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U.S. crews advance to semifinals

Posted: Wednesday, August 18, 2004

SCHINIAS, Greece Oh, those brainy MIT guys. It just figures that a creative frat house party contest would launch an Olympic rowing career.

Steve Tucker had never rowed when he arrived at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Then one of his fraternity brothers set up a rowing machine for a game combining rowing, spiked punch and a bucket ''row 'til you blow.''

''It was 400 meters as fast as you can. You got a handicap for every drink,'' he said. ''That's what got me started.''

Tucker's pursuit of a more sober goal, a medal in lightweight double sculls, stayed alive Tuesday when he and partner Greg Ruckman turned in a close second in a repechage, or second-chance race.

They were among five American boats to emerge from the repechage round and into the semifinals, meaning every U.S. crew remained active heading into Wednesday's races.

It was back in 1990 that Tucker first got on the rowing machine. Later, he simulated a 2,500-meter time as fast as anyone had done on the varsity MIT team. Not long after he was on the water.

Ruckman, incidentally, rowed for nearby Harvard, though after Tucker had already graduated. The two have been working toward the Athens Games together since 2002 and have some solid results, including a first place at a World Cup race last year.

Other than the Polish tandem, ''We've beaten every other one of these boats here,'' Tucker noted. ''So any of the top 12 boats have a chance to get a medal.''

In women's lightweight double sculls, Stacy Borgman and Lisa Schlenker haven't been together nearly as long as Tucker and Ruckman, but looked like they were starting to jell Tuesday with a solid second place after bringing up the rear of their initial heat Sunday.

''It was more what we're capable of doing and Sunday was not,'' said Borgman, a rare Alaskan to get into rowing. ''It gave us a kick in the pants which maybe we needed.''

Borgman, from Homer, has only been teamed up with Schlenker since June. Before that, the two had different sculling partners and were fierce rivals in national events. Schlenker has always been a competitor, though not always in rowing. She played soccer for years but gave it up after knee surgery. After college, rowing was the answer when she was ''looking for challenge in life that cannot be tapped into sitting in front of a computer or a cubicle.''

The other U.S. boats to advance where the quadruple scull, which won its repechage, as well as the men's four and single sculler Jennifer Devine, the 1996 Olympian who skipped the Sydney Games to earn her medical degree.

The quad took a slim lead early but never lost it, winning by 1.3 seconds.

''We were in control most of the race and have a semi coming up so we didn't want to push it too hard,'' oarsman Brett Wilkinson said, confident of his improving boat's ability to make the six-boat final coming off a seventh in the most recent World Cup.

Devine must finish in the top three in her semifinal to advance to the final. She'll have two of the top three scullers in the world in her next race as well as some other strong scullers.

''Cracking to the final would be quite an accomplishment for me and I'd be quite happy with that,'' she said.

The U.S. men's four also advanced to a semifinal by finishing second in their heat. Russia finished ahead of them by 1.29 seconds.

The boat includes Mike Wherley, who was at the center of a controversial move by men's coach Mike Teti in the Sydney Games. Wherley had been part of the men's eight that won three straight world championships from 1997 to '99, but he was moved to the four in an effort to help that boat qualify for the 2000 games. The four improved from 13th in 1999 to fifth in the Olympics, but the eight dropped out of the medals, also finishing fifth.

''I'm just trying to make this boat fast,'' said Wherley, noting he was frustrated when he again didn't make this year's elite eight boat. ''Getting through the semi is going to be really tough.''



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