LUCERNE, Switzerland (AP) — The saying “don’t change a winning team” doesn’t apply to the U.S. women’s eight, the most successful boat in international rowing.
The Americans have won 10 consecutive world and Olympic titles in the event, a winning streak that is unmatched in most sports but little known outside the rowing world.
The U.S. has dominated the event since 2006 even though coach Tom Terhaar has consistently changed the lineup, moving rowers around the boat or replacing them with others, eager to be part of a seemingly self-perpetuating dynasty.
The competition to make the women’s eight boat is so fierce that even athletes who consistently perform at the highest level know that no one is guaranteed a spot when Terhaar picks his crew for the Olympics on June 20.
“That’s one of the things that feeds into the success of the team,” said Meghan Musnicki, the longest-serving member of the crew, with six Olympic and World Championship gold medals in the event since 2010. “There’s no room to get comfortable.”
The 34-year-old from Naples, Florida, helped the U.S. boat fight off a late challenge from Great Britain to win a World Cup regatta on May 29 in Lucerne, Switzerland — the last international test for the Americans before Rio.
Of the nine women in the boat (eight rowers plus coxswain Katelin Snyder), five remained from the crew that won gold in last year’s World Championships. Only two, Musnicki and Eleanor Logan, competed in the women’s eight in the previous Summer Games.
“For every kid that’s here we’ve got one who isn’t here who pushes these guys,” Terhaar said, as his rain-soaked crew disassembled the boat on the banks of lake Rotsee in Lucerne. “So it’s never the same people. It’s always new people.”
Terhaar, who has been in charge of the U.S. women’s team since 2001, said he’s looking for powerful and tall rowers for the eight, the biggest and fastest boat in rowing.
“Our stroke right now is not the tallest kid. But she strikes up a good rhythm,” he said of Amanda Elmore, of West Lafayette, Indiana, who sits closest to the stern. “So it really depends on the group that you have. You try to play around and find something that works.”
Some teams tend to stick with crews that have performed well in the past. New Zealand’s lineup in Lucerne was identical to the one that finished second behind the Americans in last year’s World Championships.
Like the U.S., Great Britain has tried many different lineups since placing fifth at the London Olympics, and appears to have found the strongest yet this year. The Brits won the European Championships in May and followed up with a strong performance in Lucerne, beating New Zealand to the finish line, less than a second behind the U.S. boat.
Katie Greves, who will be competing in her third Olympics in Rio, said that race changed the “mindset” of the crew. Instead of hoping for a bronze medal, the British women now see themselves as the biggest threat to the Americans.
“You don’t want to give them too much respect. They are only rowers,” Greves said. “There is no reason we can’t beat them, just because they have this historical pedigree.”
Each sport measures success differently so winning streaks are hard to compare. But it’s difficult to find a team in any sport that can match the U.S. team’s 10 consecutive gold medals in the women’s eight.
Norwegian figure-skater Sonja Henie won 13 straight world and Olympic titles from 1927-36. The Soviet Union won nine consecutive world and Olympic gold medals in ice hockey (1963-71). In rowing, the U.S. dominated the men’s eight with eight consecutive Olympic titles (1920-56). At that time there were no world championships.
“They’ve done a ton of research to try to find another team in any sport that has had such a winning dynasty, and they weren’t able to find one,” Musnicki said. “It’s special. It’s an honor and a privilege to be part of it.”
Despite the intense competition, there’s also an unmistakable camaraderie among the U.S. rowers, whether they make the team or not, said Snyder, the 28-year-old coxswain from Detroit. She was deeply disappointed not to make the cut for the 2012 Olympics, but has coxed the women’s eight since the year after.
In an event where synchronization is paramount, gelling with and pushing your team mates means as much as a powerful stroke, she said.
“You don’t go fast by beating another girl,” Snyder said. “You go fast by being your best self and bringing that girl with you.”