- Bonnie D. Ford, ESPN Senior Writer
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The women's eight is the fastest event in women's rowing. It's also arguably the most prestigious and nuanced, and the United States has planted its flag there on the elite level, winning five straight World Championships through last year, an Olympic silver medal in 2004 and the gold in 2008 -- the first in the event (also known as the coxed eight) in 24 years. Power is obviously part of the criteria for selection to the crew, but successful combinations also have a hard-to-define alchemy. Winning in that charged team atmosphere, it turns out, can be habit-forming.
Two past U.S. Olympic medalists who thought they were through with the sport have found the lure too powerful to resist -- one after three months and one after almost six years. With 14 months to go before the London Games, veterans Susan Francia and Alison Cox are in residence with the national team in Princeton, N.J., preparing for the lead-up to World Championships, a team qualifying event for the Olympics. Both have upended their lives to compete for one of those elite eight spots next year.
"I was done after Beijing,'' Francia said, smiling at her own past certainty. A Hungarian-born former self-described awkward athlete from Abington, Pa., who was recruited for rowing in her sophomore year at the University of Pennsylvania, she wanted to put her sociology degree to good use. Francia moved to San Diego, where her boyfriend was serving in the Navy, and applied for dozens of jobs in public policy research and analysis. But her search coincided with the economic implosion of late 2008 and she got little response.
"I thought to myself, 'I just won an Olympic gold medal, people, come on, hire me,'" Francia said. Then she received an e-mail from U.S. Rowing, asking if she was still training and staying eligible for funding from the federation, and coach Tom Terhaar inquired about her status. Drifting in a way she'd never done on water, Francia told him to send out a boat.
"I will never forget that first practice," she said. "I was by myself in a single [scull] and it was like, 'Oh my God, this is what I love to do. Why would you give this up?'"
Now she juggles a couple of jobs with training and competition, including modeling. Francia, 28, appeared in ESPN The Magazine's Body Issue last year and said she got the most rewarding feedback "not from men, but from young girls -- 'You have muscles, and that's so cool.' It was so touching to me. I've been 6-foot-2 since the ninth grade. I tried sports and that didn't work out, but for me being tall was the tough part."
Cox had her epiphany during her 30th birthday party in 2009. In the midst of the celebration at her family's beach house in Santa Cruz, Calif., she abruptly began peppering one of her guests, longtime U.S. coxswain Mary Whipple, with questions about the team.
After Cox stepped off the podium at the Athens Games in 2004, she never looked back. She had a job and an apartment in New York City waiting, and channeled all her athletic competitiveness into a carefully planned career in marketing, first at IMG and then at her own start-up. She said she was as surprised as anyone when her old passion bubbled to the surface.
Cox began ratcheting up her workouts, and contacted Terhaar in late 2009, asking if she'd be welcome back. One team camp later, she made her final decision and has been with the program full-time for the past year.
What changed in her absence? "The sheer level of athleticism," she said. "It's probably due to Title IX, because so many college programs have been added even in the last six years while I've been gone. We have 40 extremely strong, talented women training here who at any point could be dropped into one of the lineups and be just fine."
Fewer than half that number will make the Olympic team, which will compete in six events, including the eights. Cox has dropped 20 pounds and said she's on her way back to peak form, but not quite there yet.
"I'm back in shape and I'm really competitive on the team, but luckily we still have a year before the Olympics, because I still need to make the next jump into being in contention for the women's eight," she said.
Cox said it's a daily battle to balance workouts, nutrition and recovery as an older athlete, but there are also pluses to having come back from the corporate world.
"I know that when I'm having coffee in between practices with my teammates at 10:30 on a Monday morning, there are a lot of people in the world who would love to be doing that, but they can't because they're getting through emails they got over the weekend,'' she said. "I understand that, because I used to be right there. The first time around, physically it was a piece of cake but mentally it was torturous, and now it is the absolute polar opposite ... It's a lot more fun this time."