Robbins rowed the crucial six-seat in Australia's eight-oared crew at the 2004 Athens Olympics, where, with about 400 meters remaining in the championship race for the medals, she stopped rowing, dropped her oar, and laid back in the boat. Australia, which had been in bronze medal position at the 1,000 meter mark, finished last in the race, resulting in a national furor.
"Simply Oarful," screamed a headline, as more than a few Aussie citizens piled on "Laydown Sally," calling her "un-Australian" and diagnosing her stoppage as the actions of a quitter. Her furious teammates shunned her, but only after some of them first threatened to throw her overboard into the rowing basin following her collapse. One of them, Catriona Sens (née Oliver) slapped her at a team function and was suspended from rowing for two years.
The eruption of vitriol had been building, actually, for two years, ever since Robbins collapsed with Australia in the lead during the women's quad sculls event at the 2002 World Championship, causing her crew to fade to fourth. Rachel Taylor, who won a silver medal for Australia at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, accused Robbins of "mental weakness" that left her teammates in the lurch. In a letter to The Australian, Taylor wrote:
The answer to Taylor's question is likely a straightforward one: Rowing Australia's decision makers, interested in only one outcome-- a medal-- looked at the data from months of gruelling seat racing and unforgiving training performances against all comers and concluded Sally Robbins was a medal-caliber boat mover. The sport of rowing is framed by very hard edges, with results measured by objective margins of wins and losses. It is incomprehensible that Rowing Australia selected Robbins for one of the most important seats in their eight-oared shell without her having earned her way into it. Whether the coaching staff failed to properly assess a latent physical or psychological impairment is a separate question that remains unanswered.
I have never, ever seen anyone at an elite level stop rowing except for Sally Robbins, twice, under extreme pressure and in extreme pain, both times costing her team-mates medals at the highest level . . .
There is no doubt in my mind that Sally Robbins quitting [in the Olympic finals] was not just physical exhaustion, but also an inability to cope with the intense mental hurdles in such a race . . .
The question of why Sally Robbins was selected for the Australian team after the incident in 2002 needs to be raised with the decision makers of Rowing Australia.
For her part, Sally Robbins maintains her collapse in the scorching heat of Athens was purely physical. Asked what happened immediately after the "laydown" debacle, she said, "I just rowed my guts out in the first 1,500 meters and I didn't have anything left. I did my best and that's all I could have done for today."
In fact, a video review of the race reveals a deterioration in her form a little more than 1,100 meters into the 2,000 meter race, when she began catching the water late with her blade. Ten seconds later the Aussie boat began to visibly lose ground to the field as they retreated from their bronze medal position at the 1,000 meter mark (0.54 seconds behind the leader). Seven seconds later the race commentators declared, "The first crew to weaken, strangely, or surprisingly, are the Aussies on the near side. Every stroke they're slipping back."
It bears noting that Sally Robbins wasn't the only athlete to bonk at the Athens Olympics. No less a competitor than Britain's Paula Radcliffe, the world record holder in the marathon and a favorite for the gold medal, collapsed tearfully during her event. Her explanation? "I just felt I couldn't keep going."
In contrast to Robbins' fate, Radcliffe was lauded for her courage and received overwhelming sympathy in Britain. Of course, she was competing in an individual event and did not "let down" a crew who was dependent upon her performance to succeed.
Within the Australian women's rowing community there is still a great deal of resentment against Sally Robbins, who is attempting to qualify for the quad sculls crew that will compete in Beijing. At least two oarswomen from what is known as the "shadow" sculling squad of potential selectees have declared they will not row in the same boat as Robbins if she is selected. The bad blood prompted Rowing Australia to convene a group therapy teleconference last week among the women (minus Robbins). Another will be convened if Robbins rows well enough in the ongoing Olympic trials to remain in the selection mix.
But Robbins is not without her supporters. Two-time Olympic gold medalist and five-time world champion Drew Ginn described the in-fighting as a waste of energy. Referring to Robbins' public humiliation and attempted comeback, he said, "You wouldn't want it to happen to yourself. If it did, you would want the chance to resurrect yourself. It is great that she's having a go."
Added Pip Savage, who is vying to represent Australia at Beijing in the women's single scull, "We have all stuffed up. So if rowing at the Olympics is a way to redeem herself, well, she should be allowed to have a go at it. Everyone deserves a second chance."
Ginn and Savage can afford to be charitable, for neither has to row in a crew with Robbins. As the controversy festers on Robbins may resolve the matter all by herself, if her poor performance the past three days at the trials is any indication. Should she continue to deliver substandard performances, she will select herself out of the competition. But if she catches fire over the next six weeks the plot will thicken greatly.
Australia's women's sculling crews will be selected in April and Noel Donaldson, Rowing Australia's high performance director, is in no hurry to rush the process. Said Donaldson, "Because they are not being selected until April, there is no reason for us to hurry through anything or cut anyone from that category at the moment. If we do, we are getting down to very, very few numbers. We don't want to do that."
It is hard not to empathize with both sides of this equation-- with the potential crew mates of Robbins who have every right to demand that only the very best are partnered with them, and with Robbins, who is out there alone on an island, hoping for a fair shake and redemption.
If Robbins reverses her fortune and lays down a series of performances that justify her selection on paper, will the coaching staff have the nerve to select her and the skill to forge the one-for-all/all-for-one psyche that is pivotal to success in crewed events? We'll keep you posted.
For now, however, one thing is clear. Regardless of the reasons Sally Robbins stopped rowing in the finals at Athens, her current attempt to banish her demons, be they physical, psychological, or both, is an act of sublime courage being played out on a very public stage where not many in her shoes would ever dare to venture.