When the shell crossed the finish line first, Steven Coppola could only slump over his oar. He was a world champion, yes, but he also was exhausted.
Coppola and his American teammates in the men's eight heavyweight had to battle challenges from the Russians early then hold off the surging Italians and Germans to win the gold medal at the World Rowing Championships in Japan in early September.
Coppola, a former standout at Canisius High School and West Side Rowing, was the youngest member of the crew, at age 21, and its only collegian -- he's a senior at Princeton.
"There were four guys in our boat who were on the last Olympic squad," Coppola said. "At first, it took some getting used to, but I realized quickly they were regular guys and they were a lot of fun to be around."
They spent only about a month together before the competition and entered without racing in one of the warm-up international events. Then, when they arrived in Japan, a typhoon was scheduled to make landfall, postponing their on-water training.
The storm passed harmlessly, allowing the Americans to get back to work. They won their heat, sending them straight to the finals Sept. 4. Those first 500 meters were incredibly choppy, in large part from the boats carrying television cameras that were trying to get back into position to film the race.
The U.S. crew took the lead with the Russian boat charging hard. As the Russians started to fade, the Italians and Germans made it a fight. The Italian boat, known for its very strong sprints, gave a final charge, but the United States held on, winning wire-to-wire in 5:22.75, 1.26 seconds ahead of Italy.
"Crossing the finish line was really a complete blur," Coppola said. "All I can really remember is how choppy the first 500 meters were. Other than that, I was just pulling. Other people have asked me what our coxswain said to motivate us. Honestly, I have no idea what he said. I was just pulling as hard as I could."
"It's an amazing feeling to be able to represent my country in the highest level of sport," Coppola told Princeton for a story on its Web site, "especially after winning and seeing 'Old Glory' being raised high and hearing our national anthem being played over the loud speaker. I think it will be a memory that I will carry for the rest of my life."
The gold medal is the highlight of Coppola's resume. In 2004, he won a bronze medal in the four with coxswain at the 2004 FISA World Championships. Last year with Princeton, he finished second in the varsity eight at the Intercollegiate Rowing Association championships and at the 2005 Eastern Sprints.
Coppola wants his world championship experience to be a springboard for the 2008 Olympics. His goal is to be in the mix for the team as he finishes college.
Meanwhile, his summer vacation renewed his sporting spirit. The lessons he learned came not from the physical preparation for the championships or even what he gleaned from his accomplished teammates.
"I learned that you've got to make sure you still have fun in the sport," Coppola said. "It can't be all business or you'll never make it. You have to remember to have fun. When you're trying to stick with a sport, you have to enjoy what you're doing, especially in rowing where the material gains aren't that great."