BLED, Slovenia - The thing about repechage racing is that there are no third chances.
For the United States women's quadruple sculls, that meant not finishing in the top two spots in the repechage, or second-chance race, this morning would mean not making the final and, worse, not qualifying the boat for the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
They made certain that didn't happen.
In a furious race through choppy, wind-blown water, the U.S. crew of Megan Kalmoe (St. Croix Falls, Wis.), Adrienne Martelli (University Place, Wash.), Natalie Dell (Somerville, Mass.) and Stesha Carle (Long Beach, Calif.) overcame an early lead by a favored British crew. The U.S. held off changes and exchanged leads with China right through to the last 50 meters of the race.
With China just inches ahead nearing the finish line, the U.S. made one last push to win by 0.12 seconds with a time of 6:19.03 to China's 6:19.15, advancing to the final Thursday afternoon.
And in winning, barring any unforeseen circumstances that may prevent the crew from finishing its race, the quad became the first U.S. boat to qualify for the Olympics at the 2011 World Rowing Championships in Bled, Slovenia.
The championships serve as the first opportunity for nations to qualify crews for the 2012 Olympic Games, although specific athletes won't be selected until next spring. On the men's side, the top 11 finishers in the single sculls, double sculls, quadruple sculls, pair, four, lightweight double sculls and lightweight four all qualify their boats for the Olympics, while the top seven men's eights gain automatic qualification.
For the women, the top nine finishers in the single sculls; the top eight in the pair, double sculls and lightweight double sculls; the top seven in the quadruple sculls; and the top five in the eight will qualify their boats.
U.S. crews that fail to qualify in Bled will have another opportunity at the Olympic Qualification Regatta scheduled for May 20-23, 2012, in Lucerne, Switzerland.
"Obviously, it's an honor to qualify the boat, but there is still a lot of work to be done Thursday and a lot of work to be done in the next year," said Dell. "(Great Britain) was up for probably the first half of the race and then China came up in the last 500 (meters). I don't know what happened after that.
"It was crazy out there," Dell said of the conditions. "I thought, if it's this bad and we're leading, we must be doing something right."
And they were.
By winning, they led the way to the quest for London, with two other Olympic-class boats and two adaptive crews all taking steps to follow them.
Qualifying for the semifinals this morning was the arms and shoulders men single sculls, the legs/trunk/arms mixed four with coxswain, the men's pair and the women's double sculls.
Less fortunate were the men's double sculls and the lightweight men's four, both of which did not advance and lost the chance to qualify those two Olympic-class boats.
Like the women's quad, the race for the semifinal in the men's pair was a gut-wrenching effort. The team of Tom Peszek (Farmington Hills, Mich.) and Justin Stangel (Madison, Wis.) rowed into second place and qualifying position in the first 500 meters, trailing The Netherlands who took and held the lead from the start.
Heading into the second quarter, Egypt surprised the field, rowed past a fast Czech Republic crew and started eating into the U.S.
"Those guys were quick, especially in the first thousand," Peszek said of the Egyptians. "We would have been surprised either way. We haven't really seen those guys (in competition) very much, but they're obviously pretty tough guys."
Nearing the halfway point, the Egyptian charge fell off and the Czech Republic made a move that not only eliminated Egypt from contention, but threatened Peszek and Stangel's chances as well. Going into the middle thousand, the Czechs were in second.
The battle went back and fourth until the U.S. dropped the hammer and took control.
"It seemed like they had us a couple of times," Peszek said. "We stuck to our guns. We knew those guys were good. They've beaten us before, so we weren't unprepared for it.
"In the last 500, Justin just made the call and we just went after it. It was do or die and we just somehow got the upper hand on them. It was a very, very tough race. There was a lot going on out there. There was a lot of chop and two really solid crews on either side of us."
The conditions did not settle down for the women's double sculls team of Kate Bertko (Oakland, Calif.) and Sarah Trowbridge (Guilford, Conn.). After having a disappointing start in their heat and failing to move directly to the semifinal, Bertko and Trowbridge came back today refocused on the opening strokes.
"I think we just remembered to trust ourselves as racers and we put one percent more energy into thinking about moving the boat off that start. I think that worked out really nicely," Trowbridge said. "It was great. Kate was really aggressive off the start and I felt like I could just lock and throw it. It worked out well."
Following the start, they continued to build, and by the halfway mark they had a commanding lead over the field. They did not relax.
"We didn't consider it a very large lead and we thought at any time that with people racing off each other, because it was two to move on, we could quickly have boats into us or through us at any time. We just made sure we were ready to answer back.
"It was definitely good to move on. I think it was an important step to get ready for the semis," she said. "It was definitely rough water out there, which took a little bit of focus, making sure we could execute our race plan. We had good competition and there was a lot of racing going on, especially for that second spot."
The first crew to qualify this morning was arms and shoulders single sculler Ron Harvey (Downingtown, Pa.). The eight-time national team adaptive rower crossed the half way point of his race in third, but then pulled through the field to finish first in a time of 5:15.64.
"Today the goal was to advance," he said. "I got off the line good and I was sitting in third place just thinking, I'll make it to the semis, and then I started walking through the other guys. I kept a steady pace to the finish line. It was nice to get out there and do another race.
"The semifinals are going to be highly competitive, so I'm looking forward to getting a nice stretch practice tomorrow and I'll be ready to go." He was followed by the legs/trunk/arms mixed four with coxswain team of Alex Stein (Stamford, Conn.), Eleni Englert (Oceanside, Calif.), Emma Preuschl (Indianapolis, Ind.), Andrew Johnson (Greenwich, Conn.) and Eric McDaniel (Weeki Wachee, Fla.). Racing against Russia, Brazil, Belarus and Estonia, the U.S. crew jumped into the lead in the first 500 meters and then held steady through the second half to win and advance to the semifinal Saturday, finishing in 3:35.28, more than four seconds ahead of second-place Brazil.
"We had a pretty smooth race," said Preuschl. "I feel personally that it was much better than (Monday's heat), so it was an improvement in that sense. But also as a group, having a second chance to reassess where we are in comparison to other groups, just to practice again what we have been doing all summer, just reaffirmed that we have the speed that it takes.
"We were five seconds faster today, so that's good," she said. "And to be out in the front was a confidence boost. We definitely have our work cut out for us in the semifinals. But it's just nice to go into it with more confidence."
In the men's double sculls, Thomas Graves and Peter Graves (Cincinnati, Ohio) failed to advance to the first-level semifinals, finishing fourth in the heat with a time of 6:25.13. Norway won the race in 6:12.51. The Graves brothers will now row in the second-level semifinal Wednesday.
The top 11 nations in the event earn qualification to the 2012 Olympics, and the double became the first U.S. crew to miss qualification.
The lightweight men's four crew of Ryan Fox (Edgerton, Wis.), Will Daly (Vail, Colo.), Robin Prendes (Miami, Fla.) and Anthony Fahden (Lafayette, Calif.) were the next. The four were third off the line and stayed there to the end, finishing in 5:55.06. Switzerland won with a time of 5:54.53, followed by France in 5:54.53. The U.S. will now race in the second-level semifinals on Wednesday.
In the arms and shoulders women's single sculls, Tricia Downing (Denver, Colo.) missed a qualifying spot in her rep, finishing fourth in 7:06.24. Israel won with a 6:00.80.
The trunk and arms mixed double team of Anthony Davis (La Center, Wash.) and Jacqui Kapinowski (Point Pleasant, N.J.) also did not advance this morning, finishing fourth in its repechage in a time of 4:27.38. Australia won with a time of 4:10.82.