SPORTS

Noise from packed grandstands drives British rowers to great feats at atmospheric Dorney Lake

07/30/2012 04:46 EDT | Updated 09/29/2012 05:12 EDT
WINDSOR, England - American rower Taylor Ritzel says she can hear it 750 metres from the finish line. British sculler Katherine Grainger takes it further, saying it hits her almost as soon as she leaves the starting block.

They are talking about an intangible factor that is driving crews from all nationalities, but especially those from the host nation, to previously unseen levels at Dorney Lake at the London Olympics.

Some are describing it as a "wall of sound." Others say it would be comparable to running out of the tunnel before a Premier League football match.

"It was kind of weird," said Tom James, a member of the British men's four that won its heat on Monday. "We were just sitting in the tent where we relax before our race when we heard the noise — it's like being in a big stadium.

"That's just bizarre for us in rowing."

The noise and buzz coming from the packed grandstands either side of the final 200 metres of the course at Dorney Lake has proven to be an inspiration in the first three days of heats.

"When you're in the boat, the sense you have is the sound of the boat, your own breathing, your body is telling you how much pain you're in and how much more you can take," said Anna Watkins, Grainger's partner in the women's double sculls. "When you've got that wall of sound, all that goes away ... it all goes out of your mind.

"The pain is not there because you're thinking, "Do it for these guys." Your spirits rise, you're feeling happy and enjoying being in the moment and that noise. It's addictive. I can see why people like being footballers. That's what it felt like today."

Watkins and Grainger won their heat Monday in an Olympic-best time and for much of the race, it looked as if they were coasting. Five other Olympic-best times have been set already, while Hamish Bond and Eric Murray of New Zealand smashed the world-best time in the men's pair that had stood for 10 years by nearly six seconds.

The pull of the crowd, which has been 20,000-strong every day so far, is clearly having an effect. Almost every rower with a dictaphone or microphone in front of them is remarking on it, often unprompted.

"It's an honour to be here representing the United States," said Ritzel, who rows in the women's eight, "but also to be in a country where rowing is such a big deal."

As expected, it's the British crews who seem to be galvanized most.

Even by the host nation's lofty standards, the regatta couldn't be going much better.

All 13 of its boats are safely through the heats, the gold-medal contenders are racing fast and even those who struggled in recent months have rediscovered their form.

More than 27 million pounds ($42 million) of government and National Lottery funding since 2008 may be one reason for the success. But the unique atmosphere is definitely another.

"It's just this wonderful buoyancy you get to race alongside that," she said. "You feel it in your body, pulsing through you. We're very lucky to have this incredible support ... It lifts you like nothing else."

As many as four British crews are seen as near-bankers for gold when the four days of finals start on Wednesday. That list doesn't even contain two defending Olympic and world champions — the men's four and the lightweight men's double sculls — who are touch and go to either top the podium or get the silver. And another three boats have decent bronze-medal hopes.

If heat times can be replicated, the pre-regatta target of six medals should be easily surpassed, which would make for Britain's most successful ever Olympic meet for more than a century.

"We're always jealous of the athletics people because of the stadium atmosphere," Watkins said. "But it feels like that here."

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