Niyo: Michigan-powered women’s eight delivers under pressure

John Niyo, The Detroit News
The U.S. women's eight team members receive their gold medals. Emily Regan is sixth from right, Amanda Elmore is second from right and Katelyn Snyder is far right.

Rio de Janeiro – They felt the pressure, all right. It wasn’t suffocating, but it was building as the calendar raced toward August and the expectations jumped out in front of them, propelled by their own history. 

The crew of the U.S. women’s eight boat hadn’t lost in a decade at rowing’s biggest events – winning every Olympic and world championship final since 2006 – and they couldn’t lose now. That’s what everyone told them, and deep down, that’s the way they felt themselves.

But on a bright, breezy Saturday morning here at Lagoa Stadium, in a setting that’s blinding in its beauty, with Christ the Redeemer among the curious spectators, the Americans still had to go win the race.

“We try really hard to not think about the pressure, but it’s hard not to,” said Emily Regan, the former Michigan State All-American who’d been a part of two of those world championship triumphs. “I was so nervous yesterday. And then when I sat down and just remembered that I’m so, so fortunate to be here, some of the nerves kind of dissipated.”

But not all of them. Regan had broken down in tears Friday watching her U.S. teammates fall short of the podium the past two days. First Ellen Tomek (Flushing) and Meghan O’Leary in the double sculls, and then the women’s pair with former Michigan star Felice Mueller and Ann Arbor’s Grace Luczak, both of whom had passed up a chance to compete in the eight in order to chase more medals for the U.S. team here in Rio.

As Saturday dawned on the final day of racing, the Americans still hadn’t won a medal in rowing. But after Gevvie Stone ended that drought with a silver medal in the women’s single in Saturday’s first final, the U.S. coach, Tom Terhaar, had one last reminder for his dominant eight. He told them to look around and respect their opponents, but remember where they were.

And when Katelyn Snyder, the former Detroiter who serves as the women’s coxswain – the on-board “coach” seated in the stern of the boat – locked eyes with the woman directly in front of her, there was little doubt. It was Amanda Elmore in the stroke seat, which sets the tone for the entire boat. And Elmore, a graduate student Michigan's Ph.D. program in biomedical sciences, was smiling.

‘It was awesome’

“I’ve never seen anybody more ready to crush 2,000 meters,” Snyder said. “It was awesome, and it gave me so much confidence.”

It’s Snyder, in particular, who’s in charge of this crew’s psyche. The coxswain’s job is more than just calling out commands to the eight rowers powering the boat. Snyder also has to be an amateur psychologist, understanding the best way to motivate each member of the crew. As veteran teammate Meghan Musnicki put it, “She’s our eyes and ears, and basically our brain.”

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But at the start line Saturday, she could see everything was in order.

“I smiled at Katelin because I knew that she was gonna make sure that we were gonna win,” said Elmore, 25, a Purdue grad who finished her NCAA eligibility in Ann Arbor in 2014. "And I was gonna make sure that we were gonna win.”

They were, of course. But not without a little drama, trailing at 500 meters as Canada – a medalist at the last three world championships as well as the London Olympics – jumped out to an early lead, followed by the Netherlands. At the halfway mark, the Americans were still in third, a half-second behind Canada. But that’s when Snyder loudly reminded the crew, “This is the U.S. women’s eight!” And they responded in kind, pulling into the lead at 1,500 meters and then powering their way to the finish, beating out Great Britain and Romania for the gold.

“The last 500 meters, we just made it hurt,” Elmore said. “You’ve got to suck in the air, because your body’s screaming for oxygen. But you have to go. And we all wanted to win so bad that the pain is nothing.”

This meant something, though. It meant everything, to each in their own way.

Snyder, who’d forgotten her routine paddle calls to power down the boat at the end of a race, happily smacked the water in celebration after they’d crossed the line

“I was just screaming, ‘Yes! Yes! Yes!” she laughed. “I just started cheering.”

Fighting her way back

Snyder had missed out on the 2012 Olympics after former Olympic coxswain Mary Whipple returned to reclaim her spot in time for the 2010 world championships. Two months later, Snyder lost her younger brother, Jake, to cancer at the age of 21. She has the fleur-de-lis – Jake was an Eagle Scout – tattooed on her right ring finger in his honor. All those thoughts were running through her head Saturday immediately following the race.

“It makes this a lot more special,” said Snyder, 28, who spent part of her childhood in the Detroit area before moving with her family to Florida. “I think missing out on 2012 makes me more appreciative of all the work that goes into it. I’ve had to make a lot of changes in my coxing, and my leadership abilities. And I’m really happy that I was able to be here for this after making make those improvements and not just having it handed to me.”

The U.S. women's eight team members cross the finish line on Saturday.

None of them did, which is part of the reason for this remarkable U.S. streak that now includes 11 consecutive global titles – eight world championships and three Olympic titles. Only two crew members remain from the 2012 Olympics, and with a large pool of competitors to choose from in the U.S. national team – aided by the growth of the sport at the collegiate level in the wake of Title IX legislation – it’s a constant juggling act for Terhaar and his staff.

“They’re always pushing each other,” he said. “And if one has a bad year, they don’t make it, which is hard. But this sport is hard.”

So are these women, who’ve all sacrificed plenty to get to this point.

Regan, 28, learned to row as a teenager, but like most of her teammates, the Buffalo native never took it seriously until college. Even when she signed up for varsity tryouts at Michigan State in 2007, it was her mother’s idea, she admits, “and I did it with no intention of actually sticking with it.”

She’d played lacrosse in high school, but in a family full of athletes – her father and three siblings played college basketball – Regan joked, “People were like, ‘I know that last name, but I didn’t know they had another daughter.’”

Asked Saturday if that might’ve changed, she laughed, “I guess I’ll find out when I get home.”

But with an Olympic gold medal in tow? Nah, no pressure.

Twitter @JohnNiyo