The waiting was the hardest part, a cocktail of hope and anxiety. Imagine how it must feel, after four long years of striving, to arrive at that final day of team selection and find out, at long last, if you’re an Olympian.
“The entire week before selection, you’re not sleeping,” Emily Regan said recently. “You’re stressing out, analyzing what’s happening in the boats and what switches are being made. It’s just very stressful and you’re, like, sick to your stomach the whole day.”
Regan, a Buffalo native, said she had the chills and was holding the hand of one of her teammates, coxswain Katelin Snyder, as they awaited word at the USA Rowing training site in Princeton, N.J., on June 20.
The news Regan was nervously awaiting came late that afternoon, when national women’s head coach Tom Terhaar summoned the nine women – Snyder and the eight rowers – who would compete in the prestigious American eight at the Olympics next month in Rio de Janeiro.
She had made it, in the eight, the glamour boat. Regan had been cautiously optimistic all along. After all, she had been in the eight when it won gold at the World Championships in 2013 and ’15. At 28, she was at her physical peak as a rower.
Still, you could never be too sure in rowing, where coaches can do some strange things when putting together Olympic boats. And Terhaar, a Buffalo native and St. Joe’s graduate, has put together the deepest and most competitive squad of female rowers in this nation’s history.
That’s what Terhaar told the members of this year’s eight when he called them into an upstairs room of the boathouse for a meeting after naming the Olympic team.
“He congratulated us and told us this was the hardest team there’s ever been to make,” Regan said. “And it was kind of a briefing about what to expect going forward.”
That was no ordinary boat she made. The U.S. women’s eight is the most dominant in the sport, a rowing dynasty. It has not lost a major international race since 2005. Terhaar’s eight has won 10 straight major races, including the last two Olympics.
Terhaar, a modest man and reluctant interview, credits the talent pool for his success. Never mind that the women’s program turned around as soon as he took over 15 years ago. But all that talent allows him to keep his athletes humble and honest, aware that no one’s position is too safe.
Regan figured she would get a spot in some Olympic boat. But she really wanted to be in the eight and said it was a huge relief to be chosen. She wasn’t prepared for the outpouring of attention that followed. When you’re an Olympian, your life changes almost instantly.
“I’m not sure overwhelming is the right word,” said Regan. “But I was contacted by so many people. I received so many cards in the mail. My phone was blowing up. Every time I went onto social media, Facebook or something, I would have like 30 notifications.
“You want to thank everybody,” said Regan, a graduate of the Nichols School and Michigan State, “but there’s so many you can’t personally thank them.”
She’s competed all over the world, in Slovenia, Switzerland and South Korea, but you never know how unique it is to be an Olympian until it happens.
“Yeah, you have absolutely no idea,” she said. “I haven’t been to the Olympics yet, but even in the leadup in the past month since our team was named, it’s been so much different than making a World Championship team. It’s a ton of media, which would never happen for the worlds.
“Also, the sense of relief and the stress that’s lifted off your shoulders is totally different from making the World Championship team,” Regan said. “That’s super exciting, but you still have the Olympics looming in the future as your ultimate goal – and this is the ultimate goal.”
In modern rowing, winning in the women’s eight is the ultimate. The U.S. team is seeking to extend its amazing streak and equal Romania’s run of three straight Olympic gold medals from 1996 to 2004. They used to say the Americans weren’t tough enough to hang with the Romanians. No more.
Like the U.S. women’s basketball and soccer teams, Terhaar’s eight is now the envy of the world. Next month on the waters of Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas, the U.S. women will be a huge favorite to win a third straight gold. It would be a record fourth Olympic gold since the event was added in 1976.
Suddenly, the female rowers are national celebrities, with the expectations that come with it. The eight were featured in last week’s Olympic preview in Sports Illustrated. There’s a photo of the nine women over two pages, with the headline, “The Unbeatables.” That sets the bar pretty high.
“I think it’s awesome that women’s rowing is getting the attention it is,” Regan said. “I know it’s focused on the women’s eight, but we wouldn’t be as fast in our boat if we didn’t have the entire team we have – including all 10 to 15 people who didn’t make the Olympic team.”
With a 10-year streak comes pressure. You’re only The Unbeatables until someone better comes along and knocks you off your perch.
“People keep wanting to call it pressure,” she said, “but I think everyone goes in with the same expectations at the Olympics. Everyone wants to win. So that’s not unique to our team.
“The nine of us were talking yesterday. The gold medal is never handed to anybody. We’re doing our best to just be the best we can be on race day. That means every single day trying to be better and better as a crew.”
The American rowers believe there’s no competition more fierce than what goes on within their own national program. The pressure is constant and tends to humble a person. Regan said she’s lost more races than she can count against her teammates – more than 90 percent, she figures.
The word will get to the other countries. Unbeatable? They’ll want to show the U.S. ladies a thing or two. You can see that SI spread finding its way onto some rowing bulletin boards between now and the start of women’s rowing in Brazil on Aug. 8.
Regan’s father, Larry, knows a thing or two about athletes and motivation. He played college basketball at St. Lawrence and had four athletic children – three who were basketball stars and now one Olympic rower.
“There’s obviously a lot of hype on that boat,” said Larry Regan, who has spent a lot of time around the national team since Emily joined. “I would imagine with how hard they train and how focused Tom keeps them that they’ll put down one of their best, if not the best, race all season.
“If someone actually beat them, God bless whoever can do it.”