John F. Russell: Steamboat Olympian recalls Atlanta games while creating new memories in London

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John Russell

John Russell's sports column appears Sundays in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 871-4209 or email jrussell@SteamboatToday.com.

Find more columns by John here.

— When the U.S. women’s pair rowing team of Sara Hendershot and Sarah Zelenka crossed the finish line in fourth place at the summer Olympic Games in London, there were only a few people in the world who could understand their disappointment.

One of those people, former Steamboat Springs resident Anne Kakela, was standing on the shore to comfort them.

“We had different expectations headed into the races, but I understood how they felt. I knew the feeling first hand,” Kakela said.

Kakela was a member of women’s eight rowing team in 1996. The Americans had won everything leading up to the 1996 games, including a World Championship title, and were a favorite to land the gold in Atlanta. But things didn’t go as planned for the squad that ended up in fourth place.

Fourth might be the loneliest place at any Olympic Games. Fourth means that years of hard work got the athlete within grasp of his or her dreams, but at the end of the race, it was just out of reach.

Fourth is where an Olympic dream turns into a nightmare. There are no medals, no spotlight and no celebration. Athletes must deal with the disappointment of knowing that an Olympic medal was less than a second from the athlete’s trophy case.

Kakela says it took some time to put her fourth-place finish into the books. But she was able to keep the finish in perspective. She insists that the Olympics was the destination of her journey — not the medal.

Things were a little different for the women’s pairs that Kakela helped coach this year.

Kakela said the team was inexperienced, and not expected to medal at the London games. But Kakela also understood that the disappoint of placing fourth was the same no matter the expectations. She knew that the two women would be crushed, but she would offer a few words of advice. After the fourth-place finish, Kakela shared her stories and told the two women to put the race behind them.

“I told them to go out and enjoy the rest of the games,” Kakela said. “I haven’t really had a chance to talk with them since the games, but I hope they were able to enjoy the experience. The Olympics are a great opportunity, and you have to take advantage of them when you are there.”

Kakela never returned to row as an Olympic athlete. A 1992 graduate of Dartmouth College, she retired a short time after the games but has stayed connected to the sport.

She had coached at Oregon State University and the University of Pennsylvania in 2007. In 2008, she joined the staff of the U.S. Rowing Team as an assistant and helped the women’s four to a bronze medal at the 2010 World Rowing Championship in New Zealand. Her job description tells us her primary focus is athlete development with emphases on identifying with under 23 and national senior team potential. But it’s easy to see her real job is promoting a love for the sport of rowing.

To reach John F. Russell, call 970-871-4209 or email jrussell@SteamboatToday.com

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