By Nick Mulvenney
SYDNEY (Reuters) - After the "Lay-Down Sally" row of 2004 and a disappointing sixth place four years later, a hastily assembled crew of Australian women rowers are aiming to bury the curse of the Olympic coxed eight boat in London this year.
Had it not been for a public campaign and pressure from the rowers themselves, Australia would not be entering a crew for the event at all and stroke Phoebe Stanley and her team mates are determined to make the most of their late chance.
First, however, they must negotiate the final qualifiers in Lucerne from May 20-23, where they will race-off against Germany, Ukraine, Belarus and Russia with the top two going on to London.
Some have dubbed the Lucerne event the "regatta of death" and, while confident, Stanley believes it would be a major achievement to get through against crews that have been racing together for two years or more.
"It would be massive, it would be absolutely massive," she told Reuters in an interview at the final team workout in Australia before embarking for Europe.
"Considering what we've gone through to get to this point. The nature of the group, having so many young girls, some of whom haven't even raced internationally.
"On paper you'd think we'd had so many things stacked against us it was just never going to happen. For me, to qualify this boat with these girls would be just amazing."
It was in the eights final at the Athens Olympics that Sally Robbins inexplicably stopped rowing 400 meters from the end to leave Australia last and trigger an acrimonious national row that even drew comment from the prime minister.
Robbins failed in her bid to make the team for Beijing but a crew some fancied as genuine medal contenders again finished sixth and last in the final, leading to talk of the curse.
"We've just been really unlucky," Stanley said. "It's a boat that just attracts a lot of media attention anyhow, it's a blue riband event.
"Unfortunately, for the last two Olympics we haven't had the greatest results in that event and I really hope we can turn that idea around with this particular group."
Regardless of whether anybody believed in the curse, Rowing Australia decided not to race a women's eight after Beijing and focus on getting their best athletes in the smaller boats.
"Last year, when we did the count of the numbers we saw there was going to be potentially five or six Beijing Olympians miss the team completely so a campaign started just to get a women's eight on the water," recalled Stanley.
The public campaign on social media and pressure from athletes prompted a U-turn and a crew was put together to race at the national trials earlier this year.
"It's a classic case of the athletes pushing a case and pushing a case and then delivering when they had the opportunity," Andrew Matheson, Australia's National High Performance Director, told Reuters.
"We weren't going to open that opportunity (but now) they've got our full support to see if they can take it to the next level and qualify."
Despite not having competed internationally in an eight since Beijing, Stanley thinks the Australians have something of an idea of where they stand.
"It's hard because we haven't had a boat in the events but Ukraine competed in a recent World Cup and finished fourth," she said.
"We've been doing similar times to them over here and we're hoping that potentially warmer waters over there and two more weeks training will get us up there."
Stanley, who narrowly missed out on a seat in the women's pairs, said getting through Lucerne was not the extent of the ambition of the senior crew members.
"For most of us it's second time around and it's about going and getting a medal and not just putting on the uniform," she said.
"That's part of what's driving this boat, we have five Olympians and we want to go and make a mark and not just have a wave at the crowd."
The crew understandably have a lot of fine tuning to do but Stanley said they had already fostered a great group spirit, while their coach had allowed them a degree of independence.
"This group especially thrives on positive, happy motivation, it's not really a high stress crew," she said.
"I think it's important at this level that coaches don't overstep the mark a bit and let you be in charge of your own destiny," she added.
"I think that's what happened in the past a bit, coordinating so many bodies in the eight, it gets a bit dictatorial and the girls can lose a little bit of responsibility and independence."
So was there any chance of anyone dropping their oar and giving up with 400 meters to go?
"Not if I have anything to do with it," Stanley laughed. "As long as we keep our heads in our boat and not get carried away with the bigger picture, we should be fine."
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)