LUCERNE, Switzerland - Months of preparation, training and intense selection all came to a conclusion on Tuesday afternoon. Three men's eights were roaring towards the finish line on the Rotsee race course in Lucerne, Switzerland.
On the other side of the yellow pole at the end of the 2,000-meter stretch of water was a slot in the 2016 Olympic Games for the top two crews. The pressure to win and place the U.S. in Rio has been building since last summer's world championships, when the eight did not finish in a qualifying position.
Coxswain Sam Ojserkis knew in his heart that he was steering his boat towards a place in the Olympics, fulfilling the hopes and dreams of not just the young men in front of him, but those of the rowing community across the United States.
Still, until the bow crossed the line, the job was not complete. So Ojserkis (Linwood, N.J.) called out to Austin Hack (Old Lyme, Conn.), Rob Munn (Redmond, Wash.), Mike DiSanto (Boston, Mass.), Steve Kasprzyk (Cinnaminson, N.J.), Glenn Ochal (Philadelphia, Pa.), Alex Karwoski (Hollis, N.H.), Hans Struzyna (Kirkland, Wash.) and Sam Dommer (Folsom, Calif.), and urged them forward.
"It was tight," Ojserkis said. "The line was coming and I just told them, 'You have five strokes to go.' There was nothing more I could tell them to motivate them. I knew what was on the line. I told them they had five strokes to finish the job."
And finish they did.
The U.S. held its bow ball in front and crossed the line to earn its place in Rio, to stand among all the U.S. men's eights that came before them since inception of the modern Olympics Games, by qualifying at the 2016 Final Olympic Qualification Regatta.
No American team that participated in a summer Olympic Games has gone without fielding a men's eight, and 2016 will be no different.
"We didn't know the result when we crossed the line," Ojserkis said. "We knew we were in the top two. We didn't know if we had won or if we got second."
The men's eight win brought an end to three days of racing that saw three other U.S. crews miss Olympic qualification. Neither the men's double or the men's quadruple sculls achieved the top-two finish required to qualify for Rio in Tuesday's finals. Men's single sculler Ken Jurkowski (New Fairfield, Conn.) needed top three, but was eliminated from competition on Sunday.
"I'm excited, exhausted, exhilarated and proud, the whole gambit," said U.S. men's eight coach Luke McGee. "Obviously, this was tough. But in the end, maybe it was necessary, having to make some of the changes we made. The guys bought in the whole year, and they went through a heck of a year. They got what they earned."
Racing from third place in the opening 500 meters, the U.S. moved into second during the next 500, crossing into first in the last quarter of the race. Poland and Italy were right with them, and the tension in the stands mounted.
As they crossed the line, the U.S. men raised their hands in celebration. And it was as close as Ojserkis said it was. The U.S. won in 5:29.16. Poland was second in 5:29.62, and Italy missed qualifying, crossing third in 5:29.98.
The job was finished. Now the focus becomes Rio and the 2016 Olympic Games.
"There is a little bit of a relief," said Ochal, who won a bronze medal in the four at the 2012 Olympic Games in London. "I'm just trying to hold myself to my expectations and what I want to do with this crew. We want to do really well. We needed to well today, but we want to do well in Rio. We all have high expectations. That's why we're here."
Earlier in the afternoon, the U.S. men's double sculls team of Stephen Whelpley (Mequon, Wis.) and Willy Cowles (Farmington, Conn.) finished sixth in the final of its event. Also unable to secure a spot in Rio was the men's quadruple sculls crew of Ben Davison (Inverness, Fla.), Ben Dann (Pound Ridge, N.Y.), John Graves (Cincinnati, Ohio) and 2012 Olympian Peter Graves (Cincinnati, Ohio). They earned a spot in the final of the event, but finished fourth.
The U.S. crews competing in the qualification regatta were joined earlier in the week by 15 more crews that are scheduled to compete in World Rowing Cup II. Racing will begin Friday and continue through Sunday.
In total, the U.S. will have 11 crews in competition in Rio, pending approval from the United States Olympic Committee. For more information about the 2016 Olympic Games selection process, click here.