Emotional, disappointing finish for Michigan’s Latz, Tomek

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Grace Latz

Rio de Janeiro – These are the Olympics, and at an event like this, the emotions can grab you the same way a wave catches an oar. Awkwardly, sometimes, and without warning.

And so it was Thursday for two Michigan rowers – Jackson’s Grace Latz and Flushing’s Ellen Tomek – at Lagoa Stadium, the picturesque setting for the Rio Olympic regatta this week.

A day after stormy weather postponed racing, Thursday morning dawned with smiles and laughter for the U.S. Rowing crew, as the women’s pair with Ann Arbor’s Grace Luczak and former Michigan standout Felice Mueller advanced to Friday’s final in the day’s first event.

But a few hours later, it was a different feeling as Latz recapped her own final – in the women’s quadruple sculls – and tried in vain to put it all in perspective. The U.S. women had finished fifth, despite a strong push in the third quarter of the 2,000-meter race.

“I feel torn between really happy to have made it here, and disappointed not to have a medal,” said Latz, her voice wavering and her eyes still hidden behind sunglasses. “Everything else has been so great. … I think I’m more emotional that this is capping off four years of a lot of work.”

Years spent chasing not just a dream, but the U.S. team itself, in Latz’s case. After finishing her collegiate career at Wisconsin in 2010, the former Jackson Northwest grad failed to make the U.S. under-23 team. She wasn’t invited to join the national team at the U.S. training center in Princeton, N.J., full-time until 2013, after years of self-funding and weekly commutes and sleeping on air mattresses on the apartment floors of would-be teammates.

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Yet once she did arrive, there were rewards. She got married – her husband, Jules Zane, a former classmate at Wisconsin – and last year Latz won a gold medal in the women’s four at the world championships in France. But after struggling in brutal conditions here in a preliminary heat Saturday, Latz and her teammates barely nudged their way into the final, beating out Australia by .06 to grab the last spot. The weather was only slightly better for Thursday’s final, and the choppy conditions made things difficult. Too difficult for the Americans, in the end.

“But from the start, we were right in there,” said Latz, 28, whose husband and family were waiting nearby as she finished her post-race duties. “Even though the conditions aren’t ideal, I think we really committed to our race plan, and that’s really all you can do.

“Most people go out there thinking this is gonna be their day. And it wasn’t this time around. But it was a great race.”

And with that, the tears started to fall, just as they would later for Tomek, the former Michigan All-American and two-time Olympian who’d finished fifth at the 2008 Beijing Games.

Tomek had battled through injuries – torn muscles in her back, and stress fractures in her ribs – along with all the disappointments in the eight-year interim. She missed out on qualifying for the 2012 London Olympics, and had to work her way back to the Princeton training center after that. And at 32, she knows her competitive days in the sport are nearing an end.

But she was determined to come back and finish with her best race, convinced her best was good enough to win an Olympic medal. Tomek has always been that way, though. She’d captained her Flint Powers girls basketball team to a state championship even though she wasn’t a starter. And she’d developed into one the U.S. team’s top rowers despite the fact she’d started it as one of the worst. Her first years as novice, her father, Phil, recalls with a laugh, “they put 41 girls on the water, and she took 40th place.”

Ellen Tomek

Thursday, there were only six boats on the water, and half were headed for the podium. In the semifinals, Tomek and her partner, Meghan O’Leary, chased down the two-time world champs from New Zealand to bump them from the medal race. But with the choppy conditions – not the Americans’ strong suit – they caught a bobble, and then caught a crab, the rowing terminology for the oar turning and catching in the water, acting like an emergency brake.

And all that energy started to go to waste, leaving the U.S. team in the leaders’ wake. The stroke phase in rowing has two parts -- the drive and the recovery – “and it’s called the recovery for a reason, because you’ve got to let the boat run and you have to relax at the slide.”

The same in true in life, and careers, I suppose, and after a disappointing sixth-place finish in Thursday’s final that was the phase Tomek was entering as she stood in the sun and tried not to think about what’s next.

She looked around at the scenic venue and managed a smile.

“It’s like the postcard that you get when someone’s in Rio, right?” she said. “And that’s where we’re rowing.”

But she’s probably done rowing now, at least at this level. And though next year’s world championships being held in Florida is an enticement – Latz said she might decide to stick around for another year – Tomek sounded like she’d finally reached the finish line. Both she and Latz say they’d like to get involved with coaching when they’re done, whenever that is.

“But I need to take some time,” said Tomek, whose parents and brother also were waiting nearby. “I have been doing this a really long time. Maybe it’s time to do something else, I don’t know.”

But she knows how hard she tried to do this, with nearly half her life spent in the sport and a decade invested in this Olympic dream, and that’s hard to simply pack away.

“A lot of work,” she said, pausing for nearly 15 seconds as her emotions came flooding out. “A lot of work went into today.”

And the fact that the day ended in disappointment – never mind the fact she made two Olympic finals in the same event eight years apart – that’s what caught her right there in the moment.

“That’s the result, and it doesn’t feel good,” she said, catching herself again. “But we’re gonna have to deal with it at some point.”