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Rachel Quarrell
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Day 1, 2017 World Rowing Championships: Business as Usual in Florida

by Rachel Quarrell

Welcome to Sarasota, and the sunshine-and-showers state of Florida, which put on a superb sunset and the odd rainbow to welcome the world to the 2017 championships. A lively music-based opening ceremony was apparently attended by about 9000 mostly local spectators, and the new-look Nathan Benderson Park was, after a massive organising committee effort, just about ready in time.

Hurricane Irma, the grande dame of annoying weather systems, had poured tons of rain onto Sarasota on her way past up the Florida coast, and knocked the newly-planted decorative palms flat. It set back the preparations considerably, having postponed what would have been a well-planned run-in to the champs, since the final bits of work erecting temporary buildings and tents for spectator and athlete facilities had to be stopped. However as soon as the storm had passed it was all hands on deck and you would barely know there had been a problem.

The venue is excellent. Similar to Schinias (Greece) but with even more space, and a narrow bund running out between the main and warm-up lakes along which commentary and TV cars can zoom. The water is quite sunken relative to the surrounding land, and the sides are sloping and grassed/sanded. All this reduces wash and wind effects to something very manageable, while for the one day we’ve had so far the prevailing breeze has been tail-direction. There was a persistent strong wind blowing for the opening ceremony, and yet the water looked flat as a pancake, merely ruffled.

Sarasota 2017’s predecessor, Indianapolis 1994, was dogged by a curious and unforeseen issue. Held as it was on the cusp of the move from old FISA regulations to a newer variety, they had dozens of false starts.

The crowning glory is a huge and extremely flashy finish tower, combining generous office space for FISA and the organising committee with plenty of room for commentary, filming, and even socialising. The view from the top is frankly spectacular.

A minor historical note on the first worlds to be held in the US for 23 years: its predecessor, Indianapolis 1994, was dogged by a curious and unforeseen issue. Held as it was on the cusp of the move from old FISA regulations to a newer variety, they had dozens of false starts. Athletes used to a slick ‘Etes-vous pretes, partez’ (you could go on ‘vous’ most of the time) were faced with a new system where there were unpredictable and sometimes very prolonged pauses between ‘Attention’, ‘Set’ and ‘Go’.

‘The crowning glory is a huge and extremely flashy finish tower, combining generous office space for FISA and the organising committee with plenty of room for commentary, filming, and even socialising. The view from the top is frankly spectacular.’

At the 1994 worlds, which featured particularly long pauses, boat after boat false-started after sitting at front stops for long seconds at a time. Even with a yellow/red card system which allowed people to get it wrong once, several crews were disqualified for double false starts. These included the Ukrainian men’s eight in the final, and celebrated Canadian sculler Silken Laumann, also in the final. Not a good omen for 2017. But fortunately technology has moved on and crews have bow-buckets and traffic lights to make sure false starts are a thing of the past. The only – and very sad – disqualifications so far have been the Ugandan LM1x and Niger LW2x, who did not make the weight on day 1 and so were removed from competition before the first races.

Enough wittering, on with the rowing. Eleven non-para classes were in action, ranging bookended by the 7-entry M2+ which opened the day to the 40-strong M1x which closed it.

The non-Olympic events were encouragingly well contested. Although Ireland dominated the LM2- and Britain the M2+ (in which it is hoping to three-peat after wins in 2015 and 2016), the tight early racing in both events suggested there may be quite a scramble for medals later in the week. We should also acknowledge the debt we owe to Eric Murray and rowing’s new road cycling expert Hamish Bond – their M2-/M2+ double gold in 2014 revived the coxed pair just in time to stop it dropping into oblivion. Now the event is used much more often by the big teams to keep their spare pairs active and provide a route into the Olympic boats.

2016 LM1x winner Paul O’Donovan never intended to be trying to defend his title this year, but the Irishman’s plans to continue the LM2x project were scuppered when his brother Gary became ill and they had to withdraw. He won his heat, but the pressure put on men’s lightweights with the withering of the LM4- will have intensified training for everyone this year and holding onto the gold may be a tough challenge.

In the equivalent LW1x there is an equally high level of talent despite many retirements last year, and Denise Walsh (IRL), Patricia Merz (SUI) and Marieke Keijser (NED) were the winners but with good competition stalking closely behind them.

The men’s singles had a phony war going on: with five potential rounds and 40 entries it behoves the top scullers to keep their powder as dry as possible.

