WEST WINDSOR, N.J. - As soon as Anna Cummins and Portia McGee neared the finish line at yesterday's U.S. Olympic team rowing trials, a woman wearing black flip-flops waded almost knee-deep into Lake Mercer.
When Cummins and McGee crossed the line, the woman left a tear-stained cell-phone message: "I just want to let you know she made the team."
Four years ago, Portia McGee of Seattle had missed the Athens Olympics in the same event, the women's pair, by nine one-hundredths of a second, less than a foot, "the tip of a bow," said Kate Johnson, a 2004 Olympian who considers McGee her best friend.
Johnson was the one on the cell phone, calling her own father across the country before reaching out to more members of the Portia McGee Fan Club.
"Everybody has a great story, getting to the Games," Johnson said. "But Portia's is stuff to write books about."
This isn't a heartstring tale - no death or illness attached. Just perseverance. McGee, a 28-year-old from Seattle, said she thought about quitting after '04 and planned to quit last year until an injury to another rower put her in the pairs with Cummins at last year's world championships.
"Clicking together in the pairs is a mystery all of the time," said Cummins, from Bellevue, Wash., who was part of the silver-winning eight at the 2004 Olympics and could double up this time, with a great chance to make the women's eight again. "A lot of times, the people you'd think would be the most incredible pair in the world just don't go well. They have idiosyncrasies that make each other slow."
Earlier this month in Lucerne, Switzerland, McGee and Cummins were beaten by the second-place American boat, the same boat they also had lost to in a U.S. selection regatta series.
"We knew we had to put together perfect races here," McGee said, adding, "We did it."
They won two in a row in the best-of-three trials format, winning yesterday by almost four seconds, finishing the 2,000-meter course in 7 minutes, 12.46 seconds to lock up the lone qualifying spot for Beijing, pending perfunctory U.S. Olympic Committee approval.
Married since the fall of 2006, McGee has been apart from her husband almost nonstop since last spring.
"Until about a week ago, the last time I saw her was Easter," said Luke McGee, himself a former national-team rower, now an assistant coach at the University of Washington. "I was kind of hoping it would be worth it."
They first met when both were on the junior national team in 1997, and both went to Brown, where Portia was on two straight NCAA champion varsity eights. She also won a bronze in the four at the world championships. But this will be her first Olympics.
Of course, she's the phenom in the family. Her mother started rowing at age 40, competing in masters' races on a national level for a decade.
"This is just a wonderful experience to have in one's life, but it's not everything," McGee said right after she and Cummins hosed down their boat. "It's everything right now. But not everything there is. There's stuff beyond."
Three other boats secured their spots in Beijing. In the men's double sculls, Elliot Hovey of Manchester, Mass., and Wes Piermarini of West Brookfield, Mass., will be first-time Olympians. So will Josh Inman of Hillsboro, Ore., and Matt Schnobrich of St. Paul, Minn., who won the closest race of the day in the men's pair over brothers Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss of Greenwich, Conn.
In the women's single sculls, Michelle Guerette of Bristol, Conn., won by the largest margin, more than 10 seconds. Guerette twice won bronze at the world championships and is a medal contender in Beijing. "No one really thought they could beat Michelle, so they wouldn't go for the single," said U.S. women's coach Tom Terhaar.