October 1, 2017
Day 7 Review: 2017 World Rowing Championships
You want sensation, get down to Nathan Benderson Park. As a big rainshower burst over the park straight after the last medal ceremony of the day, the dominant sense following the first set of Olympic/Paralympic finals was ‘expect the unexpected’. Crews won from quick starts, slow starts, mid-race pushes, heroic sprints. It’s at times like this I can never understand why anyone would think rowing boring or unpredictable, or why former internationals so rarely attend the championships unless in an official capacity as media, coaches or federation representatives. World champs racing is absolutely gripping live.
Saturday saw gold medals won by anything from 0.21 to 23 seconds, favourites winning and losing, but the biggest drama of the day was reserved for the last race, the men’s quads final, which was delayed for over 15 minutes due to a very unexpected problem. Over to the athletes involved…..
“We did a burst of three strokes and he suddenly stopped, and we didn’t know what to do.”
“We were very close to getting on the start, going through the bridge, when Pete [Lambert] did his back in after a practice start,” said British M4x bowman Jack Beaumont. “We did a burst of three strokes and he suddenly stopped, and we didn’t know what to do. There aren’t any umpires around there, should we row to the start, or go in? Pete couldn’t row back so the three of us had to. We knew the guys on stand-by were Graeme [Thomas] and Angus [Groom], so it was nice after last year that it was Graeme.” It was lucky the crew managed to attract FISA attention in time before being declared non-starters, and a delay was agreed for the race, shifting the W4x medal ceremony into the hole.
Beaumont was referring to the situation last year four days before the Olympics, when Thomas had been withdrawn ill from the Rio crew, packed off to fly home without saying goodbye so that he didn’t infect the rest, and landing already virtually recovered, watched on TV as his former crew-mates become Olympians. This year he had to have surgery during the winter, and was only at the worlds because he and fellow injury-sufferer Angus Groom had rehabilitated in time to be picked for a hopeful (though now B-final) double. Time to become a super-sub in his own turn.
“I just dropped it, my water bottle, shaker, probably room key — everything was flying out my bag”
Meanwhile up in the grandstands Thomas, unaware of the tumult on the warm-up lake, had gone to sit with his family for the quads race. “I was sitting with my mum in the grandstand, and then my phone’s going absolutely crazy, vibrating in my hand. I can’t read the messages fast enough, then it was actually Emily Craig, she was the only one who put a message together, everyone else was just ringing me. ‘NEEDED AS A SUB, NOW!’ in capitals. I just dropped it, my water bottle, shaker, probably room key — everything was flying out my bag, people going ‘Sir, Sir, you dropped it’ and I’m ‘I don’t care!’ I’m running to the pontoon, which is where I’ve been told I need to go — and Jürgen’s there.
‘Breathe,’ [he says].
You have done this before….’
“I had my all-in-one in my bag, whipped that on, god knows who saw, and it was just get in and row up to the start. It wasn’t quite as bad as last year when Jack jumped in for Pete and nearly capsized, but it wasn’t pretty. I just powered it down the course, there was no finesse whatsoever. The guys were just so calm and cool, even though I’ve got the steering foot and I’ve never steered a quad before, so I’ve got that to contend with. All over the shop, probably an extra 10 metres swerving around. But the guys were so calm, they stuck to their plan and I just had to keep rowing.”
The race, when it eventually came, was epic. The Dutch men probably didn’t know their women had just won the first-ever NED W4x gold, but barrelled off the start as if they did, within 400m half a length up and going bat-out-of-hell to extend it while the rest of the pack chased them. This flying tactic sometimes works a treat, and as the Dutch came to within feet of achieving clear water, at first it looked likely to bear golden fruit. But the rest had other ideas and as Britain and Norway started to close the gap, Lithuania finally found a middle-thousand gear and started on trucking. From 1200m to 1480m the Dutch went from 10m up to dead level with Lithuania and only a few feet ahead of the Brits, and suddenly their energy was lost. As they dropped back Lithuania went on to claim the gold they have sought all year, while Britain ended with an incredible silver despite their subbed strokeman, Estonia putting in a ball-busting sprint to claim bronze right behind them. Lambert hobbled painfully down to congratulate the Brits after the medal ceremony, and Lithuanian strokeman Aurimas Adomavicius nearly missed his anthem, flat out on the dock for minutes being worried over by medics, before struggling to his feet.
