Rachel Quarrell

Day 6 Review: 2017 World Rowing Championships

by Rachel Quarrell

I’m not sure I can wait until Sunday’s men’s singles final. Friday’s semis were just too damned good, mind-boggling races woven out of strategy, speed and bravado, the top guys seeming to tease each other — and us — with hints of the big moves they might bring out at the end of the week. I won’t be surprised if some of the medals are decided again on photo finishes, as the gold and silver were so dramatically last year in Rio. It’s going to be amazing.

In one semi Marko Marjanovic tried the same tactic which worked in his quarter-final — that of busting out in front and clinging on for dear life. Unfortunately this time it didn’t wash with the more experienced hands, and he was soon passed by three of the other five scullers. Amongst these was Croatian superstar Damir Martin, who quickly looked like a sewn-on winner since although young Brit Tom Barras was matching him, you’d have put money on the man who dead-heated Mahe in Rio managing to keep the upper hand. It was with 300m to go, with Barras only a couple of feet off Martin, that the Brit began to move past a slightly hobbled-looked Martin. The lift we would have expected to see from the Croat never materialised, and Barras went on to win with Martin over Germany’s Tim Ole Naske for the other two places, but with a distinct sensation that we haven’t seen everything Martin can throw into the pot.

As the camera lingered lovingly on the Czech and Cuban boats, suddenly the black bow of Manson’s shell poked into view.

The final minute of the other semi had us on the edge of our seats. For most of the course Ondrej Synek (CZE) and Angel Fournier Rodriguez (CUB) had been stalking along like circling boxers, never more than a couple of feet apart and wholly in charge of the race. But behind them Natan Wegryzcki-Szymczyk (POL) and world’s quickest Robbie Manson (NZL) were having their own battle for third, and as the camera lingered lovingly on the Czech and Cuban boats, suddenly the black bow of Manson’s shell poked into view, first close to and then up beside the lead. Slighter in build and power, rating high across the whole course exactly the same way that the famous Kiwi pair used to do, Manson was apparently unravelling everyone’s best-laid plans.

Young Brit Tom Barras overhauls Damir Martin

For a few moments we thought we were about to witness a great ambush, and then Synek, deciding Manson had got cheeky enough, stomped hard on him and moved back powerfully in front. Fournier Rodriguez seemed at first to let him go and then as Manson’s spurt fizzled out, he in turn pushed back ahead of the Kiwi who seemed to have no moves left.

He’s going to have to outwit, outrow and outpull three of the most powerful men in world sculling.

There are a lot of people saying Manson is a sewn-on winner here in Florida. He has the backing of Hamish Bond and Eric Murray and is clearly amazingly quick. But, as commentator Garry Herbert said, if they think that then Manson is making things awfully hard for himself and playing an oddly deceptive game. I think if he had only one of Martin, Fournier Rodriguez and Synek to cope with, he might manage it, but that he’s going to have to outwit, outrow and outpull three of the most powerful men in world sculling simultaneously, and that’s a very big ask.

The women’s line-up will be equally strong: in the less competitive semi Vicky Thornley (GBR) steadily won her way to the front then held it competently, while the fireworks came from Carling Zeeman (CAN) who charged past early leader Fie Udby Erichsen (DEN) to claim third behind Lisa Scheenaard (NED). The closer race ended up a four-way contest between Sanita Puspure (IRL), Magdalena Lobnig (AUT), Jeannine Gmelin (AUT) and Felice Mueller (USA), and finished in a stunning four-way photofinish with Puspure 0.03sec behind winner Gmelin and Mueller losing out on the finals place 0.10sec behind Lobnig.

I started with the singles because they were top-drawer races, but several of the non-Olympic A-finals were just as good. The Italian women won the LW4x but not after three crews had chased them the entire way down the course, a scramble which ended in silver for the Aussies and bronze for China 0.13 seconds ahead of desperately closing Canada.  The LM4x final was even better, for most of it five out of the six crews within a length of each other and ending on a breathless 0.17sec photo finish between France and Britain.

Background: three of the Greek quad had set the world best time three years ago, the Brits were anchored by the power of 2012 silver medallist Peter Chambers and stroked by the 2016 under-23 champion Gavin Horsburgh, while the French featured two of the 2015 winners and were being stroked by former world champion Stany Delayre, bent on redemption. A bit of to-ing and fro-ing got us to 1250m at which point Greece had surged out a bit early and were being attacked by the British. Sandwiched in the middle were France, apparently being slowly dropped, but as the British bow moved out again and Italy wheel-spun at rate-48, France stopped the rot and pulled out the last-quarter speed they had shown the day before, lifting both power and rate and finally carving into the British lead. Five strokes to go, the French bow sneaked briefly in front, then it was on the nod and the line came at just the right time for Delayre and crew. Gold and celebrations for them while the silver Brits hung their heads.

Both these were matched by what had been promised as ‘Irish hour’ – and in two of the three races featuring lightweights from the Emerald Isle they did indeed come out on top, only LW1x Denise Walsh falling too far off the curve to reach the podium. First Mark O’Donovan and Shane Driscoll gave Italy precisely 600 metres before seizing the LM2- final by the scruff of the neck and then moving clear-water ahead so that nobody could catch them. The speed at the front probably did Brazil a favour, pulling the race out so fast that Britain, the nearest chasers to the bronze medal, were left with too much to do.

