WINDSOR, England -- Moments before "The Star-Spangled Banner" resounded across a sun-kissed Dorney Lake, Taylor Ritzel looked at the gold medal hanging around her neck. She shook her head and took a deep breath.
Ritzel was part of the U.S. women's eight that won a second straight Olympic gold, maintaining a six-year dominance in the event. But her journey to the top of the podium was far more difficult than the victory against rival Canada on Thursday at the London Games.
In November 2010, soon after Ritzel had joined the eight, her mother, Lana, died of breast cancer. The loss could have devastated her. Thanks to her crewmates, it didn't.
"For me ... the sport of rowing has been a huge way to sort of get through the grieving process," Ritzel said, her bottom lip quivering.
"I think the sport and the eight other women in this boat, and the rest of Team USA, have made what seemed to be an impossible thing to get through possible."
The camaraderie in the women's eight was in full view as they threw up their intertwined arms when the announcer read out: "Gold-medalists -- the United States!"
Esther Lofgren was in tears. Susan Francia looked close to joining her.
Coxswain Mary Whipple received the biggest cheer as the medals were handed out under clearing skies on the pontoon. She would later be tossed into the lake by the jubilant crew.
"That is an American dynasty, baby," Francia said. "It's just so special."
The dynasty began at Dorney Lake in 2006, when the U.S. won the world championship, and it was never in doubt in Thursday's final.
Racing in a fierce crosswind, the U.S. led from start to finish to win in 6 minutes, 10.59 seconds, a half-length ahead of a fast-finishing Canadian crew who have come close this year to breaking the American stranglehold on the event.
In Lucerne in May, the Canadians lost out by only three hundredths of a second and they qualified for the Olympic final with a faster time in the heats. However, they left their charge for gold too late.
"Coming off the line, I felt so much," Whipple said. "And then when we took our stride, that was beautiful.
"We were a little high and I just told them to breathe and enjoy the moment. Feel each stroke. Be present. And we were present -- the whole time. It was magical."
The Americans successfully defended the title they won in the 2008 Beijing Games. The country's only previous Olympic gold in the event came at Los Angeles in 1984.
The Netherlands took the bronze to close the second day of finals that reached a crescendo during a closely fought lightweight men's four race that was won by South Africa for the country's first-ever rowing gold.
South Africa came through late to edge a favored British crew by 0.25 seconds. Denmark took the bronze 0.07 seconds further back, having led for all but 100 meters of the race.
"We kept ourselves for the sprint," South Africa's John Smith said. "I can't believe it."
The country's only other Olympic medal in rowing came in the men's pair in 2004.
Denmark's failure to hold on denied veteran Eskild Ebbesen what would have been a fourth Olympic gold. He still won a fifth Olympic medal.
"It could have been gold. It could have been fourth of fifth, so I am very happy," the 40-year-old Ebbesen said.
In the day's other final, New Zealand won its first gold of the Games in men's double sculls.
Nathan Cohen and Joseph Sullivan added an Olympic gold medal to their two world titles with a late surge to overtake Italy with about 200 meters left, winning in 6:31.67.
"It was painful but so, so good," Sullivan said.
The Italians, a half length behind, captured the surprise silver medal. Slovenia won the bronze, having led for much of the race.
In the semifinals of the men's four, Britain gained a psychological advantage over Australia heading into Saturday's eagerly anticipated final by beating its big rival by a half-length.
The U.S. won the other semifinal and could yet be a factor in the final.