Rachel Quarrell

Champions anointed on first finals day

by Rachel Quarrell

Thursday 11th August, Rio de Janeiro.

Joy lit up the Lagoa on Thursday 11th August, as the first six sets of champions were crowned in the XXXIst Olympiad.  Pleasingly for everyone at the course, the eighteen medallist crews represented fifteen different countries and three continents, a confirmation that rowing is on the right track towards diversity and broadly spread achievement even if all but three of those countries were still European.

Close up of the medals being competed for at the Rio Olympics.

Close up of the medals being competed for at the Rio Olympics.

With the sacrifice of a second racing day clearly enough to appease the local water gods, conditions were breezy but rowable, and the full rescheduled list was raced without mishap, successfully completing the semi-final round for the last set of finals.  Phew, breathe a sigh of relief.  We might finish on time after all.

The medals on offer were for the quads, doubles, lightweight fours and men’s pairs, the two pairs events being the only ones planned with the two genders on different days in order to balance out the inequity of having no women’s fours of any kind.  It’s fair to say that four of the titles went to strong favourites, but the contests were no less hard-fought for all that.

 

Conditions hold for the first day of finals on the Lagoa. Photo: Rachel Quarrell

Gloom but no wind over the course on Thursday morning. Photo: Rachel Quarrell

The world might have stopped in its tracks if undefeated men’s pair Hamish Bond and Eric Murray had not won New Zealand’s first gold medal of the Games.  Luckily these superstars of the rowing world never put a single oar wrong, and the successful defence of their title was never in doubt.  The race followed their usual pattern — steady start while others sprinted off, then cruising at the high-rate pace they find so easy, while others fought it out behind, and able to relax and slow towards the line. A  more predictable gold medal there could not be at this regatta.

It’s the nature of being undefeated, because we can’t exceed expectations, only match them.

Hamish Bond, NZL M2-

“The hard work is done in the four years leading up to this,” said Bond.  “It’s the nature of being undefeated, because we can’t exceed expectations, only match them.”  The lucky losers were the excellent South Africa, with silver for Lawrence Brittain (after his return from bone cancer) with Shaun Keeling, and bronze for Italy, who took advantage of Britain running out of steam in the last 500m.  France and Australia brought up the rear.

For a few minutes before that the medal table looked like a replay of the 1990s, as Germany captured both the women’s quads title (which was expected) and also the men’s (which was always possible but by no means certain).  Germany’s 2014 world champion W4x really had to fight for it, neck and neck with the Dutch for much of the course but led by Poland, who had to pay for their quick start eventually but were far enough ahead early on to fade only into third place, safely medallists.  Meanwhile Germany swept through the Dutch at 1700m, and took them through Poland for their first Olympic title since the run of dominance ended after 2004.  Ukraine led home the USA and China for the last three places.  “We have four great girls and four great men,” said Germany’s Annekatrin Thiele.  “It shows the priority of our rowing federation.”

The rivalry in the men’s quads was always going to be between Poznan winners Australia and Olympic champions Germany, the latter having had a terrible heat and average semi-final so landed with an outside lane far from the grandstand.  “I’m so happy I could cry.  Twice Olympic gold is amazing,” said Lauritz Schoof.  A quick start by the Germans set out their stall early on, and while Australia closed from nearly a length to within feet of rowing’s first Rio gold medal with their final sprint, Germany just managed to stay one stroke ahead to the line — what a time to produce your best race.  Behind them Estonia got the better of Poland, while there was no fairytale ending for Britain, dogged by the medical misfortune which saw them lose two of their strong athletes from the 2014 silver-medal quad, one only a week before the regatta and could only beat Ukraine.

I think we are going home in 12 days, and my father will still be drunk.

Valent Sinkovic, CRO M2x

One of the more predicted golds was for Croatia’s top-notch men’s double, the Sinkovic Brothers having used the Twitter hashtag #Bros2Rio to exult over their speed since their champion M4x dissolved after 2013 due to injury (see issue 9).  Unbeaten since 2012, they did it again, claiming their first Olympic gold with ferocity and style.  What surprised spectators was the close margin, as Martin and Valent Sinkovic had to punch repeatedly to keep Lithuania at bay.  Norway’s Kjelit Borch and Olaf Tufte eventually closed up to take a strong bronze medal, Tufte’s fourth medal after two M1x golds and a M2x silver.   Italy, Britain and France were off the pace in the remaining positions.  “I think we are going home in 12 days, and my father will still be drunk!” said Valent Sinkovic after the race which confirmed his and Martin’s status in the sport.  Their elder brother, who introduced them to rowing, will be very proud.

Victory for Poland in the women’s doubles seemed only right after their strong season, and they achieved it by rowing through Britain, who clinched an extraordinary silver medal after a very troubled season in which tabloid headlines have vied with selection issues to disrupt them.  The Brits, always known for lacking a final sprint gear, set off strongly and led for 1800m of the race, until Magdalena Fularczyk and Natalia Madaj, who were constantly on the attack, broke through with less than a minute to go.  “This was the most amazing race, it was really hard but we did it,” said Fularczyk.  “This is our time, this is our race.”  Instead of fading as had happened at the 2015 worlds, Katherine Grainger and Vicky Thornley found the determination to hang on for silver ahead of the surprisingly underwhelming Lithuanians, while Greece never found the speed they had had in the semi and finished fourth ahead of France and the USA.

