ensured complacency wouldn’t creep into the crew ahead of what is sure to be a gripping final.
“It’s going to be a barnburner,” said Whipple, who got a master’s degree in Intercollegiate Athletic Leadership at UW in 2010. “This is what’s driving us, the challenge and the excitement of competing with this field.
“I don’t feel invincible, I feel lucky to have this chance. Rowing is a humbling sport, you have to put in the work every day. When I get in the boat, all my energy is focused on giving it my all, my heart in it every time.”
Terhaar settled on his lineup only last month, with Erin Cafaro and Eleanor Logan returning to the eight after a successful trial as a pair. They even came close to doubling.
“This could be one of the greatest rowing races of the regatta, and it’s awesome to think that I will have the best seat in the house,” said Whipple, who had an internship with the Tyee Club, the primary fundraising arm for UW athletics.