DORNEY, England (Reuters) - Britain’s Helen Glover and Heather Stanning stormed to victory in the women’s Olympic rowing pair on Wednesday to give the host nation their first gold of the London Games in front of Princes William and Harry and 25,000 screaming fans.
In the last race of the day, the German men’s eight held off a strong early challenge from Britain and a late charge from defending champions Canada to win the blue riband event in a thrilling sprint for the line.
In a feverish atmosphere rarely seen at an international regatta, all the crews said they had struggled to hear the instructions from their coxes as they came through a deafening wall of noise in the final 300 metres before the grandstands.
Stanning, 27, and Glover, 26, took a commanding early lead and held on at the finish to claim the first Olympic victory by a British women’s crew, settling the nerves of a nation which had been without a gold medal five days into the Games.
“Ecstatic!” Glover yelled to reporters over the roar of the crowd at Dorney Lake, west of London. “It’s so surreal, it will take for ever to sink in.”
Prime Minister David Cameron praised the pair for their “their absolutely fantastic effort”.
Germany had started the men’s eight - the fastest race in the regatta - as favourites after winning the last three world championships and going unbeaten in their world cup races since 2009.
They needed to get a quick start and then hold on as the whole field came back at them in the second half of the final.
“The British were very fast in the first 1,000 metres. We had to break that,” Germany’s Richard Schmidt told Reuters.
The Canadians, who won gold in Beijing, were delighted with their silver medal, while Britain’s crew looked dejected after they slipped to third in the last 200 metres.
“In the last 500 metres the mind said yes but the body said no,” said a choked Constantine Louloudis, the stroke (front oarsman) who is seen as the prodigy of British rowing.
The Canadian crew said they had expected to be fighting for bronze.
“I’ve a lot of sympathy for the British crew, my dream was I hoped we’d get gold and GB would get silver,” Germany’s Filip Adamski told Reuters.
The dejection in the British crew, including 40-year-old Greg Searle who returned to rowing to chase his second Olympic gold after winning in Barcelona 20 years ago, contrasted with the jubilant women’s pair.
Stanning, an army captain who may be sent to Afghanistan next year, only got together with Glover in 2010 after the pair missed out on qualifying for another boat. Glover was picked out to row at a talent identification scheme in 2008 after she stood on tiptoes to get past the height limit.
The British duo were expected to win the title after dominating the international season and following their heat, in which they set an Olympic record. But they were still under huge pressure as they went for the first British gold medal in their first Olympic final.
Minutes after the race they stood on the podium, arms aloft and struggling to hold back tears.
Glover and Stanning had mostly rowed under the radar in the build up to the Games, with all the focus on Katherine Grainger who is hoping for her first Olympic gold in the double scull after winning three silvers at consecutive Games.
The performance reflected the strength of the British system, with Glover only starting to row four years ago and Stanning two years before that.
British women rowers have won a string of silver and bronze medals in the last three Olympics and numerous world titles, but had to wait until their home Games for their first gold since women’s rowing was introduced at the Olympics in 1976.
Britain is well placed to win more golds in the rowing, where several other crews including the women’s double and the men’s lightweight and heavyweight four start as favourites.
Ukraine won the women’s quad scull final in the other event on Wednesday, beating Germany who have dominated the event since it entered the Olympics in 1988.
Editing by Mark Trevelyan