SCHINIAS, Greece - Jason Read wanted an American flag in the boat for the U.S. eight crew's first Olympic victory lap in 40 years, and one exuberant fan was happy to oblige.
When Read beckoned, the fan hurdled a barrier and charged into the lake, swimming out to hand off the Stars and Stripes to crew members, who took turns holding it aloft as they rowed along grandstands of cheering fans.
"There's no greater privilege than to represent America at this time with all that's going on in the world," said Read, a 26-year-old volunteer fire chief from Ringoes, N.J., who worked search-and-rescue duty in the days after Sept. 11, 2001.
A crew that followed one clutch performance with another ended America's four-decade dry spell in the sport's marquee event.
After overtaking favored Canada with a world-best time in last weekend's heats, the U.S. team proved Sunday that its earlier triumph was no fluke. It led the final race from start to finish.
"Countless numbers of Olympian rowers from '68 on have contacted us, given us money, written us notes, given moral support, come by practice," U.S. head coach Mike Teti said. "We really felt we needed to end this 40 years of drought."
The victory capped an Olympic regatta in which the U.S. women's eight won silver - the first medal for that boat in two decades. Their celebration was more subdued since they arrived as a favorite and finished behind a Romanian boat they had edged in their initial heat.
When the men crossed the line first in the next race, Pete Cipollone turned from his coxswain position to face the crowd and splashed water with both hands. After receiving their medals, his teammates threw him off the floating ceremony platform, laughing as their 5-foot-1, 120-pound crewmate flew through the air and splashed down.
When a crew from Philadelphia's Vesper Boat Club won the last U.S. gold in eights at the 1964 Tokyo Games, it marked the 11th time in 15 Olympics that the Americans had finished on top.
The winless streak that followed was expected to end in 2000, when the American eight came to Sydney as three-time defending world champions, but they finished fifth.
The men who finally returned the U.S. eight to the center of an Olympic podium were: Cipollone, and oarsmen Bryan Volpenhein, Beau Hoopman, Dan Beery, Matt Deakin, Joseph Hansen, Chris Ahrens, Wyatt Allen and Read (who sat in that order from stern to bow).
They got off the line quick and had a commanding 3.26-second lead at 1,000 meters. From there, it was only a matter of staying strong enough to keep the lead for the second half of the race.
Volpenhein had been watching Australia, Canada and Germany to his right, expecting challenges. As the field approached the last 500 meters, Hoopman shouted "The Dutch!" to Volpenhein, who sets the pace of the eight oarsmen.
The Netherlands closed the gap by nearly two seconds, but the U.S. boat never appeared threatened, finishing in 5:42.48.
"We were concerned," Volpenhein said. "We knew they were coming and we knew they probably had a good sprint. But so do we, and we relied on that."
The Netherlands won the silver medal and Australia took bronze. Canada, whose loss to the U.S. crew forced them to make the final through a repechage - or second-chance race - labored home in fifth.
Romania's women's eight, whose strong comeback came up short by .3 seconds to the Americans in the heats, challenged earlier this time. The U.S. team, undefeated in 2004 coming in, led by a quarter second at 1,000 meters, but Romania surged ahead to win by 1.86 seconds, finishing in 6:17.70.
It meant an eighth Olympic medal - and fifth gold in six Olympics - for 40-year-old rower Elisabeta Lipa.
"I dedicate this medal to myself because I have worked so hard over the last four years for just six minutes of racing," Lipa said. "It was my last race."
The American women said they raced mistake-free and wouldn't consider it an upset to lose to Romania, now three-time defending Olympic champion in the event.
"We knew that was going to be a tough task, but we also knew if there was any crew that was going to rise up to it it would be us," oarswoman Kate Johnson said. "We made history today. We haven't medaled in 20 years and I guarantee you're going to see a lot of these familiar faces for a while to come."
In other races:
Germany stayed unbeaten in women's quadruple sculls since it became an Olympic event in 1998, meaning a fourth gold medal for Kathrin Boron.
The Romanian tandem of Constanta Burcica and Angela Alupei won the lightweight double sculls for Burcica's third consecutive gold. This was the event where Homer's Stacey Borgman and partner Lisa Schlenker of Lake Oswego, Ore., won Saturday's B final to take seventh place overall.
Poland's Tomasz Kucharski and Robert Sycz defended their gold in lightweight double sculls, while Greeks Vasileios Plymeros and Nikolaos Skiathitis gave the host country its first Olympic rowing medal, winning bronze.
Denmark, two-time defending world champion in the lightweight four, added an Olympic victory for Eskild Ebbesen's second career gold.
Russia won the men's quadruple sculls.