The perfection and pain of lake superior
Great Britain's stunning regatta performance produces two more golds, an emotional silver and a rallying cry to the young
Do not be deceived that there was anything remotely mechanical about the inexorable consummation of a regatta that has taken British rowing to still more dazzling heights. True, visiting boats must have felt all but helpless before the twin tides of lavish Lottery funding and deafeningly partisan galleries. In getting within a canvas of three gold medals, however, the last three home crews upon the playing pools of Eton reminded everyone that the abiding register of their deeds remains in the heart.
To see that, you only had to compare the lachrymose tableaux unfolding within yards and moments of each other yesterday lunchtime. At the medal ceremony for the lightweight double sculls, Sophie Hosking and Katherine Copeland crumpled in tears of incredulous joy as the Union flag was raised over this golden pond for a fourth time.
Even as they did so, however, Mark Hunter and Zac Purchase were being helped on to the pontoon – Hunter barely able to walk, anxiously supported by Sir Steve Redgrave; Purchase a wretched, inconsolable figure – and began hobbling towards the BBC position like refugees from some unspeakable strife. The defending lightweight double sculls champions had been reeled in by a superhuman Danish lunge that threatened to give the dying seconds of the race a literal quality. "We gave everything," Hunter gasped. "We tried everything. Sorry. Let everyone down." John Inverdale, their interviewer, assured him that was nonsense; and, just as wisely, let them go. Returning to the camera, Inverdale's own voice was breaking.
Then, barely a furlong away, Drew Ginn broke down and admitted that the four Britons alongside him at their press conference had led him into retirement. "We love what we do," the outstanding Australian oarsman from their coxless four sobbed. "But it takes a toll on your family, takes a toll on your body."
And that, surely, should be the defining testimony to an almost perfect climax for a British camp unrepresented only in the women's single sculls. All 13 boats made their finals, with 28 from 47 athletes ending with ribbons around their necks.
Top billing yesterday went to the men's coxless four, who extended their Olympic reign under Jürgen Grobler to 16 years. Streaking into a narrow but psychologically critical early lead, Andrew Triggs-Hodge, Pete Reed, Tom James and Alex Gregory always seemed in control and duly held out by half a length.
Triggs-Hodge, the dashing stroke, somehow remained suffused with energy as he led the celebrations. "That was impeccable – our masterpiece!" he declared. "We struck that balance between technique and power. I'm so blessed in these guys. The pressure was utterly terrifying. There has been so much goodwill, you really felt it every day. Hours before racing, there were already shouts and cheers. But it also puts you closer to the cliff edge. You think: 'This could be great. But it could be a disaster.' Even in the race, I was waiting for things to go wrong. This has taken a lot of guts, a lot of sacrifice. I'm very proud, and very humbled."
Blond and articulate, here was another rowing model to capture young imaginations – precisely as the organisers envisaged in funding these Games. "It's what this country needs, to inspire people," Triggs-Hodge said. "Get out of your armchair, get out there. Because there's so much to life."
Some who do so may find things happening more quickly than they can believe. Certainly few had entertained any earnest medal aspirations for Copeland and Hosking, but they have gained conviction all week and never looked in danger after leading soon after halfway. The Greeks rallied briefly, but ultimately yielded silver to China as the young Britons saw it out by a length and a half. Until this week, no British female had won a rowing gold, but now Copeland and Hosking have unfeasibly engraved their names beneath those of Stanning and Glover, Grainger and Watkins. Nobody was more astounded than Copeland. Only 21, she sat agape until her partner turned round. "We've just won the Olympics," she yelled then. "We're going to be on a stamp!"
Only emotional perforation, however, awaited Purchase and Hunter in much the most dramatic final of the day. First there was the jammed wheel under Purchase's seat, which locked within the first 100 metres and so halted the race. They promptly set about making the most of that reprieve, racing into a half-length lead inside 200 metres of the re-started race and still preserving it at 1500. But Rasmus Quist and Mads Rasmussen then mustered a pulmonary cataclysm of 42 strokes a minute, and prised gold from the Beijing champions' grasp.
So distraught in the aftermath, Purchase and Hunter still found decorous platitudes beyond them at the press conference. "We feel we let everyone down," Hunter insisted. "We've got the best programme in the world, and we came here to win, simple as that."
Instead it fell to one who had finished behind to correct perspectives. The New Zealander Peter Taylor had been obliged to settle for bronze alongside Storm Uru. "We spent the last four years with gold on our minds," he said. "We thought we had the goods to do it. But we did our best out there. And that's all you can ask of yourself."
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