Dorney, England • Far from the hustle and bustle of central London in the country near Windsor, one of England’s favorite sports found a passionate audience Sunday with a series of spirited boat races on a manmade lake set beside a sheep pasture.
Low-hanging clouds billowing with dark and darker shades of gray hung over the Eton College Rowing Centre, but the stands were packed. In a country that loves soccer and cricket, rowing has a special place, with roots going back to competition in the 18th century on the River Thames. Rowing’s popularity here crosses class lines and ensured it would be a spotlighted event at these Olympics.
It was in this colorful setting that Taylor Ritzel, a graduate of Douglas County High School and granddaughter of former Broncos head coach Red Miller, made her Olympic debut on the U.S. women’s eight boat here Sunday. Team USA, which has dominated the sport the past six years, won its qualifying heat easily, advancing automatically to Thursday’s finals, where it faces a showdown with Canada.
“Being here is really awesome,” Ritzel said. “The fans are incredible. It was fun being in a race with GB [the British], because you could hear the grandstands from about 750 [meters] out. It’s really an honor to be able to represent the United States and also be in a country where rowing is such a big deal.”
Mary Whipple, the coxswain on the American boat, was surprised at the volume of cheers, given that it was just a qualifying round.
“We had a Great Britain boat within our race, and I think we were lucky to have that, because we got a little taste of what it’s going to be like come finals day,” Whipple said. “It was loud, and I’m sure it’s going to get louder. It’s great to have rowing in kind of the limelight of this Olympics.”
Racing began on the Thames in the 1700s, and the sport as it is known today began in 1829 with the first Oxford-Cambridge race and the Henley Royal Regatta. Those races still fascinate the Brits.
“I remember when I was little, watching those races going, ‘Whoa, one day I’d love to be doing that,’ ” said Steve Trapmore, a spectator Sunday who happens to coach the crew at Cambridge. “It’s a very traditional, historic sport for the U.K. You can just feel the atmosphere, can’t you?”
Canadian rower Janine Hanson said her coxswain, Leslie Thompson-Willie, had to turn up the volume on the microphone she uses to communicate with her boat because the fans were so loud.
“It’s such a great atmosphere to be part of,” Hanson said. “Britain loves their rowing, so it’s pretty awesome.”
England can claim a major part of the sport’s heritage, but the U.S. has owned women’s eights for the past six years. American universities have put resources into the sport as part of the legacy of Title IX, and coaches have looked for girls such as Ritzel with high school swimming backgrounds.
“The U.S. has a great university rowing system, and obviously they have a huge pool of athletes,” said Canadian Ashley Brzozowicz. “They’re really strong, really talented girls that train really hard.”
That includes Ritzel, the fourth rower from the bow, who stands 6-foot-2 and weighs 185 pounds. “She’s in the fourth seat, so she’s one of the big ones in the engine room,” said U.S. coach Tom Terhaar.
If there is a boat here that can beat the U.S., it’s thought to be Canada or Romania. In a World Cup in Switzerland in May, Canada nearly ended Team USA’s six-year unbeaten streak, finishing a scant three-hundredths of a second behind. Canada won the other heat Sunday.
“The battle of the Americas,” Hanson said. “They’re a great crew, and have been for a number of years. It’s exciting to have that challenge. I know the two of us are ready for the final, and it’s going to come down to the day and the last stroke.”