The W4x race was exquisitely timed by the Dutch, letting the Poles think they had it all their own way but closing inexorably through the final 600 metres and taking gold by a second. The last few hundred metres, the Dutch and Poles initially right alongside before NED leaned on their sculls just a little more in the last ten strokes, were exceptional. Gladiatorial sculling at its very best. Behind the two top crews Britain came through to seize bronze as Germany faded, but it was a feisty and competitive race in an event which has sometimes seemed like a walkover. The Dutch stroke looked absolutely astonished when she realised they had won, a mark of the focus which has brought them to become only the seventh ever country to take that title during the 32 years of its existence.
Saturday saw a salutation to the return of the W4- to the Olympic programme, and favourites Australia took the 2017 title having at various stages sat in every position from sixth to first in the race. Perhaps using the same tactics as their quad, NED’s W4- burst out ahead, but in this race they were never allowed to get more than half a length clear, and only the Chinese were out of the race completely by 1200m, everyone else in with a significant chance. In a complex final 750m the Dutch faded, Russia pushed but were eventually overtaken, USA challenged but couldn’t find a fast enough gear, and Poland threatened to take gold and were lucky to manage silver on the last stroke ahead of Russia. But it was the Aussies who managed to accelerate through the entire final thousand and pick off their competitors one by one, clinching gold from the unlikeliest of starts. As a spectacle, it did not disappoint, and there is a real energy in the air now that we have two smaller boats for countries to choose to put their top women into.
Let’s pay homage to Australia’s men’s four, finishing ahead of Britain at a championships for what looks to be the first time ever when both entries have been the top sweep crews of their team. Post-mortems will be had in the UK for sure, but Australia were in superlative shape, doing to everyone else what GB has done to them as often as possible since the late 1990s. First they ripped the guts out of the entire pack, and then calmly sat out front while the rest barged for scraps. The backstory, as many will know, was that GBR stroke Will Satch had been forced to sit out the semi-final due to late illness, and that the Brits had qualified at rather a stretch with a substitute in the crucial seat. However Satch was back in his place for Saturday’s final, having had a good couple of days training.
Australia whizzed out beautifully, sliding into an elegant and extensive lead, while behind them the shoving began between Britain and Italy with a hint of an interest from the Netherlands. As the Aussie lead sat at just over a length Italy started cranking up the stroke rate and moved right out from GBR. The charge closed the gap to overlap on Australia and the Dutch also started to move into serious contact, and we ended with an Italian silver and Britain just hanging on for bronze. Twenty-five years after the second iteration of the Oarsome Foursome won M4- gold for Australia at the Barcelona Olympics, and the new generation had done it again. [Not that the headline writers in Australia have yet realised….]
Writing this on Saturday, it looks inevitable that Italy will take some metalware home from the men’s eights final. We’ve mentioned their four, but after their men’s pair also put a cat firmly amongst Croatia’s pigeons there is no point denying that their entire male sweep team is on very good form. They may have a strategy of buzzing the entire way down the course like wasps in a jar rating well over 40, but for once the abnormally high stroke rate they have so often employed is turning out to be rather successful.
The semi-final pairs winners had been France and New Zealand, and with the Sinkovic brothers (CRO) just one lane outside the Kiwis all eyes were initially on them. After a quick Croatian start, for a while it looked as if Hamish Bond, now turned cyclist, had quietly cloned himself. James Hunter, who bears an unnerving facial resemblance to Bond and even rows with a similar body-shape, took himself and bowman Thomas Murray (still no relation to Eric) through into the lead with some proper Kiwi rate-40 trucking, at exactly the same point when the 2009-2016 champions used to do it in the same way just as other crews were settling down. Game on, we all thought as the Sinkovics raised their own rate in response and moved back, the two starting to battle well clear of anyone else bar Italy.
Bowman Giuseppe VIcino of ITA kept looking across, and as the Kiwis faltered with CRO hitting their rhythm, Italy closed down to level for second place. Now it was stroke Matteo Lodo looking, and as he lifted the rate again, the Sinkovics were still at clear water ahead of them, but starting to swerve towards stroke side. Italy smelled blood, and went again, now up to 45, now 47 – took the lead, and crossed the line to win. Totally phenomenal, as New Zealand drifted across for bronze.
After the men’s pair it was something of an emotional relief to see Olympic champions France win the LM2x by leading pretty much all the way. It was a lot tighter certainly than this writer had expected, but although Pierre Houin and Jeremie Azou (who scull magnificently) had a duff first stroke and then came under severe pressure from China, Poland and particularly Italy, they could cover each attack before sneaking away afterwards. As the buoys turned red the French slid into a clear-water lead and could watch the tempestuous battle for the minor medals in which Italy managed to get back in front inches from the line with China just clinging on for bronze ahead of Poland.
