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Olympics

British rowing basks in greatest Olympic regatta

Great Britain's Heather Stanning, left, and Helen Glover celebrate after winning the gold medal for the women's rowing pair in Eton Dorney, near Windsor, England, at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2012. (AP Photo/Eric Feferberg, Pool)

WINDSOR, England: Four golds. Two silvers. Three bronzes.

That's what nearly 30 million pounds ($47 million) of funding, some of the best coaches from across the world, a partisan crowd and, most importantly, a whole lot of talent gets you.

British rowing has just concluded its greatest ever Olympic regatta, where its previously unheralded women's squad combined with its always-powerful male counterparts to rule the waters at Dorney Lake.

A leading haul of nine medals beat the total of eight from the London Games in 1908, with 28 of the 47 squad members coming away from the eight-day regatta with a medal.

"It's just an incredible performance," Steve Redgrave, Britain's five-time Olympic rowing champion, said. "Can we go better? I can't see it."

Remarkably, it could have gone better. Two of the silvers could easily been golds, with Britain's two lightweight boats both losing in close finishes.

Inspired by the feats of Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent in the 1980s and '90s, British rowing has been on an upward curve since 1996, when it won a gold and a bronze at the Atlanta Games. The country has won more medals at the end of each four-year cycle since then - three in Sydney in 2000, four in Athens in 2004, six in Beijing in 2008 and now this in London.

"To win again and again, the expectation is very high," British men's coach Juergen Groebler said. "There is no recipe to success - just hard work, consistency and belief in what you're doing is right."

Groebler may be understating things there. Over the last two decades, there has been a detailed plan of attack by Britain's rowing chiefs that has allowed the sport to flourish in a country that holds rowing close to its heart.

Millions of pounds of National Lottery funding has been poured into rowing since the end of the 1990s, meaning athletes can train full-time and not have to combine strenuous practice sessions with a regular day job. This funding reached a peak for the cycle of the London Olympics, with 27 million pounds ($42 million) coming from government and lottery sources.

Then there's the coaching staff.

Groebler was lured from Germany in 1992 - he had previously been in charge of the East Germany squad that reigned in rowing in the 1970s and early '80s - and was put in charge of the men's squad, with the coxless four usually his priority boat. At least one of his crews have come away from every Olympics with a medal.

Paul Thompson is an Australian heading up the women's squad which has finally come to the party this Olympics, winning three golds when previously no British female had ever topped the podium in rowing.

At the head of it all is high performance director David Tanner, a 64-year-old Briton who is supreme at identifying talent and harnessing all the various strands into one perfect balance of Olympic-standard performance on the water and happiness off it.

"If you can have people that have a great attitude in life, enjoy their sport and deliver, I think I'm a lucky man," Tanner said. "We've brought them up well."

The long-term plan put in place at the start of the 1990s is reaping rich rewards and the age of the medal-winning crews means that many will be around for the Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016, too.

"We live in the golden age of the Olympics, with television, the spectators, money, revenues, commercial - rowing has gone along with it," said Matt Smith, executive director of FISA, world rowing's governing body. "And after the success of the Eastern Bloc, the British government has been really clever with the way they've invested their money in sport

"There's some great coaches, great athletes, and I think everyone's jealous of how smart the system is, how intelligent and how much money they have. It's not just money - it's smart, clever people who make it work."

All 13 of the boats entered for the 14 disciplines at the Olympic regatta reached the final - something Redgrave and Pinsent predicted a year ago.

There have been some pleasant surprises along the way, boats that have achieved more than could ever have been imagined.

Two of the crews were only put together in March - the bronze-winning men's pair of George Nash and William Satch and the gold-winning lightweight women's double sculls of Kat Copeland and Sophie Hosking.

Helen Glover, who won gold with Heather Stanning in the women's pair, only started rowing in 2008 after seeing an advertisement in a newspaper - fronted by Redgrave, who else? - calling on "Sporting Giants" to come forward ahead of the London Games four year away.

All this suggests that no matter how great the coaches are, there's some pure, natural talent in the squad.

What summed it all up was the reaction of Mark Hunter and Zac Purchase after being pipped to gold by Denmark in the lightweight double in the penultimate final.

After a tough season in which their form has been scratchy, they still came away with a silver.

"Sorry," Hunter said, after being hauled by his armpits onto the jetty, hardly able to speak, "we let everyone down."

 

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