The finals are scheduled for Sunday.
Gleeson and his teammates took second in their semifinal, finishing a boat length behind the Soviet world champions. The last time a U.S. quad reached the finals was 1979, and no U.S. quad has ever won a medal in the world championships.
During the finals drought that spanned the 1980s, rowing and off-beat educational pursuits took Gleeson, an Englishman who graduated from the University of Nottingham, from San Francisco to Philadelphia to Occoquan, Va.
Gleeson, 34, is a civil engineer specializing in such abstract subjects as how memory affects people's perceptions of public spaces.
What was he doing on that day in 1980 when he came back to the oars?
He was watching a show at Sea World in San Diego when his eye wandered past the leaping dolphins to an eight-oared shell skimming across Mission Bay.
An empty feeling came over him, and he went back to his sport.
He did not come through the '80s with much to show for his consistent rowing training, however, and part of that had to do with the nature of sculling, the individualist branch of American rowing.
Scullers put in the longest, loneliest hours. They do it with the conviction that they train best alone, without relying on coaches or boatmates. Until this year, the best scullers would vie to row the U.S. single at the world championships, and after that spot was taken, the others would reluctantly fill the double and quad boats that were routinely sent off to defeat in all corners of the world.
"You used to have to hit people over the head to get a quad together for the trials," Gleeson said.
This year, USRowing hired its first national sculling coach, Igor Grinko of the Soviet Union, and set him up at a new sculling center on Occoquan Reservoir in northern Virginia. Calls went out to the best scullers in the country to join Grinko.
In large part, Gleeson moved to Occoquan because he was tired of losing. Last year, his quad tried and failed three times to meet the USRowing time standard to qualify for the world championships team. His natural reluctance to cast his lot with a coach began to wane.
"Before, it was nice to control your life completely and to not have to be aware of anyone else's timetable or training ideas," Gleeson said. "But as you get closer to your goals, it gets to be extremely frustrating to feel you have nowhere to turn when things go wrong. It's like there's nobody there for you."
In Grinko, a legendary coach in the Soviet Union, help was found. Those scullers who moved to Occoquan in January received a quick dose of aggressive coaching. Grinko is pushy, demanding, and never satisfied. Even after yesterday's breakthrough performance, he met the four rowers on the dock with technical criticisms.
"We could win the gold this year and he'd be pushing just as hard when we get home," Gleeson said. "That's his style. It's kind of a welcome thing after so many years of doing everything on your own or on the periphery of being coached. To have someone there to push has been good."
In other U.S. successes yesterday, Philadelphian Teresa Zarzeczny and her partner, Lindsay Burns, dominated their semifinal in the lightweight double sculls from start to finish and won easily.
This is Zarzeczny's first world championships. She took up sculling while attending St. Joseph's University in the mid-'80s, when the school had only a club rowing program.
An adopted Philadelphian, Penn assistant women's coach Angie Herron, won her semifinal in the lightweight single sculls by two seconds.
Upstart men's single sculler Bran Sweenor advanced to the final, taking third in his heat, as did the heavyweight double scull of Chip McKibben, a California native affiliated with Penn Athletic Club, and former Olympic medalist Doug Burden.
The U.S. lightweight quad of Michael Dreher, Jay Feenan, Undine member Jeff Pfaendtner and Ventnor, N.J., native Ed Hewitt went the same route to the finals, taking third, just three seconds behind the defending champions from Italy, who finished first ahead of Sweden.
The U.S. women's eight and the men's lightweight four also qualified for the finals. The most excrutiating disappointment for the Americans came in the day's most exciting race, the men's four with coxswain.
The Americans rowed the fastest final 500 meters, but fell short of third place and a trip to the finals by less than a second. Half a boat length separated the U.S. boat, which included coxswain Mike Moore and No. 2 seat Sean Hall, both of Penn AC, from first-place Britain. Poland was second and Germany third, by the length of a baseball bat.
The men's pair with coxswain from Penn AC - Aaron Pollock, John Moore and coxswain Stephan Shellans - lost by a quarter of a boat length despite rowing the fastest final 1,000 meters. The seven-time world champion Abbagnale brothers, from Italy, were just four seconds ahead in first place.
Philadelphians Mark Berkner and Kevin Murphy finished last in their straight-pair semifinal heat.