ETON DORNEY, ENGLAND — American Taylor Ritzel ’10 and Canadian Ashley Brzozowicz ’04 won Yale’s first Olympic medals of the 2012 Games with a one-two finish in the women’s eight rowing final at Lake Dorney on Thursday.
Ritzel and the favored American boat led the race from start to finish to defend their 2008 Olympic victory and take gold. It was no surprise when the six-time defending world champions were ahead by more than two seconds at the halfway mark and held the lead to finish in 6 minutes 10.59 seconds. Brzozowicz and the second-place Canadian boat finished in 6:12.06, while Australian Tess Gerrand ’10 took sixth.
“All of their success is a testament to the program, to the alumni, the department and the commitment by the University,” head women’s crew coach Will Porter said after watching coverage of the race. “Yale is a place of excellence and our athletic department is an extension of that. Their success is built on the shoulders of the people who came before them.”
Ritzel said in a June interview with the News that the winning gold was a “personal mission” for her mother, Lana, who died of breast cancer just a week after Ritzel returned from winning the World Rowing Championships in Nov. 2010.
After the race, teary-eyed Ritzel smiled as she showed her sister, former Yale rower McLane Ritzel ’14, the gold medal she had won for their mother, and hugged her father Tom Ritzel, who she calls her hero. Ritzel’s shoes were tied with the bright pink Laces for Lana from the fundraising campaign established by members of the Yale women’s crew team in honor of their teammates’ mother.
“I am now so excited that I could give this to her,” Ritzel told England’s Guardian newspaper on Thursday. “When we race, there is a move that I do in my head for her. When I was walking through to the course today I saw the sun peek through the clouds. I know she is here and I dedicate to her what I have done.”
The Canadian boat with Brzozowicz onboard was expected to challenge the Americans after recording a top time in Sunday’s heat and finishing just three-hundredths of a second behind Team USA at the World Rowing Cup in Lucerne this May. But the Canadians could not muster enough for gold, finishing just over a second behind the Americans despite a late surge. Instead, they held off the third-place Dutch crew to take silver.
The race was Brzozowicz’s second Olympic final. She and the Canadian crew finished less than a second away from taking bronze at the 2008 Games in Beijing.
Brzozowicz said she was happy to share the Olympic experience with her husband — the first person she saw in the crowd after winning silver — as well as her father, her brother and her father-in-law.
“We would have liked to win gold, but to be disappointed or dwell on winning silver is to not give the U.S. team the respect it deserves. We have no regrets,” Brzozowicz said on Friday. “We put ourselves out there, we fought hard and stayed together. We were really gunning for the U.S. and if we hadn’t gone for gold, we wouldn’t have ended up with silver.”
The Australian crew with Gerrand was out of medal contention from the start and battled against boats from Romania and Great Britain for places four through six. The Australians slipped from fourth to fifth between the halfway point and 1500-meter mark. They went on to finish just over a second behind fourth-place Romania and nine hundredths of a second after the fifth-place British.
For Gerrand, the sixth place finish was bittersweet because just a few months ago she and her teammates did not think they would have a chance to compete in the Olympics. The Australian women’s eight program was cancelled after its sixth place finish at the Beijing Games and was recommissioned just five weeks before the May Olympic qualification race in Lucerne, Switzerland.
“It’s disappointing, but we put forth our best effort,” Gerrand said after the race Thursday. “When we look back on where we’ve been, we have to be proud. We’re ready to prepare for another four years.”
Brzozowicz and Gerrand both emphasized their appreciation for the support from the Yale rowing community. Over 15 members of Yale crew programs traveled to the London Olympic Games and many more sent messages of support.
At the Thursday race, Yale women’s crew team alumnae wore matching navy “For God, For Country and For Yale” tank tops that listed the names of the five Bulldogs rowers — including Americans Charlie Cole ’07 and spare Jamie Redman ’08 in addition to the three women who raced in the women’s eight — representing their country on the back. The women said the Olympic Games were a perfect time for a team reunion.
“We always kind of knew they were good enough to be here,” Lee Glandorf ’10 said. She referenced a 2009 picture taken by fellow Games attendee Alice Henly ’10 that shows Yale women’s crew team members standing on the dock at the Eton Dorney Rowing Centre at sunset while in England for the Henley Royal Regatta.
Glandorf said she remembers Ritzel and Gerrand discussing their goal of returning to the venue to compete at the Games.
“We knew we would be back,” Glandorf said with a smile.
At Yale, Brzozowicz finished second at the NCAA Championship in 2004. Ritzel and Gerrand won the NCAA Championship with Redman in 2008, and went on to win NCAA titles in 2009 and 2010.
Rower Anne Warner ’77 was Yale’s first alumna to win an Olympic medal when her American crew took bronze in the women’s eight at the 1976 Games in Montreal, Canada. Ritzel is the first rower from the Yale women’s crew program to win gold.