If you thought that was good, the lightweight women’s doubles was a humdinger. This time the early leaders were European champions Poland ahead of a closely-matched pack, before a three-way battle slowly developed between the USA, Roumania and New Zealand, first closing on Poland and then pushing past. 950m gone, and Roumania had managed to eke out a good 1/3-length lead, but with the USA and New Zealand pacing one another stroke for stroke, it kept up the leverage on the Roumanians. First the black Kiwi bow moved in front, then the white US one, and every surge from either put the Roumanians further under the cosh. Staggeringly, despite as under-23 champions being the youngest in the race, they had an answer for every move, inching their rate up and covering the attacks. With a minute to go they were already at 40, but the Kiwis and Yanks did not give up, and as the crowds roared on the USA and NZL lifted one more time, the whole lot closed on together. One final shove from New Zealand brought them even closer to the leaders, but the line arrived first and in a near-blanket finish it was gold to Roumania by inches, silver to NZL by only a sliver more, and the USA on the podium with bronze.
The women’s pair went entirely to plan for quickest in the world Kiwis Grace Prendergast and Kerri Gowler, who got to within 10 seconds of their mark on a virtually flat lake. But it went even better for Americans Tracy Eisser and Megan Kalmoe, who claimed silver after having to forge their way through from the pack. The Kiwis dominated all the way through, clear-water up, and increasing it steadily throughout the row until they had more than two lengths with 500m to go. But the fight between Denmark and USA was heating up, and although Denmark at first had the edge, USA kept attacking again and again. The tipping point was at 250m to go, when the Americans started a punchy move which rapidly got under the Danes’ skin, and then just spiralled up the rate, 41-42-43, not only blasting past Denmark but also closing hard on the utterly unconcerned Kiwis.
as predicted Israel did not take part due to the race falling on the same day as Yom Kippur
A word about the para-rowing finals, although the new distance of 2000m has stretched the fields for now so that the margins between gold and silver for the PR2 doubles and PR3 fours were a rather uninteresting 18 and 23 seconds respectively. The world-cup winning Dutch double of Annika van der Meer and Corne de Koning had a straightforward victory, but a one-second verdict for Ukraine taking silver over the charging Poles was excitingly close. It was a straight final for the para-fours, where as predicted Israel did not take part due to the race falling on the same day as Yom Kippur, but we still got a new world best time as the British coxed four took it under 7 minutes, slicing another 14 seconds off their Thursday time. The USA were never really in doubt for second, with Italy fighting through Ukraine to take bronze.
During the last few days I have been pondering a question asked on Twitter – is there a new style of racing being developed, high-rating across 2000m and yet still able to sprint even higher? I was going to dismiss it with the answer that it’s mostly just Italy (historically rate-monsters though rarely to good effect), and New Zealand, where younger rowers have been realising they could copy the tactics of the supposedly unique Murray and Bond if they train for it.
But I think other pundits are right, and we are seeing something genuinely new coming into rowing. It needs to be done wholeheartedly — you need to train and practice racing small boats for long periods at top rate, as well as changing boat-rig and erg training to match — but after all both lightweights and eights have been rating high all the way right down the course for years so it’s not an impossible idea for any crew. Perhaps it is arising out of the fact that the boat speed to weight ratio is steadily increasing.
However such a tactic is dangerous, difficult to counter. If the rapid early start doesn’t reliably lead to ‘fly-and-die’ race profiles where the speed eventually drops off, then other crews need to be careful not to make assumptions about how easily they can crush it. If what used to be pushes for 10 at 950 or 1250 metres gone turn into sustained high-rate efforts on top of an already elevated base rate, then it will no longer be enough to push back a few strokes later. Not that I think all crews will have to row the same way – lower ‘normal’ rate wins will still happen. But perhaps all international crews, particularly openweights, will have to take a long hard look at avoiding inefficient boat-slowing technique, and pay more attention to developing multiple lengths of push and sprint for different situations.
As we move into the last day of the Sarasota championships, with boats ranging from singles to eights on the menu, and Italy heading the medal table, it’s certainly something to ponder.
Rachel Quarrell will be blogging for Row360 from Sarasota for the full 8 days of the WRC.All photography © Benedict Tufnell.