Zac Purchase and Mark Hunter won gold in the lightweight double sculls yesterday as Great Britain enjoyed their most successful Olympic regatta for a century and finished top of the rowing medals table. Their final tally of two golds, two silver and two bronze – which saw them finish above Australia – was completed on a dramatic day of contrasting emotions.
Purchase and Hunter ended their unbeaten season with Britain's first British Olympic lightweight medal. They were briefly led by the Italians, but commanded their own fate as usual, from the front with focus and panache. Purchase didn't have to draw his partner's attention to anything during the race. "The only call I remember making was at about 400 metres to go I shouted 'Gold'," he said. At the end, said Hunter, "Everything was burning and I was in a dark place, but I came out the other side of it smiling."
At the other end of the emotional spectrum, China won their first rowing medal yesterday, leaving the British women's quad dead in the water. Katherine Grainger drove her crew into the lead and controlled the race, the Chinese on one side and the Germans on the other, until the last 300 metres. Every move the Chinese made was answered until this point, but then the British crew was drained of its last drop of adrenaline.
Of the dozen British boats, the women's quad carried the most fervent hope of gold. Many would have sacrificed all the other medals for the first gold for a British women's crew. For Annie Vernon, Debbie Flood, Fran Houghton and Katherine Grainger, this was a gold medal lost, not a silver medal gained. They stayed on the water motionless, physically shattered and emotionally crumpled.
Sydney eight years ago and Athens four years ago had the same result for the quad, except that both occasions were joyous. Grainger won her first silver in the Sydney quad and her second in a pair in Athens. The third makes her the only British woman across Olympic sports to win medals at three consecutive games. "We think she's the best in the world," said her mother Liz at the emotional family reunion, "but silvers don't get any better." Her daughter faced the press bravely: "I'm really proud of what I've done. I'm just disappointed with the medal we got, that's all.
The men's eight were persuaded that gold was in reach by their smouldering performance in the heats. In the final, however, they did not get it quite right, and the Canadians stole enough of a lead to answer whatever was thrown at them. So there was some disappointment to cloud the remarkable progress that this eight has made since Mark Banks and John West jointly took over their coaching. "If there's any justice," said cox Acer Nethercott, "they should get medals as well." Alex Partridge, the bow man in the eight who had the misfortune to lose his seat in the Athens coxless four four years ago and the Beijing coxless four four months ago, said: "We've just won an Olympic silver medal, and I just rowed in the most enjoyable crew I ever rowed in, the best nine guys and the best two coaches. I couldn't ask for a better Olympic experience."
Saturday saw two bronzes followed by glorious gold for the coxless four. Stroke Andy Hodge likes to establish a lead as soon as possible, but this time the crew had to dance to Australia's tune for a long way. Hodge left it tantalisingly late to wind up the charge for the line, but Tom James, Steve Williams – the only man remaining from the Athens champion four – and Pete Reed went with him, and they completed a hat-trick in coxless fours which had begun in Sydney.
The double scullers Elise Laverick and Anna Bebington had the best race of their lives, winding up to a jet-propelled finish that would have had yesterday's Chinese quad begging for mercy. It certainly worried the Evers-Swindell twins, Georgina and Caroline, of New Zealand, who retained their Athens Olympic title by 1/100th after catching Annekatrin Thiele and Christiane Huth, of Germany. Laverick and Bebington, who spent the first half of the year being ill or injured, finished a fifth of a second later. Another stroke may have put them in front.
Matt Wells and Stephen Rowbotham followed this with a bronze that was almost silver in the men's event. The sculler Alan Campbell was not strong enough to stay with the single sculls leaders. Olaf Tufte, of Norway, won his second Olympic title, followed by Ondrej Synek, of the Czech Republic, and Drysdale. The lightweight coxless four and the women's eight finished fifth, the latter with two substitutes in yesterday's final due to Natasha Howard's and Alison Knowles' illness.