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Friday, August 3, 2012 - Page updated at 08:30 p.m.
UW graduate Mary Whipple helps U.S. women's eight repeat gold | Olympic rowing
By Seattle Times news services
Standing among the crew of her eight-oared boat, one member of the gold-medal U.S. women's rowing team is a sapling among redwoods.
At 5 feet 3 ½ inches, she is about 11 inches shorter than her teammates' median height. At 106 pounds soaking wet, she is nearly 70 pounds lighter than her teammates' average weight.
During workouts, she cannot keep up with their strength or stamina. During races, when rowers exhaust every muscle and struggle to breathe as their lungs cry out for oxygen, she is not called upon to lift a finger.
That teammate, Mary Whipple, sits at the stern and, as the only person that faces forward in the shell, appears to be along for the ride as her team ferries her to the finish line.
She is the coxswain, a role virtually unique in sports because that person does not contribute physically to the competition. Frankly, she does not have to be athletic at all.
"I've always joked that I'm just a sandbag, and I'm dead weight," Whipple said with a laugh. "But really, I'm much more than that."
Whipple, a 32-year-old blonde pixie and 2002 UW graduate, has been the coxswain for the U.S. eight for 11 of the past 12 years.
She had led the team to five world championships and two Olympic medals, including gold in the 2008 Beijing Games. Under her direction, the boat has not lost since 2006.
And that didn't change Thursday on the waters of England's Lake Dorney.
Racing in a fierce crosswind, the U.S. led from start to finish to win in 6 minutes, 10.59 seconds, a half-length ahead of a fast-finishing Canadian crew that has come close this year to breaking the American stranglehold on the event.
The U.S. crew members — Whipple and rowers Caryn Davies, Caroline Lind, Eleanor Logan, Meghan Musnicki, Taylor Ritzel, Esther Lofgren, Susan Francia and Erin Cafaro — threw up their arms and screamed in celebration after crossing the finish line.
Many of them wobbled as they stepped off the boat, their legs shaking like Jell-O from 2,000 meters of sheer exertion.
"I think it takes selflessness and the ability to come together as a group," Whipple said. "On the one side, it's just one 2k race. But on the other side, it's the Olympic Games. We just wanted to be up there, look each other in the eye — even though we are facing backwards — and just enjoy it, one stroke at a time."
Whipple received the biggest cheer as the medals were handed out under clearing skies on the pontoon. She would later be tossed into the lake by the jubilant crew.
The Americans successfully defended the title they won in 2008. The country's only previous Olympic gold in the event came at Los Angeles in 1984.
Whipple coxed the Huskies to back-to-back national championships in 2001 and 2002. There, she fine-tuned her skills as the brain, eyes and ears of the boat. Like a symphony conductor, she made sure her rowers matched one another as they took each stroke.
"She had the ability to get eight strong women all working together," said Anna Cummins, who rowed with Whipple in college and on the national team. "When you lock into that, the power is something you can't even quantify."
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