RSA M2- being interviewed just before collecting their silver medals. Photo: Rachel Quarrell

RSA M2- being interviewed just before collecting their silver medals. Photo: Rachel Quarrell

This makes Grainger Britain’s most decorated Olympic female athlete with four silver medals and a gold at her five Olympics.  “I don’t like leaving empty-handed,” she joked afterwards.  “It feels pretty nice to walk away from this one with another shiny medal in my pocket.  For many many days nobody thought we’d come back with anything.”

It’s been an up and down few years for several of the men’s lightweight fours, with Switzerland and Denmark sharing the gold-medal honours at the world championships, but several other countries reaching the lower medals, with regular flashes of brilliance particularly from New Zealand.  In the end the fight for the title was always going to be between the two champion crews of the Olympiad, but it was the Swiss who kept the cosh over the event the Danes consider peculiarly theirs, settling better and finding a cruising pace which Denmark could not quite match.  The sprint to the line was still viciously quick, but the Swiss never looked in real danger of losing their title chance, and claimed their first gold medals in this event with jubilation.

We’re like a family, we cry together, we smile together, we’ve been racing for more than six years.

Kasper Joergensen, DEN LM4-

Silver for the Danes put them on the podium for every one of the six Olympiads this event has been run, and France were well clear of Italy, New Zealand and the impressive last-minute Greek crew for bronze.  “We’re like a family, we cry together, we smile together, we’ve been racing for more than six years,” said Kasper Joergensen of Denmark.

Earlier in the day the semi-finals and remaining repechages had their usual share of drama and disappointment.  The lightweight men’s doubles, shaping up to be one of the hottest competitions, featured Italy losing out by a photofinish sliver to Poland (while South Africa’s 2012 LM4- champions James Thompson and John Smith served notice that they’re able to row through, anything, even Norway’s phenomenal combination).  And in the other semi-final Frenchmen Pierre Houin and Jeremie Azou nearly lost their composure and the lead for the first time as the USA’s Andy Campbell Jr and Josh Konieczny rushed through the field towards them.  Irish brothers Gary and Paul O’Donovan were not far behind, and put paid to British hopes of any lightweight medals (after three in London) by simply opening too wide a gap.

NZL M4x. Photo: Rachel Quarrell

NZL LM4- being consoled after finishing 5th in the A-final. Photo: Rachel Quarrell

Speedy Danish W2- Rasmussen and Andersen showed their heat wasn’t a flash in the pan by winning their semi-final, although New Zealand seemed to be keeping the lid on their effort, safe in second, simply watching the Spanish beat out China in the scramble for third.  The previous semi was nine seconds quicker, won by the inimitable British duo Glover and Stanning, who were able to relax and let the rest of the field close up as they cruised through to the line.  This was a more spread-out race, Roumania nowhere near qualifying, and the USA and South Africa looking solid in second and third.   “We would be happy to be in the top nine,” said Anne Andersen after DEN qualified for the top six.  “We’re trying to be humble about it because we know how fast the other boats can be.”  Whether they have the beans to pull out a third super-fast race is not clear.

Disaster nearly struck for China’s LW2x, lying comfortably second to the powerhouses from South Africa when they caught an unfortunate crab, snagging on the buoys.  Luckily for them and sadly for Romania they had enough space to recover and still come third behind New Zealand, who had got over a slow start with dogged determination to qualify.  The other semi in this relatively open event was led in by the Dutch, who are on superb form this year, while Canada and Ireland could stay relaxed clear of Denmark.

Kath Grainger wins Silver for GBR in W2x. Photo: Rachel Quarrell

GBR W2x stroke Katherine Grainger takes her fifth Olympic medal from five Games. Photo: Rachel Quarrell

The men’s fours semis looked like a “how fast can we go” contest between Australia and Britain, who won the two races by yards of clear water.  Both tailed off their speed in the final quarter, while for pundits trying to predict form in the latest round of this perennial boxing contest, Britain were substantially quicker to the first two markers in what looked like reasonably similar conditions, and 0.23 quicker to the third as Australia’s 1250m punch kicked in.  The unlucky losers were the USA (behind South Africa and Italy) and Belarus (well off the pace from Canada and the Dutch).  South Africa are having a very good regatta:  with all five crews in A-finals and a silver medal in the bag, they have one of the best hit rates amongst the mid-size nations.

The morning was rounded off by the two eights repechages, late Russian replacements Australia (W8+) and Italy (M8+) unsurprisingly dropped by the rest of the field so out of the contest, but happy to have been at this regatta whatever the circumstances.  Canada’s women and the USA’s men put right their first-heat twitches with rep wins, and must feel confident about their medal chances in Saturday’s finals.

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