LONDON — Rower Charlie Cole ’07 and his American heavyweight four boat have gone from relative unknowns to top medal contenders with two first-place finishes in the qualifying races at the London Games this week.

Cole will have a chance to win his first Olympic medal on Saturday in the gold medal race at the Eton Dorney Rowing Center, but the Americans are not the only crew expected to perform well. Australia’s four set a new Olympic-best time on Monday in the first qualifying heat before Great Britain took the second heat and the United States won the third.

In Thursday’s semifinal, the home crowd cheered and waved Union Jack flags as Great Britain overtook the Australians in the final 500 meters to record the fastest qualifying time for the final. The Americans, who won the second semifinal with the day’s third-best time, have yet to face Great Britain or Australia after skipping top international regattas to train for the Games.

“I think we’re going to have to make some improvements if we want to come home with a medal,” Cole said in a Thursday USRowing press release, adding, “We know we have a chance.”

Australia and the three-time defending Olympic champions Great Britain are not the only crews of concern. Germany took the early lead in the Americans’ semifinal heat before the U.S. boat surged into first and held off second-place Greece by just .89 seconds at the finish. Cole’s boatmate Scott Gault said the focus on Saturday will be staying ahead of Germany and Greece, and then looking at medals.

A number of Bulldog fans attended Cole’s Thursday race and plan to watch the Saturday final, including his brother Henry Cole ’10 and former teammates Andy Collard ’10, and Sean Riordan ’09. John Pescatore, who coached Yale’s heavyweight men’s crew team from 2002-2010 and led the Bulldogs to an undefeated dual season during Cole’s senior year, was also in the crowd of more than 25,000 at the Eton Dorney Rowing Centre.

“He was an excellent rower at Yale and each year, Charlie played his role perfectly,” Pescatore said, emphasizing that Cole took leadership cues from the upperclassmen and captain, and promoted teamwork within the squad. “He was consistently, quietly focused. He made the team successful.”

Pescatore won bronze in the American heavyweight eight at at the 1988 Games in Seoul and placed sixth in the heavyweight pair at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. He said he was not surprised to see the Cole race well at the Games.

“He is not here because he is the strongest or most gifted,” Pescatore explained. “It’s his determination.”

Cole’s race is scheduled for 5:30am EST on Saturday.

Staff reporter Jacqueline Sahlberg is tweeting from London about Yale Olympians @yaleatolympics