Modesto, Turlock Olympic rowers back for more

The odds spiral into numbers too many to count. How did it happen, anyway, that two women raised 20 miles apart in the landlocked Central Valley discovered their athletic bliss ... in rowing?

Modesto's Erin Cafaro, an Olympic gold medalist, and Turlock's Ali Cox, an Olympic silver medalist, specialize in surprises. They treat the status quo like junk mail. Only now, amazingly enough, they pull toward their latest goal together, as teammates.

USA Rowing teammates.

"It's interesting how rowing has drawn us together and we've excelled," Cafaro said this week from national team headquarters in Princeton, N.J. "We trained so often in our communities for this or that, and we somehow fell into rowing. We found our sport."

It became official Friday at the 2010 World Rowing Championship Trials: Cafaro, 27, and Cox, 31, will advance to the World Championships Oct. 31-Nov. 7 at Lake Karapio, New Zealand. For Cafaro, one of the nation's best, the news was hardly a shock. Cox's qualifying, however, ranked as an eye-opener.

Cox, who put away the oars not long after her silver medal in the women's eight in Greece in 2004, launched a comeback five months ago. And the first to greet her was, you guessed it, Cafaro.

That barely knew each other, but that quickly changed. They forged a friendship almost immediately via workout sessions three times a day, tightening a bond enriched by the joint commitment -- and the shared physical punishment -- inherent in rowing.

"I definitely felt pain in muscles I never knew existed. I'm holding myself together," Cox said. "Erin and I have major similarities. We love valley Mexican food and almonds and are both extremely goal-driven. We're also perfectionists."

Cox didn't exactly let her Olympic-trained physique soften during her six-year hiatus. She competed in many marathons and triathlons, but her business career took top priority. Three years ago, she started her own strategic marketing and event company.

"I stayed in shape for an average American girl," she said, "but I wasn't in elite shape."

An old but familiar dream, the Olympic dream, again energized Cox. The lure of the 2012 Games in London, coupled with the ticking of Father Time, inspired her once more.

"I figured this would be my last shot at the Olympics," she said, "so I decided to take it."

The union of Cox and Cafaro this year closed a fascinating cycle. A decade ago, a Bee feature story about Cox -- she already was on track for the Olympics -- inspired Cafaro to try rowing.

A tale of two cities

They had lived parallel lives. Cox, four years older, earned 11 letters in softball, tennis and basketball at Turlock High. Later, Cafaro excelled in basketball, cross country and track at Modesto High, but the idea of Cox racing along the water toward Olympic glory caught her eye.

"I said, 'You know what, if this girl from Turlock, which is our rival high school, can do it, I can definitely do it,' " Cafaro said.

By the time she was a senior at Cal, Cafaro helped the U.S. women's four win gold at the 2005 World Rowing Under 23 Championships. More international medals followed until the biggest of them all -- the women's eight Olympic gold in 2008 in Beijing, in the same event in which Cox settled for silver four years before in Athens.

Unlike Cox, Cafaro didn't stop. She redirected her focus onto the pair (a two- person sweep boat) and found a talented teammate in fellow Olympic champion Susan Francia. Their strengths merged easily -- the aggression and drive of the 5-foot-10 Cafaro complementing the power of the 6-2 Francia in the bow.

Cafaro and Francia are the first U.S. women to win double gold medals at the Worlds. They won the pair last year and, a day later, jumped back into the eight for another title. The duo was named World Rowing Female Crew of the Year for 2009. Today, they are listed in the top 10 of the world's best rowers, a rapid rise for two women who didn't lower a boat into the water until 2001.

"I still feel so new to this sport. Most of the other girls have been rowing since high school," Cafaro said.

Being undersized in her sport only fuels her. "I like being the exception," she continued. "I like writing the book rather than just following the book."

So does Cox. She will go to New Zealand as a member of the women's straight four, thanks to a crash course of a comeback.

"Erin does inspire me on a daily basis. We talk about home a lot together," Cox said. "I think we're two of the most competitive girls on the team."

Cox was lifting weights with teammates one day last summer when Cafaro bounced into the room waving a newspaper. There, for all to see, was the story about Cox, the piece that changed Cafaro's life.

"Everybody had a good laugh," Cox said. "It was literally 10 years ago."

But what's time between new friends?

Bee staff writer Ron Agostini can be reached at or 578-2302.