Seeking more than just strokes of luck, the U.S. rowing team presents its shells annually for invocation. Father Tom Mullelly, chaplain of the Aquinas Institute at Princeton University, sprinkles the boats with symbolic water and offers benediction. The water has probably dripped in from the Delaware River, not the holy River Jordan, as the U.S. rowers claim, but ever since the men's eights won three consecutive golds at the worlds from 1997 to '99, they've never let the trough get in the way of a good story. "At least some molecules come from the Holy Land," Mullelly says with a smile.
Viewed so affectionately by the athletes that they refer to him as F.T., Mullelly is just one reason U.S. rowers can count their blessings. Few towns have wrapped their arms around a team as warmly as Princeton has, where the national squad trains on Lake Carnegie and Lake Mercer year-round.
The town became the mecca of U.S. rowing in the early 1900s after a Princeton alum who was painting Andrew Carnegie's portrait persuaded the steel magnate to build a lake for the Tigers rowing team. In 1998 a local group called the Princeton National Rowing Association opened a world-class boathouse and training center (since expanded) on Lake Mercer in nearby West Windsor, N.J., that attracted the U.S. team and made the area even more of a hub of national events at the age-group, masters and World Cup levels; this year's U.S. Olympic trials will be held on Lake Mercer beginning in April. Meanwhile the university keeps contributing talent: At the 2007 world championships the U.S. team had seven Princeton alums (and Canada and Australia each had one).
Rowers have enjoyed tremendous local support. Since arriving in 1995, Mullelly has housed more than 100 of them at Aquinas, up to 20 at once. Rowers have repaid him by putting a new roof on the institute's garage and doing charitable work such as passing out sandwiches in shelters. When Aquil Abdullah and Henry Nuzum rowed in the U.S. men's pair at the Athens Olympics, father tom was emblazoned on their bow. Ten to 15 families in the area have national-team rowers living with them rent-free.
Princetonians pitch in in other ways as well. A local doctor, chiropractor, weight trainer and physical therapist offer rowers deep discounts. So does the restaurant Pizza Star, which used to serve team members all they can eat for $5. On the wall of the eatery are oars shaped like pizza paddles in U.S. and Italian colors, team photos of U.S. squads and a stern-looking painting of hyperintense U.S. men's coach Mike Teti.
As a world champion and Olympic silver medalist, Anna Mickelson, 27, is among the team's most decorated -- and compensated -- rowers. Last year she made $27,000 off stipends and bonuses from the USOC and her sport's national governing body. She has lived with three host families over seven years and worked jobs with flexible hours for companies based in or near Princeton. "The body and mind can handle the rowing life," she says, "but the best rower in the world would be better off financially doing something else. Thank goodness for the people of Princeton."