Then, while the first Irish world champions of the day were relaxing and starting to chat to the TV cameras, Olympic silver medallist Paul O’Donovan successfully defended his 2016 LM1x title, soaring to his second gold ahead of a ferocious scrap between three other competitors. At different times Kristoffer Brun (NOR), Michael Schmid (SUI) and Lars Wichert (GER) were moving fastest and were top-four behind O’Donovan, but then it started to get really fascinating.

“I was just kinda hacking away at the oars, putting them in the water and pulling on them.”

As Schmid launched what looked like a fruitless all-out attempt on the Irishman around 1450m gone and Brun started challenging him, in the background Matthew Dunham had already quietly stepped on the gas, and was busy removing Wichert from the picture while closing relentlessly on the rest. Up went his rate — 40, 42, 44 — while the rest belatedly got the message and lifted too. Even O’Donovan, normally very cool-headed, was forced to lift in the last minute when Dunham scalped Schmid, took out Brun and briefly threatened the gold.  There was no real risk to the Irishman, whose power is such that within a few strokes he was back out to clear water again, but boy was it fun watching.

“I was just kinda hacking away at the oars, putting them in the water and pulling on them [as the rest closed up],” said O’Donovan, whose post-race comments are as sharp as his racing. “I knew I was kind of ahead and was feeling good.  A joy I had to watch these guys as well, they had such good sprints -— but I did it anyway, so I was pleased with that.”

His team-mate Walsh never really had a chance in the LW1x final, during which the rest were eventually eclipsed by the dingdong battle between Dutchwoman Marieke Keijser and South African Kirsten McCann. Initially leading by a smidge, McCann was unusually overtaken in the second quarter but surged back again after half-way, finding a new gear to slide past

Cunning McCann was having none of it and with 300m to go she put her foot down

Keijser, who had for hundreds of metres looked on track to add senior worlds 2017 gold to her golds at the 2015 juniors and under-23 seniors.  Cunning McCann was having none of it and with 300m to go she put her foot down, blasting through inexorably for gold while behind Keijser Mary Jones nipped past Switzerland’s Patricia Merz in the last few strokes for a popular American bronze.

In the other two finals of the day Brazil reaffirmed the strength of their para-rowing programme with a straightforward win for their PR3 mixed double, and Australia must have been thinking they were about to win gold in the men’s coxed pairs before Hungary forced them to reconsider. Let’s pick this one up from 1600m, at which point Australia had been leading by easy clear water from Britain nearly all the way, and then suddenly it all began to change. We had 1992 M2+ champion Greg Searle commentating for FISA in the grandstand, and it seemed entirely appropriate that Hungarians Adrian Juhasz and Bela Simon Jnr, along with their cox Andrea Vanda Kollath were another crew, like Greg and his brother Jonny, able to turn on an astonishing sprint in one of the heaviest boats.

Before Australia knew it, Hungary had picked off Germany and were gunning for them, raising the rate again to an incredible 48 for the last hundred metres and completely demolishing Australia. A repeat of the move which earned them a 2016 European title and Rio qualification in the coxless boat, become even more impressive when carrying a cox. Kollath, by the way, was born 87 days before Searle won his medal in Banyoles. She becomes the first ever woman to steer a men’s crew to world championship gold, and the first of either gender to win under the new coxing rules. However Herbert, Searle’s cox on that day in August 1992, missed this historic moment, preferring not to watch as it as likely FISA will be moving away from the coxed pair in future since it cannot offer a good women’s equivalent in the non-Olympic classes.

Elsewhere the PR1 M1x semis were utterly predictable, Australian former champion Erik Horrie and world best time holder Romani Polianskyi (UKR) each winning with great ease. The Olympic openweight doubles were much more dramatic, with a 0.13/0.50sec triple photofinish in the first M2x semi led by Poland, and France getting the better of New Zealand in the other while Lithuania pushed out Britain with a late charge.  That’s another one which will be mouthwateringly good on Sunday.

The women’s doubles could end up being a battle royal, and to add spice it is the one event in which the US entry — Meghan O’Leary and Ellen Tomek — look absolutely imperious. Once they claimed the lead they were never touched, despite Lithuania’s best efforts, and New Zealand eventually took the other semi with a similar clear-water margin over Australia. China and France complete the set of six who are likely to be within 5 seconds of each other, promising a grand final.

A last update – Licet Hernandez Licea, the Cuban sculler who went missing two days ago, does seem likely to have defected. It’s been established that an email was sent by her on Thursday morning saying she intended to withdraw from competition, and local detectives do not suspect foul play, although for safety’s sake they have reported her as a missing person. The ‘gator spotted again by Filippi (see screenshot of their Instagram image) is not suspected of any misdeeds.

Rachel Quarrell will be blogging for Row360 from Sarasota for the full 8 days of the WRC.

All photography © Benedict Tufnell.

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