LONDON - Hours after her Olympic dream ended just two-tenths of a second short of standing with a medal around her neck, Sara Hendershot was grappling with the finality of the moment.
"It's over now," she said. "Tomorrow I'm just a normal person again."
The truth in that is how you look at it. Yes, the 2012 Olympic Games ended today for Hendershot and her pair partner, Sarah Zelenka, but for the rest of her life, she will be an Olympian.
The thought of that - and the fact that, at 24, she is certainly young enough to look ahead to 2016 in Rio, where the Olympic flame will burn again, was consoling. She smiled at the idea, if only for just a split second.
On the very last stroke of their race, the "Sara(h)s" as they have become known by their teammates, dropped their blades into the water just a blink of an eye later than the blades of New Zealand, and that was the difference in the end. And so it was Great Britain finishing first in 7:27.13, Australia second in 7:29.86, New Zealand third in 7:30.19 and the U.S. fourth in 7:30.39.
It was that kind of day at the Olympic rowing venue at Eton Dorney for the United States. In three medal races, the margin of victory and the margin of defeat was so miniscule, it is hard to describe.
In the women's quad, the measure fell on the side of Adrienne Martelli (University Place, Wash.), Megan Kalmoe (St. Croix Falls, Wis.), Kara Kohler (Clayton, Calif.) and Natalie Dell (Clearville, Pa.). The four women crossed the finish line third to claim the opening medal for the USRowing team here at this Olympic Games. It was only the second ever for the Americans in the event and the first since 1984, when they took silver.
And like the women's pair, there were tears, but of a different kind. "We're really happy," said Dell, wiping her eyes, so she could see the reporters asking her how it felt to be an Olympic medalist.
"It was a great race. We just kind of went on trust every stroke, because this is our first regatta together. I don't know what Adrienne was doing (at stroke), but it was great. We kind of died in the last five hundred meters. I feel like we had nothing left. I said 10 strokes and I didn't believe myself because I had had two left in me, and then I said five strokes, and then I don't remember what happened after that."
"But we crossed the line and I was paranoid that I had lost track of the boats," she said. "I couldn't tell where Great Britain was, and I thought we had third, but I didn't know if Great Britain was behind us or in front of us."
As it happened for the women's pair, it also happened for the men's eight. Struggling to recover from a slow start, the U.S. crew of coxswain Zach Vlahos (Piedmont, Calif.), Brett Newlin (Riverton, Wyo.), Jake Cornelius (Brooktondale, N.Y.), Steve Kasprzyk (Cinnaminson, N.J.), Giuseppe Lanzone (Annandale, Va.), Will Miller (Duxbury, Mass.), Grant James (DeKalb, Ill.), Ross James (DeKalb, Ill.) and David Banks (Potomac, Md.) chased down the field and nearly caught Great Britain at the line.
But they were three-tenths of a second short and filled with heartache as they rowed into the boathouse.
"It feels horrible," was how Lanzone summed it up.
It was a better day for Great Britain, whose women's pair of Heather Stanning and Helen Glover won the first ever gold medal in Olympic rowing history for the host country in front of 25,000 roaring fans.
It was the same for the Ukraine. They have also never won an Olympic gold medal in rowing until Kateryna Tarasenko, Nataliya Dovgodko, Anastasiia Kozhenkova and Yana Dementieva crossed the line first in the women's quad.
And for Germany, the men's eight win was the first Olympic gold in the event in 24 years and the first ever as a unified country. Their win here extended their undefeated streak that dates back to 2009.
In other U.S. races today, the men's pair of Silas Stafford (Santa Rosa, Calif.) and Tom Peszek (Farmington Hills, Mich.) finished fourth in its semi and will now row in the B final for places 7 through 12.
"It was rough," Stafford said. "We've been building through the regatta, it's gotten a little bit better every piece. We would obviously like to be in the final and it's disappointing, but we rowed well and we don't have anything to be ashamed of."
In the men's single sculls third-level semifinal, Ken Jurkowski (New Fairfield, Conn.) finished sixth and will row in the last level final.
"I've been trying to work through some injuries and it hasn't been going so well, it's very difficult," he said. "It's a huge privilege to race here. It's what you spend all your time training for. It's just disappointing when the best you can do, is the best you can do."
The morning started with enormous promise for the U.S. After four days of preliminary races, there were three boats with medal chances.
