A bronze bravo for Bonner alum McElhenney

Posted: August 18, 2008

BEIXIAOYING TOWN, China - Before shoving the men's heavyweight eight out to race yesterday in the Olympic finals, U.S. coach Mike Teti went down the line of his rowers, saying good luck to each one.

When Teti - about to see his last race in 12 years as the national-team coach - got to his coxswain, Marcus McElhenney, he switched gears.

"I patted him on the head and just said, 'Go, Bonner,' " Teti said later.

The coach and the coxswain are Monsignor Bonner alumni. The connection from their Drexel Hill high school never made it easier for McElhenney. Teti sometimes seemed to bend over backward to prove there was no favoritism in any of his boats.

Yesterday, though, the Bonner guys finished the day smiling.

The United States didn't win gold, like it did in Athens. That would have been a bigger surprise this time than it was in 2004. But the U.S. boat, with three Athens veterans aboard, picked up a bronze and looked thrilled to get it.

"Bronze is awesome - my first Olympics, my first Olympic medal," McElhenney said.

The United States had not won medals in consecutive Olympics in this event since 1952-56.

Canada, the defending world champion and the dominating eight throughout the Olympics, finished the 2,000-meter course in 5 minutes, 23.89 seconds. The Americans dueled Britain for silver, losing out by .23 seconds.

But they viewed the medal as an achievement. They had struggled in the first heat, going out too quickly. This time, they went the opposite way. Early in the race, they were sixth out of six boats. Halfway through, they were fourth, still behind the Netherlands.

"The Dutch were just sitting, and the Australians [in fifth] and Poles [in sixth] were just sitting," said McElhenney, a Temple graduate who grew up in Lansdowne. "I said, 'All right, boys. We're in fourth; let's go to bronze right now, ready and go.' They responded. We started getting out, and it became a three-way race."

That had been the plan set by Teti: Start driving halfway through.

"It's almost like you go in a hole and pray to God you come out the other end," said Steven Coppola of making that move at the 1,000-meter mark. "It's always a risky move, because if you go too far in the hole and someone else has something left, it will hit you right on the backside. It's risky, but it's rewarding when it pays off."

When all three countries rowed to the dock that served as a medals stand, McElhenney tried to run over toward his brothers and sisters in the crowd. An Olympic official stopped him dead.

The guy didn't know what the coxswain was feeling just then, how Teti had taken a vote of the boat on which of two coxswains to use, and McElhenney had come out ahead, 5-4. It was Teti's call all along, but the coach, who starts a new job as crew coach at the University of California after the Olympics, never cut McElhenney any slack.

Add to that the gold in '04: Not medaling really would have felt like a failure.

"People said to me going in, 'This is a lot of pressure,' " McElhenney said just before the medals ceremony. "We kind of lie and say, 'Aaaah, no, that's OK.' I'm from Philly, so [fibbing] comes naturally to us."

"I went to high school with Marcus' dad - we were in the same class," Teti said. "He was the toughest guy in the class. Not the biggest - but the toughest. Marcus has worked really hard, and he's come a long way, and I hope it continues."

The postrace news conference didn't start until McElhenney got off his cell phone: "Thanks, Mom. Are you with Dad? . . . Hey, Pop!" When it did, the coxswain said they were losing their coach, "which kind of stinks."

"You don't really mean that," said Teti, no-nonsense to the end.


Contact at the staff writer Mike Jensen at 215-854-4489 or mjensen@phillynews.com.

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