Home celebrations as rowers Glover and Stanning earn Team GB maiden gold medal of London 2012
Wednesday, 01 August 2012
August 1 - Helen Glover and Heather Stanning crossed the line here just before noon today amid a torrent of deep-throated, patriotic sound to register not just the first ever Olympic gold for British women's rowing, but the first home gold of the London 2012 Games.
Just over half-an-hour later Britain's men's eight, bearing the 40-year-old Barcelona 1992 gold medallist Greg Searle, looked briefly as if they might match gold for gold as they drew ahead of the all-conquering German world champions, but although they could not hold on as the women's coxless pair had, they still crossed for a bronze with Canada finishing strongly for silver.
For the nation at large, and for the media in particular, some of whose outlets had already run impatient headlines such as "Wanted: Gold Medal" – a first home appearance on top of the podium – albeit that there was no actual podium here, just a floating jetty – will have come as a huge relief.
For Britain it was a case of "Let the golds begin..."
For Glover and Stanning, relative newcomers to the sport who, just four years ago, in the words of the GB performance director David Tanner, were "back markers and spares for our eight", the experience of victory was almost inexpressible.
"Ecstatic" was Glover's first reaction soon after she had climbed from her boat.
"So surreal," she added.
"It will take forever for this to sink in."
As the National Anthem played, Glover shuddered with emotion and the realisation of what had been achieved, wiping away tears.
Alongside her Stanning, a Captain in the Army who has taken a period of leave to pursue her sporting ambitions but could yet be sent to Afghanistan later this year, was able to sing.
Different emotions after an enterprise in which they had been so totally unified.
The silver medallists of 2010 and 2011 had established their gold medal credentials this year with an unbeaten campaign in the World Cup regattas and had thrown down the gauntlet with an Olympic record in their semi-final.
But the final, as they had warned, was where they were going to throw everything at it.
"This is our lake," they had said beforehand, and they were as good as their word, not so much throwing down the gauntlet as launching it into space.
As a crowd which contained, among others, Princes William and Harry – rapidly becoming home medal talismans after their appearance at the men's team gymnastics two days earlier – began to wind up the decibel level, the two Britons were laying down ferocious markers against a field which included the Romanian double Olympic champions Georgeta Andrunache and Viorica Susanu, the New Zealand world champions Juliette Haigh and Rebecca Scown, and an ominously good Australian pair of Kate Hornsey and Sarah Tait.
By 500 of the allotted 2,000 metres, they were a length and a bit clear of the New Zealand boat, with 2.8sec to spare.
By the halfway point the lead was one and a half lengths; by 1,750, as the stands on either side began to wind up into a deepening roar which put one in mind of an airliner on the runway, they were more than two lengths and five seconds clear.
As the final 250 kilometres came up, rowing through a wall of noise and a tide of gathering lactic acid, the British pair dug in – the water now a more glutinous element for them – but as they crossed the line in 7min 27.13sec they still had over a length to spare over the fast finishing Australians, who took silver in 7:29.86, and New Zealand, third in 7:30.19.
In a kind of variation on the Matthew Pinsent celebration after the Sydney 2000 victory, which was Steve Redgrave's last hurrah, Stanning collapsed backwards in the roaring aftermath of victory, Glover collapsed forwards over her, both exhausted.
"Beforehand we kept kidding ourselves that it was just another race," Stanning said.
"But when we crossed the line and heard the crowd we realised that people were waiting for that first gold."
This was a success story not just for two oarswomen, but for a system.
Stanning and Glover, a PE teacher from Penzance who had previously excelled at hockey and cross-country running, are the products of the GB Rowing Start system designed to identify and re-route promising athletes towards the sport.
Glover explained afterwards how she had been forwarded to the sport through the Sporting Giants initiative fronted by Redgrave four years ago in a search for flexible sporting talents who might be channelled into Olympic sports for London 2012 – and how she had had to be a little "flexible" with her height to make the qualifications.
"I had just handed in my final dissertation at university and I was about to go for a big night out when I had a call from my mum telling me about this advert which had appeared in the paper looking for sporting talent," she recalled.
"You needed to be athletic and 5ft 10, so I thought 'that sounds like me', even though I am actually only 5ft 9 and an half.
"I might have stood up on my heels by half an inch when I was measured..."
Stanning, who was at school at Gordonstoun, confirmed that she had been named in her yearbook as the pupil most likely to become an Olympian.
Having made their breakthrough with silver at the 2010 World Championships, it was a measure of their progress that earning the same colour medal at the following year's World Championships was a matter of some frustration to them.
Here they arrived at yet another level – and the timing could not have been more perfect.
Meanwhile, the faces of the men's German, Canadian and British crews at the post-race press conference told their own story.
The Canadians, heavily beaten by Germany in the semi-final, were flushed with an unexpected silver.
The German crew, superb world champions a year ago, were relieved to have the gold most had expected them to claim, despite, as they said, having to alter their race plan at 1,000 metres when the British moved marginally past them and they heard the home crowd getting excited.
For the Britons, the disappointment of bronze was writ large in their expressions, with 20-year-old stroke Constantine "Stan" Louloudis, having rowed on familiar water as an old Etonian, appearing close to tears.
"Over the last 500m the mind said 'yes' but the body said 'no'," Louloudis commented.
"It was a lot of hurt, but we were racing against very good crews and it was a tall order."
Searle, who retired from the sport after the bitter disappointment of going from first to fourth in the final of the pair at the Sydney 2000 Games before raising a family and pursuing a career in the city, had been lured back to the Olympics by the prospect of a home Games.
"We wanted to hit the front at the right time to give ourselves a chance of winning gold," he said.
"We just couldn't hang on in the end.
"So we feel disappointment at the outcome, but pride at the input.
"Back in 2000 I put my wife Jenny through a lot when I got her to come out to Australia when she was pregnant with my daughter and watch me come fourth.
"It feels so much better that I have a medal round my neck this time.
"It means that my wife and my kids saw a happy ending out there, even if it wasn't the happy ending I had wanted."
The men's British crew were happy to have made the effort, even if it meant they might have sacrificed silver in pursuit of gold.
For all of them, and the old man of the crew in particular, bronze was nevertheless a golden badge of honour.