BLED, Slovenia - Glenn Ochal has been in big boat races many times before this.
He has been on three senior national teams and rowed in two boats that won the Head of the Charles Regatta. But going to the line today, at the 2011 World Rowing Championships on Lake Bled, the Philadelphia-born Ochal and his quadruple sculls teammates Warren Anderson (Paso Robles, Calif.), Will Miller (Duxbury, Mass.) and Sam Stitt (McLean, Va.), were taking the responsibility of securing a position for the U.S. in the event for the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
"That is the most pressure I have ever felt going into a race," Ochal said. "We had to qualify the boat."
Pressure is off.
After missing the A final, which would have all but guaranteed a spot in London next summer, the U.S. men rowed from fourth position in the early stages of the B final into second place and captured one of the last five of the 11 spots available for the Olympics.
They were the first of three men's boats to qualify Olympic positions on a day that saw the men also advance the four to the top final, which, barring a circumstance that prevents them from racing or finishing, secures berths for the fourth of five men's Olympic-class boats the U.S. hoped to qualify here.
The men's pair and men's single sculls crews also placed high enough to qualify.
Also securing a spot to qualify for London in the Paralympic Games, was the legs/trunk/arms four with coxswain, which finished third in the semifinal and advanced to tomorrow's final.
It was an all around good day for the American contingent that also saw the women's team add two more medals to the U.S. medal count.
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.) took a bronze medal on the very last stroke of its race.
And in the women's four, the crew of Sara Hendershot (West Simsbury, Conn.), Emily Regan (Buffalo, N.Y.), Kara Kohler (Clayton, Calif.) and Sarah Zelenka (Itasca, Ill.) won gold in its final. With a silver medal in the women's quad and gold from the women's eight, the women now account for all four medals coming home for the U.S., with one day of finals left.
The men's four crew of Charlie Cole (New Canaan, Conn.), Scott Gault (Piedmont, Calif.), Brett Newlin (Riverton, Wyo.) and Giuseppe Lanzone (Annandale, Va.) finished second in the semifinal, and along with the lightweight men's quadruple sculls, will row in finals tomorrow. The two boats hold the last chances for medals from the men's squad.
The women's double sculls crew of Julie Nichols (Livermore, Calif.) and Kristin Hedstrom (Concord, Mass.) can add to the total count after qualifying for the final in its race this morning. By advancing to the final, they will also qualify the boat for the Olympics by completing the race.
The only boats not to qualify for the U.S., as of this morning, were the men's eight and the men's and women's double sculls. Racing for placement in the women's double sculls on Saturday was Kate Bertko (Oakland, Calif.) and Sarah Trowbridge (Guilford, Conn.), who missed the final two spots in the event when they finished third in the B final.
The chances for London qualification for the women's single will go to the line tomorrow, featuring Gevvie Stone (Newton, Mass.). Stone finished fifth in her semifinal today, and did not advance to the final. She raced China, Belarus, Sweden and Lithuania. China won the race in a time of 7:32.44. Belarus' Ekaterina Karsten was second in 7:32.69 and Sweden's Frida Svensson, the defending world champion, finished third in 7:33.41. Stone finished in 7:49.00 While the medals count is important, the critical mission for the Olympic-class boats is securing spots for London.
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.
Any crew that qualified on Lake Bled can consider its job fulfilled.
"This feels great," said Stitt, of qualifying the men's quad. "It always feels great to qualify a boat for the Olympics. I think the Olympics is a huge step for any athlete and I think this was our short and long term goal - to qualify, and we did just that. We've very happy."
Qualifying right behind them was the men's pair crew of Tom Peszek (Farmington Hills, Mich.) and Justin Stangel (Madison, Wis.) that took third in the B final.
"It felt great to get the job done," said Stangel. "We raced a hard semi yesterday; we maybe pushed a little bit harder than we needed to, but today, we were just confident in what we needed to get done.
"Our coaches, Bryan (Volpenhein) and (head men's coach Tim McLaren), have really helped us out this year, helping us find this late-end speed and helping us find our confidence.
"Today we executed the best we have. That was probably our best last 500. We're really happy. We had to fight right to the end; there were two really fast crews ahead of us, but it was a really good regatta overall for the pair."
Men's single sculler Ken Jurkowski (New Fairfield, Conn.) finished fifth in his B final and secured the last available spot in his event. "I am happy to have qualified," he said. "That's what I was here to do." Following Jurkowski was the lightweight women's double sculls of Julie Nichols (Livermore, Calif.) and Kristin Hedstrom (Concord, Mass.). Nichols and Hedstrom had to fight the entire length of the 2,000-meter course to secure a spot in the finals. The pair exchanged leads with first place Australia and second place Canada right to the line, finishing in 7:04.60 to Australia's 7:03.25 and Canada's 7:03.74.
"That's the way lightweight racing goes," Nichols said. "It's all the boats across, all the time. You can't expect to get out on anyone, and it's competitive all the way to the line. We're really excited to have hit the qualifying mark for the Olympics and we're looking forward to the medals tomorrow," she said.
Also qualifying for the final and a qualifying spot for London was the legs/arm/trunk 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.), who finished third in its semifinal.
"That was pretty awesome," said Englert. "I always wanted to go to the Paralympics, not that I'm going to go, necessarily, but it was great to qualify. I thought the race went pretty well. I was a little worried; I never really hear the beep, so when I found out, I was pretty excited. It's great."
In the final event of the day, the lightweight men's double sculls crew of Brian de Regt (Rowayton, Conn.) and Jon Winter (New Haven, Conn.) rowed in the C final of the event and finished second in the race, and 14th overall in the regatta.