7:19 PM EDT, June 30, 2012
PRINCETON, N.J. —
They were down a boat length quickly, right after the start of the race to determine who would go to the Olympics.
At the halfway point, it didn't look good. Rowers Sara Hendershot and Sarah Zelenka trailed the five-time national team of Amanda Polk and Jamie Redman in the women's pair by two boat lengths.
"My parents said they almost started to cry at the halfway point because they thought there was no way it was going to happen," said Hendershot, 24, of Simsbury.
"My mom was crying," said Zelenka, 25, who is from Illinois. "My sister was like, 'It's OK.'"
She laughed. Because what came next was "surreal," as Zelenka said after the race.
"With 750 [meters] to go, we upped the rate," Hendershot said in a YouTube video taped after the race. "At the 500 meter mark, I could feel them next to us. We kept trying to focus in, we kept trying to up the rate. We kept our focus, kept our goal in mind, and all of a sudden, we were ahead.
"We were in total shock. But the last 250 [meters], I kept saying, 'London, London, we're up, this is going to happen.' And it did."
Hendershot and Zelenka, two-time national team members, finished in 7:27.544 and Polk and Redman in 7:30.980.
And now Sara and Sarah are headed to London.
"It was a little bit of an upset, but we really thought we could do it," Hendershot said. "That's what helped us get through. No matter how far down we were, we knew we could make it happen.
"It took a little while for it all to hit us. I wasn't really tired until today."
It was June 16, two days after the race, early on a Saturday morning. It was shaping up to be a hot day. The two had just come in from training off Lake Carnegie, where the Princeton boathouse is. Hendershot is familiar with the venue; she graduated from Princeton in 2010, where she captained the team to an undefeated regular season and a third-place finish in the women's eight in the NCAAs as a senior.
Hendershot and Zelenka race in a pair, in which each rower mans a single oar.
Hendershot is one of six Olympic rowers with ties to Connecticut. A swimmer and a soccer player at Simsbury High (she helped the Trojans win a Class LL state title in 2005), she started rowing as a freshman.
"My parents said, 'Hey, you're pretty tall [5-11] and we've heard about this Title IX [rowing] thing for college women, why don't you try it out? See if you like it.' I totally fell in love with it right away.
"Simsbury High had a great program. We got third in New Englands."
She was in an eight-boat then and continued in the eight at Princeton. She was the only senior in the boat her final year and the next year, the group of Princeton rowers she had captained won the NCAA title.
"She was definitely a huge part of our NCAA championship the year after she graduated," Princeton coach Lori Dauphiny said in a press release after the trials. "She really set the tone, set an example with how confident and spirited she is."
The normally upbeat Hendershot admitted she had a tough time staying confident last winter. She suffered a stress fracture in her rib and was unable to row.
"I had to keep my head as positive as I could because I knew if I let myself get down, there was no way I was going to pop out of the hole on a good note," she said. "I sort of tried to not think about how close we were to the Olympics at that point. I just tried to keep my focus on being healthy.
"Because I had a break from rowing, I was totally reinvigorated, so excited and ready to get back into the boat and make it go fast."
She returned in January and was full strength in March. She paired up with Zelenka, whom she's rowed with on and off since 2010, about six weeks before the trials.
"It's pretty great that I get to row with one of my best friends on the team," Zelenka said. "We have a lot in common. We have the same goals. We're on the same page with a lot of stuff."
"I think our strengths match each other's weaknesses very well," Hendershot said. "I'm a little more of a power person and she's a little more of an endurance rower. It's nice because she pushes me to be better with endurance. I push her to be better with power."
And yes, they knew they had to work on their start.
"We have a lot of work to do and a lot of speed to gain," Hendershot said. "We know that our first half of our race needs improvement."
The pairs compete July 28-Aug. 1 in London.
"It's been a very long good two years of training," Hendershot said. "It's nice it's going to end the way we hoped."
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