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American Eights Founder in Finals

Rowing: High expectations go unmet as men finish fifth and women last in six-boat fields.


PENRITH, Australia — The rhythm was gone.

That nearly spiritual way eight men can use an oar to make a skinny shell move silently, easily through the water just went away this week.

The U.S. men's eight, the glamour boat in rowing, had come to the Olympics as the three-time defending world champions and heavy favorites to win the gold.

They left a badly beaten fifth place. They left distraught, depressed and totally confused. Where their synchronicity had gone, where their strength and confidence had disappeared to, not one of them could say.

"It's been a bad week," said three-time Olympian Bob Kaehler of Holland, Pa. "There will be a lot of soul searching going on with this team. For three years we did everything right. For one week here we seemed to do everything wrong."

Great Britain was the surprising gold medalist with a time of 5 minutes 33.08 seconds. Cheered on by the roaring crowd, Australia rowed from behind to take the silver in 5:33.88, and Croatia won the bronze in 5:34.85.

The U.S. women's eight's performance was nearly as disappointing. While the Romanians were heavy favorites and did win the gold, the U.S. women had high hopes of a medal. Instead the Americans came in an exhausted sixth in the six-boat finals. Three of the women were nearly unconscious. They stretched out, twitching, on the ground. Medical personnel worked on Katie Maloney, who is from Seattle, for five minutes.

The U.S. team had been the only one to qualify for all 14 rowing events. The team hadn't won a gold since the boycotted 1984 Games but the team had arrived at windy, foggy Penrith confident the men's eight would change that.

But the Americans won only two bronze medals and a silver, their worst showing since 1972.

The lone bright spot Sunday was the bronze medal won by Sarah Garner of Madison, Wis., and Christine Collins of Darien, Conn. After leading for half of the race, the two faded at the end but hung on for bronze in the lightweight doubles scull. Romania won the gold and Germany the silver.

During the awards ceremony, Collins shrugged, smiled and mouthed the words "Oh, well."

The men in the eight couldn't say much of anything.

"This boat has been searching for something for the last month," head Coach Mike Teti said. "Maybe it was just bad timing. At the worst possible moment we ran into some problems with this boat."

Said eights member Jeff Klepacki: "I don't know what was wrong. This is just a very discouraging finish. We wanted to make a breakthrough and gain some support for our sport back home. This isn't going to do it."

Amy Fuller, a 32-year-old veteran from Westlake Village and a member of the women's eights, could barely muster words to describe her disappointment. "I thought this boat had a chance to take a medal," said Fuller, a 10-time national champion.

Linda Miller of Alexandria, Va., reflecting on why so many of her teammates were stretched flat on the ground, said: "It's the agony of defeat. We are definitely feeling it. This boat felt great all summer. We're at a real loss."

The men echoed that sentiment.

"We had a good run for a while," Porter Collins of Darien, Conn., said. "We don't know what happened. The wheels came off and we don't know why. This hurts a lot. You don't know how much it hurts."

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