BLED, Slovenia - The flap to the United States team tent was drawn shut.
For close to 30 minutes, it remained closed, with men's team assistant coach Cameron Kiosoglous sitting quietly outside. Inside, men's head coach Tim McLaren was meeting with the men's eight, going over what had just happened and what now needed to take place.
What happened was that in this very important Olympic qualification year, the U.S. men's eight had failed to advance out of the semifinal at the 2011 World Rowing Championships in Bled, Slovenia, finishing fourth and missing the first-level final.
To qualify an eight to the Olympic Games in London next summer, the boat must finish in the top seven spots here. By not making the finals, the margin for error for McLaren's eight became very narrow. It now amounts to win the B final tomorrow, or wait for the second-chance qualifying regatta next May to try again for 2012.
"We've got to win the small final to salvage something out of this," McLaren said before assembling his team in the tent. "Sometimes you work twice as hard and go slow. We'll see what they have to say."
There was no telling what was said or how it was said in the meeting. But when the flap was finally pulled open again, and the nine grim faced athletes filed out, it was clear that everyone fully understood the situation.
"This regatta is not over," said 10-year national team veteran Dan Walsh. "We have to qualify this boat for the Olympics and that's the most important thing right now. So everyone is going to have to pick themselves up by the bootstraps and go out and race as hard as they can tomorrow. We've got to step it up. Next year is the one that really counts. We have to qualify this boat for the USA."
It was a bitter, three-punch setback to the U.S. Olympic qualification effort on a morning that saw the first six boats to race for the U.S. advance to the next step in their respective events.
The first blow came when the lightweight men's double sculls team of Brian de Regt (Rowayton, Conn.) and Jon Winter (New Haven, Conn.) finished fourth in its quarterfinal and also missed the first-level semifinal and a chance to the A final. They have slightly more wiggle room, as the first 11 boats in Bled qualify for the Olympics.
The triple whammy concluded when Romania and Australia sprinted past the women's pair crew of Kady Glessner (Seattle, Wash.) and Caryn Davies (Ithaca, N.Y.) in the last 500 meters of the second semifinal. The pair, like the eight and the lightweight double, finished fourth and are also now in a door die situation. 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.
The women's pair must finish in the top two in the B final to qualify the boat for the 2012 Olympics. New Zealand won in 7:11.84. Australia was next in 7:13.43, followed by Romania in 7:13.47. The U.S. clocked in at 7:19.43.
"They did the best they could," said head women's coach Tom Terhaar. "They raced hard."
The men's eight crew of coxswain Ned DelGuercio (Media, Pa.), Nareg Guregian (North Hills, Calif.), Josh Inman (Hillsboro, Ore.), Steven Coppola (Buffalo, N.Y.), Dan Walsh (Norwalk, Conn.), Henrik Rummel (Pittsford, N.Y.), Alex Osborne (Sherman Oaks, Calif.), Grant James (DeKalb, Ill.) and Ross James (DeKalb, Ill.) also felt they had raced hard, but had been bested by three faster crews.
The U.S. finished in a time of 5:34.07. Germany won in 5:29.05, followed by The Netherlands in 5:30.09 and Poland in 5:30.75.
"It's tough to tell what happened," Walsh said. "We executed our race plan. Everyone put in the effort. Of course there are things you could do better if you don't win. It's hard to put your finger on it right now. Our competition is stiff, so those boats were faster than us," he said.
"We're disappointed," DelGuercio said. "The execution was good; it was as we practiced. We just got beat. Now it's tomorrow. We've got to qualify the boat."
It was an unfortunate way to conclude a solid morning of racing. Six U.S. boats including the men's and women's single sculls, the men's and lightweight women's quadruple sculls, the men's pair with coxswain and men's four all advanced from their races.
