For 10 years, their job has been to help keep a long, skinny boat powered by eight women moving in a straight line. This year, for the first...

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For 10 years, their job has been to help keep a long, skinny boat powered by eight women moving in a straight line.

This year, for the first time since they met as teenagers, they’ll be going in different directions.

Anna Cummins, rower, and Mary Whipple, coxswain, have been America’s one-two punch in the women’s eight for almost a decade. Their partnership has helped produce a rich era in U.S. women’s rowing. They have been members of a women’s eight that won three world championship titles (2002, 2006, 2007), an Olympic medal, and six World Cup victories over six years.

They’ll race in the same U.S. boat for the last time in Beijing. Cummins said she’s retiring after the Olympics.

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Since college, Cummins has never been in a race with someone other than Whipple as coxswain.

Cummins (then Anna Mickelson) and Whipple first competed together as Washington freshmen in 1998’s Head of the Lake regatta.

Six years later, they wound up helping the U.S. to Olympic silver on a charmed day in Athens, when the men’s eight also won gold.

The steady, technically gifted Cummins is from Bellevue. Whipple, fiery and confident, is from outside Sacramento. Cummins is 6 feet tall. Whipple is 5-3. The long and the short of it? They’re friends, and not just because they compete together. With them, familiarity breeds championships.

“Mary knows me inside and out, and I know her,” Cummins said.

After Beijing, her second Olympics, Cummins, 28, will veer off in a new direction. Her plans are to move from rowing’s national hub of Princeton, N.J., to the Seattle area where her husband, former UW rower Bob Cummins, is opening a chiropractic and wellness center.

Whipple is trying to wrap her mind around the idea. Cummins, who will also row the pair in Beijing with Seattle’s Portia McGee, and Whipple have competed in an estimated 70 races.

“I’m going to miss her,” Whipple said. “Anna Mickelson, I don’t race without her. When she’s in her [seat], you definitely know. We know we’re complete.”

For years, Cummins has marveled at Whipple’s split personality.

“When you’re just with her as a friend and just hanging out, she wouldn’t hurt a mouse,” Cummins said. “Then she gets in that cox seat and she is a racer. She gets all red, she starts yelling, and you’re like, ‘I am not going to mess with her.’ “

Whipple is such a force she intimidates people in other boats.

“It’s hard to be in a boat against her,” said McGee, a first-time Olympian.

In 2001, McGee was rowing for defending national champion Brown in the NCAA finals against the UW eight, including juniors Whipple and Mickelson. With 500 meters left, the UW boat trailed by a full length. But with Whipple urging them on, UW won by one second. The next year, UW’s eight went undefeated.

“I still remember hearing Mary the last 20 strokes of that race,” McGee said, “just encouraging her crew to finish off my crew — telling them to fire on, believe in themselves. Mary Whipple has always been a formidable opponent on the rowing scene.”

In the eight, Cummins, Whipple and Caryn Davies are the only team members returning from the 2004 Olympic runners-up. The U.S. boat, two-time defending world champion, is considered a favorite for gold. Surprisingly, China’s eight failed to qualify for the Games, beaten by Canada and Holland. Cummins said most of the U.S. team might be made of Olympic rookies, but they’re talented.

“They just need to hear a couple stories about how quiet the starting line is, how hot it is, how you’ll feel sick to your stomach and it won’t go away, not until the race starts, and sticking to your race plan,” Cummins said. “Those are the things that women in 2004 told me; it takes the surprise out of those things.”

Whipple, 28, is contemplating retirement herself. She might coach, but she also is planning to study for the graduate school entrance exam after the Games, and to rejoin boyfriend Michael Callahan, the UW men’s rowing coach, in Seattle.

Maybe. While Cummins may soon be gone, Whipple doesn’t sound completely ready to give up the coxswain’s seat.

Fire on for 2012?

“I’m a competitive person,” Whipple said.

“It’s hard to imagine someone else sitting there.”

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