The women's pair of Zelenka (Itasca, Ill.) and Hendershot (West Simsbury, Conn.) were on a Cinderella run. They scored a row-from-behind victory in the Olympic trials to earn their spot, moved directly into the final from the heat on Saturday, and were rowing with nothing to lose.
They have not been fast off the line and they were not in the final this morning. They were in last place five hundred meters in, and fifth in the second five hundred. They were in fourth in the third quarter, but as they did in trials, they crept back into a medal position and at one point, were sitting in second until Australia and New Zealand passed them and they just ran out of water to race in.
"You say to yourself, you want that medal so bad and you do everything you can to get it," said Zelenka. "We were fighting back and we were right in it at the end and we just missed by point-two. It's disappointing. Fourth place is not the best place that you want to be in, but I can say that I am proud of how far we've come throughout the year.
"Right now, it hurts because it is such a fresh wound, but I think in a few days, we're going to be proud of how we did," she said.
"It's a tough emotion and I'm bummed out," said Hendershot. "Fourth place is the hardest, most painful place to finish. But man, was that a cool race. It was so awesome. We did everything we possibly could and I trusted Sarah the whole way down the course and we gave it everything we had.
"In the last 500 meters, I was yelling 'silver, silver' and I think they had just a little bit more. But we did everything we possibly could."
Next up was the women's quad. Unlike the pair, the quad got off the line fast and rowed for most of the race in second place. They were overtaken by Germany in the third quarter, but held on to take third in 6:40.63. Ukraine won in 6:35.93 and Germany finished second in 6:38.09.
"This feels good," said Kalmoe. "We went out for gold, we went hard, we went aggressive and we came away with bronze, but we're happy to bring home a medal and it's the first one in a really long time in this event for the women, and we did the best we could.
"The conditions were awesome today. The girls emptied the tank. We had our best performance, I think. I am happy, but we came here for gold. That's what all the athletes come for, and it's a great achievement and we're happy with that. But there is always room to go up a few steps and hopefully next time it will be gold," she said.
"Our goal at the end of the day is to push ourselves as hard as we can," said Kohler. "I really didn't know where I was, I was just trying to pull my butt off. I was just listening to Natalie, she was calling seats and it sounded like we were going to get a medal and I just kept pushing to get ahead. I was just waiting for USA to come up on the board and it did. I was a little tired. It was a long race. But I'm so happy."
The men's eight final came next. They also had a slow start, something that has not plagued this crew. None could explain what happened, maybe a sudden gust of wind was one suggestion, but there was really no one on the crew that could explain it.
"It was a really tough race, it's disappointing," said Cornelius. "There is not much we can say. We didn't get out fast enough and we spent most of the race trying to get back on terms and I thought we did a decent job of that, but it wasn't enough in the end. It's disappointing. We're really fortunate to be here. I just wish we could have put on a better show for the people who supported us."
Even with the slow start, the U.S. did not give up and was part of one of the most exciting eights finals coach Mike Teti (Upper Darby, Pa.) can remember. All six boats raced side by side down the length of 2,000-meter course and finished within four seconds of each other.
The U.S. was in sixth for the first 1,000 meters, then moved into fifth before getting into fourth position and within striking distance of the medals. But, again, the course ended before the sprint could succeed.
Germany won in 5:48.75, Canada was second in 5:49.98, Great Britainm was third in 5:51.18 and the United States finished fourth in 5:51.48.
"I'm disappointed," said Teti. "But you can't fault the effort by these guys. They fought the whole way. It was not a great start, but the way they fought back in the end in the second part of the race was really a testament of who they are and I'm really proud of them.
"I wanted them to win a medal for them. They have come a long way, and they were in a really good position. A couple of tenths here, a couple of tenths there, and they're on the right side of it. You can't argue with that effort. They were out of the race, they got back in it and they fought really, really hard to get a medal. These crews are pretty evenly matched," he said.
"This is probably the closest eight final in my memory. I've never seen one where there were six boats within a length of each other, and I've been in a few of them."
For Teti, there is a lot more crew racing ahead. And he might even be back for another run if asked, he said.
But for Newlin, this is the end of his career after eight national team runs and two Olympics. He plans on getting married, starting a career and settling into a home in Conshohocken, Pa.
"I'm done. I kind of would have liked to have gone 0.31 faster. I'm just kind of reflecting right now," he said. "I'm pretty bummed, but what are you going to do. I'm just proud of the way the guys fought back in that race and hats off to the top three."