Caryn Davies (top middle) with the 2008 Olympic championship team
In rowing, the American women are the dominant force in the glamour event, the eights. When the women from Team USA settle in their barracuda-like 9-meter shell in a world final, they do so as winners of 12 of the past 13 world and Olympic championships.
But in 2004, at the Athens Summer Olympics, that was not the case. Caryn Davies was a college student, and many of her teammates on that rowing team were also in their twenties. In the case of rowing, particularly today, experience is highly valued, and teams composed of rowers in their thirties or forties are not uncommon. But the 2004 team had . And a tailwind.
In a dramatic throwing-down-of-the-gauntlet, the crew burst out at the start and held off the Romanian boat in the first heat to set a world record time of 5:56:55 in the 2,000-meter race. Back on the dock, when a reporter informed the boat that they had broken the world record, one of Davies’ teammates blurted out on live television, “Holy shit, we did?”
In the finals, the powerful Romanians were ready for the hard-charging Americans. Despite the Americans holding a narrow lead at the 1000-meter mark, the Romanians pushed past them and held on for gold.
Athens was a learning experience and a launch pad for success. Davies became part of a core group of athletes that stayed intact through the next few years, winning gold at the world championships in 2006 and 2007 before lining up for the finals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
“We had more experience as a boat, as the core had been rowing together since 2006,” Davies told me. “It was around that time that we saw a shift in the composition of the national team. Leading up to 2004, most athletes came directly from college, and there was a lot of turnover. After 2004, athletes stuck around for years after college. We had more confidence in our ability to respond to competition.”
Determined to win, they dedicated their pursuit of gold to the 1984 women’s eight, which were the last American women to win gold. Channeling the spirit of the women of ’84, the American eight started off with a slight lead, and gradually widened the gap, pulling away from the Romanians. At the halfway point of 1,000 meters, coxswain Mary Whipple called for an extra 20 stroke-long effort, a move dedicated to the team from 1984.
Davies is the stroke, the technically consistent rower who sits in front of the coxswain and sets the tempo for the other seven. She could clearly see how far ahead of the others her boat was. But even in the last few hundred meters, she believed that anything could happen, even the worst.
“In the last 250 meters, a little fear started setting in for me personally,” she said. “By that point in the race, I had driven myself into the ground. My technique was breaking down, and I knew that if it had been me alone in the boat, we would have been going backwards. Thankfully my teammates were there to carry me across the line. There is a photo of me just as we cross the finish line where I am looking to the side with utter terror in my eyes. In that moment I was thinking, ‘That had better be the finish line, because one of two things is going to happen in the next few strokes: either we’re going to cross the finish line, or I’m going to pass out.”
She did not pass out. She and her teammates crossed the finish line first.
Spent, her teammates made efforts to smile and cheer. But Davies’s head was down, bent over exhausted. Whipple crawls over the stroke seat rigger to Davies and embraces her. The women from the US were Olympic champions: the first of three consecutive Olympic championship crews in a row that would cement this team’s dominant place in sports history.