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Two Sarahs Make U.S. Olympic Rowing Team


We're counting down to the London Olympics. And this morning, we're going to meet two rowing competitors. American women have been dominant in the eights in international competition; that's boats with eight rowers and a coxswain. They've won the last six world and Olympic championships. In fact, the American team is so strong and so deep that many talented athletes are forced to look for spots in other rowing events.

Qualifying for women's pairs was recently held in Princeton, New Jersey. NPR's Mike Pesca was there.

MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: The finals in the women's pair have just ended, eight people are snapping pictures of two exuberant athletes. The cameramen are not members of the row-parazzi or any kind of rowing press. And, by the way, for these qualifying events, the word press needn't be plural.

The photographers here Sarah Zelenka's and Sarah Hendershot's parents. The rowers have also drawn a sibling each and what seems like three friends. That's it. Stand next to the sign that says Olympics, says Mr. Hendershot. Come on, dad, says the newly-minted Olympian, Sarah. The crowd is not overflowing, except with pride.

Carl Hendershot.

CARL HENDERSHOT: She has such drive, such power. I believed in her from the very beginning. I kept saying it all along, if I had a thousand Sarahs, we'd take over the world. She's just incredible.


HENDERSHOT: I hope she didn't hear that.


PESCA: Hendershot and Zelenka came from behind in the race and in the rankings, to nip Amanda Polk and Jamie Redman for a spot on the Olympic team. The heartbreak for Polk and Redman is doubly piercing because they were among the eight rowers that won the world championship. But Rowing is an unsentimental sport.

Redman and Polk were beaten for spots in the big boat, and here today, upset by the two Sarahs in their attempt to make the Olympics in pairs. Many of the members of the Olympic 8 team, who train in Princeton, were on hand to hug their new Olympic teammates, and to see them attain what Sarah Hendershot described as the stuff of girlhood fantasy.

SARAH HENDERSHOT: I think when I was in 4th grade I did this book report on Janet Evans and she was my idol. I saw her as this smaller girl who worked her butt off and was amazing. And I swam when I was younger and I thought I was going to do it in swimming. And then, got a shoulder injury. And when I found rowing, I realized that this is what I could do it in.

PESCA: If you noticed the reference to a smaller athlete, realize that Hendershot and her partner are both six feet tall - rangy, according to the actuarial tables - but not necessarily for their sport. Even so, Sarah Zelenka's height is what drew the eye of a recruiter for the rowing team on the campus of Michigan's Grand Valley State.

HENDERSHOT: This guy on Grand Valley campus was like, You're really tall - you should try rowing. And I was like OK, lets do it. I didn't like it at first.


HENDERSHOT: I was like, I'm too afraid to go away from the dock. But after a while it just became great.

PESCA: In case you were wondering if Grand Valley State, was a secret rowing powerhouse, its not. Hendershot went to Princeton. Here's the list of colleges that the members of the women's eight graduated from: Stanford , Ithaca , Yale, Berkley, Harvard, Harvard, Princeton and Penn.

So Sarah Zelenka's road, or river, isn't the usual one. Though she and her partner's next stop, London, is quite prestigious. There, Rowing experts will not list Hendershot and Zelenka as among the pairs expected to medal. But history suggests the two Sarah's have never been dissuaded by other people's expectations.

Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mike Pesca first reached the airwaves as a 10-year-old caller to a New York Jets-themed radio show and has since been able to parlay his interests in sports coverage as a National Desk correspondent for NPR based in New York City.