RIO DE JANEIRO – On Friday, Buffalo’s Emily Regan watched on TV in the room of her coxswain, Katelin Snyder, while her U.S. teammates, Grace Luczak and Felice Mueller, rowed in the pairs final.
Luczak and Mueller, who had been favored to medal, came in fourth. Regan broke down crying.
“As a team, we go through so much together,” Regan said, “and you want your teammates to do so well. When they have a heartbreak, you feel like you have a heartbreak, too.”
That’s one of the reasons the U.S. women’s national team has been so successful under her fellow Buffalo native, Tom Terhaar. The women compete against one another in workouts and root for one another in the big meets.
When one suffers, they all do. But Regan quickly composed herself. Her sadness and anxiety faded, replaced by appreciation for the opportunity ahead, a chance to row in the fabulous women’s eight and come through for the entire national team.
So Regan was calm and confident just after 10 o’clock on Saturday morning before the start of the women’s eight final on Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas, the magnificent rowing venue in Rio de Janeiro, sitting below the mountains on the southern edge of the city.
After 10 long, hard years of training, after all the pressure and buildup, Regan settled in the bow of the sport’s most dominant boat for her first Olympic final, the biggest race of her life.
Up near the course line, in the first row of the grandstands right behind the medal podium, her supporters waited: Her parents, Larry and Barb Regan; her grandmother, Vera; her aunt Maureen; her siblings, Will, Jim and Kelly; Jim’s fiancée, Haley, and Kelly’s boyfriend, Pat, plus two of her former Michigan State teammates and another Spartan fan.
Rowing is an odd spectator sport. You can’t see the start from the stands and fans follow much of the race on a video screen, which has arrows that indicate where the six boats are in the race.
“They’re off,” said Larry Regan, who has followed his daughter all over the world and become a bit of an expert on the sport.
There were chants of “Go New Zealand” from the crowd of Kiwis sitting near the Americans. There were cries of “Go Canada” as the Canadian team moved into an early lead.
The U.S. eight started slowly and was in third place at the 500-meter mark. Halfway, at 1,000 meters, they were still slightly behind, which was unusual. By that time, they’re generally in control of the race.
“Before the race, we knew there were teams that would go out ahead and challenge us and see how we respond when we’re down,” Regan said later. “The strength of our team is internal.
“We go through so many challenges throughout the year,” she said, “but because of the depth of our team, we’re used to being in that situation, where we’re down and have to stay calm and do what we can. So I had total trust in our boat. You just feel the boat moving.”
Sure enough, the Americans made their move at the halfway point. Snyder, who became an assured leader as a first-time coxswain, yelled, “We are the United States national team!” Then they began to surge.
There had been a palpable nervousness in the U.S. crowd early in the race. Larry Regan stood impassively, staring at the video board. When the U.S. nudged ahead, the American fans began chanting “USA! USA!”
As the boat moved ahead by half a length, Aunt Maureen thrust her arms in the air. Larry still hadn’t moved. The U.S. hit the 1,500 mark, fully in view and in control of the race. The place was a din of USA chants.
Finally, Larry turned to the water and began chanting, too. The U.S. crossed the line in 6:01.49, 2.49 seconds ahead of runner-up Great Britain. Romania, the bane of the U.S. when it was winning three straight Olympic golds from 1996 to 2004, settled for bronze in 6:04.10.
So the boat that was dubbed “The Unbeatables” by Sports Illustrated remained so for another year, winning its third consecutive gold medal and extending its amazing winning streak to 11 races over 11 years. It was also the 998th all-time gold in American Olympic history.
“I can now breathe!” Barbara Regan said seconds after the finish. “I am just so thrilled. She was the first one over the line.”
Emily rowed in the bow seat, so yes, she was technically the first over the finish line, though she wasn’t even aware at the time.
“I didn’t realize we crossed the finish line,” Regan said. “I saw Katelin’s hands go up, or I heard something in the stern and I realized we did it. I was so overcome.”
She was crying, only for a good reason. A few minutes later, she arrived in the mixed zone where athletes meet the media after a competition, and she burst into tears again.
“It’s OK, I’m just so happy,” she said. “Oh, my gosh, it’s just been such a long week. To do this for our entire team, not just our boat, because everybody has pushed us to get here.”
Until Saturday, the U.S. hadn’t won a single rowing medal, men’s or women’s. But Gevvie Stone, an aspiring orthopedic surgeon, won silver in the women’s singles sculls in the race before the eights, which set a positive tone.
As usual, the eight – the coxswain Snyder, stroke Amanda Elmore, Eleanor Logan, Meghan Musnicki, Tessa Gobbo, Lauren Schmetterling, Amanda Polk, Kerry Simmonds and Regan – was ready to seize the day. Regan said it’s an amazing feeling in the bow, never more so than when it took off in the final.
“You can feel the boat just lift out of the water and surge forward,” she said. “You can feel the boat just picking up and flying in the bow seat.”
She flew right into Buffalo sports history. Regan became the first local rower ever to win an Olympic gold medal. That had to make the West Side Rowing Club, which has sent many rowers to the Games – and produced a coaching icon in Terhaar – exceedingly proud.
“It’s a huge, huge relief,” Regan said. “It’s hard to put it into words, because there’s so much work that goes in. For the 10 years I’ve been rowing to come to this, it’s kind of a release of everything, so much excitement. I feel so fortunate, so blessed, so amazed.”
The medal ceremony was held right in front of the stands where her friends and family were sitting. As the national anthem was playing, one of Regan’s teammates pointed up to the Christ the Redeemer statue, visible high above the rowing venue.
Regan thought of all the training with the national team, how she’d faltered in 2014 and realized she had more to give. It was the example of the other women that helped her find a higher competitive level.
The women’s eight made it clear that everyone on the national team, even the ones who didn’t get here, had a piece of this medal. Musnicki, a second-time Olympian, corrected a reporter who thought Snyder said, “We are the United States eight” when she urged the boat on at 1,000 meters.
“She told us we were part of the U.S. women’s team,” Musnicki said. “That’s been the definition of us this whole quad, pulling together as a unit, all 30-plus of us who went through the whole four years of training. It’s an honor to be part of such an amazing group of women. Every single one of them is rooting for you and has your back.”
Regan said the gold medal is for all of them. She couldn’t believe how heavy it was. But then, it was no heavier than the weight the women carried into the Olympics, an 11-year winning streak and the high expectations that came along with it.
At the end of a difficult week for U.S. rowing, the women’s eight rose to the challenge yet again. Maybe they’re not unbeatable, but they’re as tough and resilient a boat as the sport has ever seen.