The men's four team of Charlie Cole (New Canaan, Conn.), Scott Gault (Piedmont, Calif.), Brett Newlin (Riverton, Wyo.) and Giuseppe Lanzone (Annandale, Va.) recovered from an incredibly narrow second-place finish in its heat on Monday and won Wednesday's repechage. Right from the start, the four pulled into the lead and stayed there, winning with a time of 6:00.55 - nearly three seconds over second-place Italy.
"It was a good step for us," said Cole. "There are some really tough crews. We saw that for ourselves in the heat, and we knew it was up to us to see how much we could improve from then to now. And we did improve some things, but we need to do a lot more before the semifinal and we're up to the challenge.
"We didn't think about the result (Monday). We just thought about what we could have done better and the basics we have done all year, and try to get to those a little bit and do better," he said.
The morning started with the men's pair with coxswain team of Anthony Altimari (Huntington, N.Y.), Blaise Didier (San Francisco, Calif.) and Derek Johnson (Hillsborough, Calif.), racing a repechage against Croatia, France, Germany, Canada and Ukraine. Four boats advanced to the Friday final and the U.S. took third in a time of 7:04.40. Germany won the race in 7:02.80.
"We made it to the final," said Didier. "The final is going to be a barn-burner."
Next up was the lightweight women's quadruple sculls team of Katherine Robinson (Everett, Wash.), Lindsey Hochman (Seattle, Wash.), Nicole Dinion (Falls Church, Va.) and Hillary Saeger (Dedham, Mass.). With two boats moving to the Saturday final, the U.S. finished second in 6:45.46 behind China, which finished in 6:37.95.
"We executed our race plan better than in the heat," said Robinson. "Obviously, we would have liked to get a better lane draw for the final, but for our crew, coming together in these races is what's more important and we're looking forward to fulfilling that a little more in the final.
"We had planned some more aggressive moves through the body of the race," she said. "Something to just get our heads together and be a little more focused."
With half the race over, the U.S. and China had more than a 12-second lead on the field, but the crew did not back off.
"We're still a fairly young crew, and we're not going to be satisfied with just coasting through when we have a chance to practice an aggressive finish that we are going to need in the final. So I think we're happy with the improvements we've made. But there is just more to be done."
Following them was the lightweight men's quad of Sam Cunningham (Pittsburgh, Pa.), Todd Mickelson (West Simsbury, Conn.), Chris Lambert (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) and Shane Madden (Ambler, Pa.). Racing Armenia, Hungary, Denmark, Ireland and Poland, the top four crews advanced to the Sunday final and the U.S. finished third.
Moving into second position in the first half, the U.S. was passed by Denmark in the second thousand meters, but stayed well ahead of Hungary, finishing in 6:02.14. Ireland won in 5:59.00, followed by Denmark in 6:01.10.
Next up was Gevvie Stone (Newton, Mass.). Stone fell behind early, but moved through the pack in the second half and into qualifying position in the last 500, powering past Denmark's Fie Udby Erichsen in the final quarter. Stone finished in 7:44.63. Azerbaijan's Nataliya Mustafayeva won in 7:38.63. Russia took third in 7:44.27.
Ken Jurkowski (Fairfield, Conn.) rowed next in the men's single. Following New Zealand's Mahe Drysdale, Jurkowski moved into second in the first quarter, but fell into third behind Lithuania's Mindaugas Griskonis. With three boats moving to the top-level semifinal Friday, Jurkowski finished third in 7:02.81 to advance. Drysdale won in 6:56.08, followed by Lithuania in 6:58.35.
In the C/D semifinal for the men's double sculls, Thomas Graves and Peter Graves (Cincinnati, Ohio) secured a spot in the C final, finishing third in 6:28.55. Poland finished first in 6:26.83. Italy was second in 6:27.62.
Also rowing for a spot in the C final was the lightweight men's four crew of Ryan Fox (Edgerton, Wis.), Will Daly (Vail, Colo.), Robin Prendes (Miami, Fla.) and Anthony Fahden (Lafayette, Calif.). They won their semifinal in a time of 6:02.08.