When the United States women’s eight crossed the finish line at England’s Eton Dorney on Aug. 2, Susan Francia became the first female Penn alum to ever win two gold medals in a single event.
Francia and the Americans rowed the 2,000-meter course in 6:10.59, nearly a second and a half and a full boat length ahead of silver medalist Canada.
The U.S. boat, which had six returning members from the 2008 crew that took gold in Beijing, had an increased set of pressures entering this summer’s race.
In 2008, the boat had just begun to make an international splash. After taking gold at the World Championships in 2006 and the World Rowing Cup in 2007, it was looking to upset 2004 Olympic champ Romania.
After the win in Beijing, the eight continued to assert its dominance, winning Worlds three more times in 2009, 2010 and 2011, and setting a world-record time at the 2012 Samsung World Rowing Cup (5:54.17).
Still, it didn’t make their job in London any easier.
“We had a different role going into it,” Francia said. “It was a different mindset, because there was a lot more media and a lot more hype.”
Her coach, she added, was not thrilled with the large amount of media attention the boat received, even though the hype was good for the sport.
“Our goal was just to keep it internal and ignore all the outside pressure and noise,” Francia said. “If you think of it just as the culmination of your training and not this big, spectacular, unattainable thing, you race — you just race.”
The immense pressure wasn’t the only factor the eight had to overcome. The women also had to contend with a major crosswind on race day that Francia felt prevented the boat from breaking their own world record.
And then there was the noise.
“I’ve never been in a race where, for 500 meters, I couldn’t hear the coxswain,” Francia said. “We could hear people shouting and cheering for a mile. And it was so crazy to think, gosh, that’s for us.”
Francia said supporters came to watch and cheer even during team practices, which had to be scheduled around the official races and heats.
“People would just stay after the races and watch us practice,” she said. “I’ve never heard chants of ‘USA! USA! USA!’ when we were just doing drills before.”
All the pressure, all the hype and all the noise eventually made the gold medal that much sweeter. But as with any gold-medal athlete, the question that follows is always, “What’s next?”
For Francia, the fall will be busy — but not on the water. She recently threw out a first pitch at a Phillies game with fellow Philadelphia gold medalists Carli Lloyd and Heather Mitts of the women’s soccer team and Jordan Burroughs, a gold-medal wrestler. She is also slated to soon present an award to Muhammad Ali, an “incredible honor,” and one for which Penn President Amy Gutmann recommended her. The team also has a date set at the White House.
And as for the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro?
“[I’m] just trying to have fun and live in the moment.”