The Olympic classes provided the first photofinish of the competition, Britain’s W4x putting on a dashing last-ditch burst to the line which both showed a hitherto unseen gear and sent the USA to the repechage by 0.01 seconds. The Poles and Dutch won the two heats, but with two crews through straight to the final from each, the US will be disappointed to have to race again when at one stage they had been leading. See the photofinish here which shows GBR’s bow fractionally over first, but remember that it’s a timeslice: slivers of 0.01 second images directly at the line, built together to make one picture. Hence the rather odd apparent bladework…

The men’s singles had a phony war going on: with five potential rounds (heat, rep, quarter, semi, final) and 40 entries it behoves the top scullers to keep their powder as dry as possible. Two-through qualification made that easier, and every one of the biggest names made it smoothly past the waiting trap of the repechage. The interesting race of the eight was number six, in which GBR’s Tom Barras and NZL world best time holder Robbie Manson burst away from the rest and swapped the lead, before Manson conceded defeat to yield victory to Barras. Were it the final tomorrow I’d be saying that was an amazing portent for the Brit, but the one thing we’ve learned is that the singles is a long game, and until that speed is being shown consistently in several rounds, it’s probably best to keep the champagne under wraps. Manson in particular does not see himself as one of the power bunnies, and will prize cunning over bravado if it gives him more speed later in the week. However Manson’s rivals – Ondrej Synek (CZE), Angel Fournier Rodriguez (CUB) and Damir Martin (CRO) in particular – must be encouraged by seeing Manson apparently fold to a much less experienced oarsman.

We seem to be dogged by Murrays from New Zealand – this time it’s Thomas Murray (no relation to Eric), who paired with James Hunter to win their M2- heat quite comfortably from GBR. [That felt rather like a throw-back to 2009 to some in the crowd.] But all eyes in the pairs were on Croatia’s Sinkovic brothers, who posted the quickest times in event to every marker and look as if they might finally fulfill the ambition they announced after switching out of the double. Their downfall in Lucerne was the New Zealanders, but unless the Kiwis can stay close in the first thousand it could just be another gold with the name Sinkovic already etched on it.

Another event with strong favourites is the LM2x, in which Olympic champions Pierre Houin and Jeremie Azou (FRA) remain top dogs. They claimed their 17th straight victory since coming together as a duo, and if you count his exceptional solo effort in Aiguebelette and some LM4x/U23 action, Houin has now gone unbeaten internationally for three years and 28 races. Without the Irish there France’s biggest rivals are Italy and perhaps China, but a brutal one-through qualification tariff means there will be some very good crews going through the repechages.

The men’s fours is going to come down to a bunfight between the old rivals – Britain, Australia and Italy. Britain’s season has been patchier than normal for a top crew: they were not challenged much in Belgrade, duffed up royally as the Italians won gold at the European championships, and outgunned by Australia in Poznan. Normal winning service resumed (in the absence of the Aussies) at Lucerne, but with such a long period since the world cup, it’s a good question who will have come on more. Italy flew to post the quickest time, Australia and GB eased off but still won, and hostilities between them will resume in Thursday’s semi-final, which should see a match between ITA and AUS since GBR cannily finished in a middling time and thus avoids both.

All eyes in the pairs were on Croatia’s Sinkovic brothers, who look as if they might finally fulfill the ambition they announced after switching out of the double.

It was business as usual in the men’s quads, with Lithuania and Poland managing to hold off Netherlands and New Zealand respectively, and Britain joining them as heat winners. The 15 entries however permitted 9 through straight to the semis, so it’s by no means yet clear who has more speed. Good to see a Cuban quad in the races too – since Florida is virtually on their doorstep, and this is the closest worlds they have had for decades, they have brought a full men’s sculling team along with two non-Olympic crews.

The home crowd thought they were in for a rare heat win as USA’s LW2x of Emily Schmieg and Michelle Sechser approached the line with a slender lead over Poland. Despite both crews sprinting Poland took the top spot, European champion Weronika Deresz and new partner Joanna Dorociak demonstrating a neat turn of speed. It’s New Zealand that Deresz will be most wary of, after Lucerne’s result, and Zoe McBride and Jackie Kiddle duly won their heat easing off, still looking like firm favourites. The USA will be hoping that day two finally brings them something to cheer about.

Rachel Quarrell will be blogging for Row360 from Sarasota for the full 8 days of the WRC. Check back tomorrow for a review of Day 2’s action.

All images © Rachel Quarrell.

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