Barely 8 hours removed from the trauma of Saturday morning’s bomb blast at Centennial Olympic Park, Karen Kraft’s Olympic dream came up .29 of a second short.
The 27-year-old rower, who lists Newport as her hometown, and partner Missy Schwen were edged in the final of women’s coxless pairs rowing at the 1996 Olympic Games by Australians Megan Still and Kate Slatter - the same duo which beat the Americans at last year’s world championships.
It was one of the closer races at a competition where spirits were noticeably subdued by the events of the early morning, when two people were killed and more than 100 injured when a bomb detonated in the downtown Atlanta gathering places for Olympic participants and fans.
Most rowers, however, were far away from the scene - living in Gainesville, some 55 miles from downtown Atlanta and close to the rowing venue at Lake Lanier.
But when they got to Saturday’s competition, they found soldiers with machine guns patrolling the premises and security tightened. Before the races, a moment of silence was observed for the two victims of the bombing.
A few heats later, Still and Slatter jumped away from Kraft and Schwen at the start, building a margin of 1.633 seconds by the midpoint of the 2,000-meter race.
Kraft and Schwen closed dramatically in the final 250 meters, but could not overtake the Aussies, who finished in 7:01.39. Behind Kraft and Schwen, Christine Gosse and Helen Cortin of France won the bronze medal.
“The disappointment is huge,” said Kraft. “We wanted gold and nothing less. We didn’t even have a seed of doubt that we wouldn’t do it.”
Kraft’s parents, Jeane and Charles Frandrup, moved to Newport in 1994, but Kraft herself has only visited Newport twice - at Christmas 1994 and after the Olympic Trials. On the latter trip, she appeared before the Newport Kiwanis, who have aided her in fund-raising.
“My mom said they had tried to send me wishes of good luck, but we were not to give out our address here,” Kraft said. “But they’ve been extremely supportive and I know they were wishing us the best.”
Even though they had to settle for silver, Kraft and Schwen viewed just making the Olympic team as vindication of sorts.
They had won the silver medal at last year’s world championships, but then learned that national women’s coach Hartmut Buschbacher wanted to take rowers from the women’s eight-with-coxswain and try them in the pairs, as well.
“It was a disappointment,” Kraft said. “He felt he had a better chance with two rowers from the eight.”
Feeling Buschbacher had compromised his commitment to their boat, Kraft and Schwen decided their best route to the Games was not through USRowing’s training center in Chattanooga, but through Australia, where rowing coach Dick Garrard is known for his expertise with smaller crews. They trained there.
“The team was very supportive of our decision - and really, so was the coach,” Kraft said. “They came down to Australia to train for three weeks and we talked. Hartmut was pleased with how we were rowing. He told us, ‘You guys look great.”’
Kraft discovered rowing as a student at Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo - “in a club program that never won a race,” she said. “In fact, we were usually one of the last boats to cross the finish line. But it was something that hooked me.”
Then she attended a summer rowing camp run by former Gonzaga University crew coach Dave Reichman - “my first experience with some real coaching. It was the first time I thought I could take this further than just college.”
Yet for the next two years, she didn’t even take it out on the water. Working to pay off college debts, Kraft trained on her own before finally summoning the courage to call Buschbacher in Fall 1993 and ask for an invitation to the training center.
“I told him who I was and what school I went to and he said, ‘I’ve never heard of your school,”’ Kraft recalled. “That was pretty much the end of the conversation. I’d waited three months to phone him and afterward I was just sitting on the stool thinking about it when the phone rang and it was him calling back. He said, ‘You must think you’re a good athlete to just phone me up and ask to come row for me.”’
But when she told him she hadn’t been in a boat for two years, Buschbacher made her take a test on a rowing machine to compare her to women already in his program. Kraft was told she ranked in the bottom 25 percent of Buschbacher’s rowers.
“What do you think about that?” he challenged.
“Well, it wouldn’t say much for your coaching if I was on the top,” she replied.
“Welcome to the program,” Buschbacher said.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: LOCAL WATCH A look at how athletes from Idaho and Washington fared Saturday at the Olympics: Track and field: Kelly Blair (Prosser), women’s heptathlon; was in 18th place after four events. Tawanda Chiwira (Zimbabwe and Idaho), men’s 400 meters, finished sixth in heat (45.38 seconds) and did not advance. Baseball: Travis Lee (Olympia), went 1 for 2 and scored twice as U.S. routed Australia 15-5. Women’s basketball: Camille Thompson’s (ex-WSU) Canadian team (0-4) lost to Russia 68-49. Rowing: Karen Kraft (Newport), women’s coxless pairs finals with Missy Schwen of Bloomington, Ind., captured a silver medal (7:01.78) behind an Australian team (7:01.39). Jennifer Devine (UW) women’s double sculls, did not finish in the top six. Jason Scott (Seattle) men’s coxless fours, did not finish in the top six.
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