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U.S. Men Return to Top

Eight-member team wins first gold in 40 years, leading to an emotional celebration by New Jersey fireman. U.S. women take silver.

August 23, 2004|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

SCHINIAS, Greece — For five days Jason Read worked search and rescue in the rubble of the World Trade Center. From midnight on Sept. 11, 2001 until Sept. 16, Read, a fire chief and emergency medical technician for a New Jersey fire department, looked for survivors first and then for bodies to give back to families.

On Sept. 17, 2001, Read rowed. He rowed to get rid of his anger, his despair, his sadness, the ache in his heart and in his body.

Sunday, Read begged for an American flag after the U.S. men's eight won its first gold medal in 40 years with a powerful trip over 2,000 meters in brutal heat and after an exuberant celebration in a skinny shell.

A fan hurdled a barrier and plowed into the lake while holding aloft an American flag and swimming it to the crew. Read took it, waved it, cherished it.

"I am the proudest man in the world," Read said. "It means so much to me to hold up that flag."

When he was standing on the medal podium Sunday, Read said, he looked at the flag and saw redemption. He also saw the pain his country suffered nearly three years ago.

"I remember so vividly the flag that was raised on the West Side Highway," Read said, "because for six days that was our compass. When we were in the rubble, it was so disorienting and when I'd be totally lost I'd see the flag on the West Side Highway. That'd keep me going. It kept me going today."

It was a day of emotional triumphs for the U.S. rowing team and for a Greek lightweight double. The U.S. men redeemed themselves after finishing fifth in 2000, when they were heavy favorites. The Netherlands won the silver and Australia took the bronze.

The U.S. women's eight hadn't won a medal since receiving a gold at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles. They couldn't push past the Romanians, who won their third straight Olympic gold and got 39-year-old Elisabeta Lipa her fifth Olympic gold, but beat the Netherlands for silver.

These 2004 rowers received flowers and a vial of water from Lake Casitas, where the Olympic competition took place 20 years ago, as good-luck talismans from their predecessors. Back then the women's race was 1,000 meters. Now it's 2,000 meters, same as the men.

"We're so proud," said Anna Mickelson, the No. 7 seat. "I think we've done a great thing."

Before the two glamour events, a sold-out crowd of 10,000 was rewarded when the Greek men's lightweight doubles team of Nikolaos Skiathitis and Vasileios Polymeros earned bronze in a photo finish over Denmark.

But for Read, the gold medal held special meaning.

Read was 23 on Sept. 11, the youngest fire captain ever in Ringoes, N.J. He was a hard worker who was attending graduate school at Temple and trying to make the U.S. national rowing team. He arrived at the World Trade Center about midnight. He said he will never forget the moment.

"I stopped and I thought, 'I've just seen thousands of my countrymen murdered,' and I never want to have that feeling again," Read said.

His coach, Mike Teti, said for the next year Read struggled in his sport and in his life.

"Jason had his worst season ever," Teti said. "He was a young man who was struggling to process what he went through. I think he labored every day."

Read said he couldn't sleep for more than a few hours a night for several months.

"There was the anthrax scare, there were the nightmares of digging through that rubble, you know?" he said. "When I look at it now, I realize I did my best as an athlete when I was doing the best in my life, during the semesters in school when I'd get my best grades. How could I do my best when I had seen the worst there was? I couldn't."

The last time a U.S. men's eight won gold was in 1964. Before then, it had won 11 of the previous 15 Olympic eight golds.

"I'll never get over 2000," said Teti, who was coach of that eight as well. "I can't make up to the guys on the Sydney crew for us losing, for my mistakes. But this feels amazing. It's a huge monkey off our backs."

Pete Cipollone, the coxswain -- the smallest man of the crew who doesn't row but who calls out the strokes, cadences and strategy -- wore the olive wreath given to all winners as well as his gold medal.

"I studied my history," said Cipollone, 33. "I know that in ancient times the wreath was your prize for winning. Now it's the gold medal. So I'm not taking off the wreath, I'm not taking off the medal until they throw me out of the country or into jail."

The U.S. men had named their boat after Rusty Wailes, a member of the 1956 gold-medal eight who recently died. It was a gesture of respect. So was winning the gold, Read said.

"I hope this can mean something to the families who lost loved ones on Sept. 11," Read said. "I think of those families all the time. To me there's no greater privilege than to represent America with all that's going on in the world and all that has gone on. I've changed from that day. I hope I'm a better person. I know I'm a better athlete because I've learned to push on through anything."

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