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Coming Back for a Second Chance

by Ed Moran, ed@usrowing.org | Mar 25, 2016
CHULA VISTA, Calif. – Her 2012 Olympic final had only just ended and Sara Hendershot was making her way through a crowd of spectators, toward the friends and family section set aside on the course at Eton Dorney.
s&s1CHULA VISTA, Calif. – Her 2012 Olympic final had only just ended and Sara Hendershot was making her way through a crowd of spectators, toward the friends and family section set aside on the course at Eton Dorney.

She stopped for a moment in front of the media center to talk. Her expression said disappointment. Hendershot (West Simsbury, Conn.) and her pair partner, Sarah Zelenka (Itasca, Ill.), had made an improbable run to the London Olympics, winning in a come-from-behind effort at trials on Mercer Lake in New Jersey to the final on the biggest stage in amateur sports.

It might have been enough of an accomplishment to put on a shelf of dreams realized. It wasn’t. They were not just in the final. They raced to a breath away from a bronze medal, edged by New Zealand at the line in what amounted to less than a stroke of an oar.

“No one will ever remember we were here,” Hendershot said that day. Then she turned and walked away to her waiting family and friends.

That was four years ago. Since then, Hendershot and Zelenka have moved on in life, got married, and now go by the names (Hendershot) Lombardi and (Zelenka) McIlduff. But the sting of that 2012 Olympic result has not changed.

“I think about it every single day,” (Hendershot) Lombardi said. “It fuels you. You think about it every day.”
 
By “fuels” she means keeps her in a rowing shell, pushing for another crack at an Olympic venue, the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. (Hendershot) Lombardi has spent the last two years trying to get back onto the national team spotlight, rowing with two different 2012 Olympic gold medalists—Taylor Ritzel in 2014 and Erin Cafaro MacKenzie in 2015.

s&s2Fast forward to the Wednesday semifinals at the 2016 USRowing National Selection Regatta I on Otay Reservoir in Chula Vista, California. After luring (Zelenka) McIlduff out of retirement, the come-from-behind pair reached the Thursday final and earned an automatic invitation to the U.S. women’s selection camp from which the women’s eight and quad will be selected.

On Thursday (Hendershot) Lombardi and (Zelenka) McIlduff finished sixth in the final. They have not yet made a decision about joining the selection camp. But their Olympic reunion this week has been both fun and a success.

“This is really rewarding, especially after the three years that I’ve had. To be back in the pair with Sara has been a dream,” said (Zelenka) McIlduff after the Wednesday semifinal. “We didn’t get together until June, but I have been keeping in touch with her for the past couple of years. So getting back together was cool,” she said.
 “We’ve been ready,” (Hendershot) Lombardi said after the semifinal. “We just had to kind of go show it. I feel good. I mean, I’m so happy to be in the boat with (Sarah). She is the ideal teammate. We just love doing this together, so it’s a treat more than anything else. To be able to race really fast pairs is what we want to do. I think we just had a lot of fun out there,” she said.

“To have her back is just so cool, because I’ve been at this for the past three and a half years with a lot of ups and downs, a lot of injuries and drama. So to see Sarah jump right in a take off is so cool. I think about that (2012 Olympic) final every day and especially in a (semifinal) race like that. That’s what our Olympic final felt like when we were three boats across.”

For complete National Selection Regatta I results, click here. Click here to see photos galleries of the event.
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