Rachel Quarrell

Day 8 Review: 2017 World Rowing Championships

by Rachel Quarrell

If you haven’t already planned to be in Plovdiv for 9th-16th September 2018, lock it into your calendar now.  There’s something extra-special about being there by the water as the best rowers on the planet put on a show.  

Rowing’s championships just keep getting better and better. Where fifteen years ago we would have seen many medal races won with apparent ease, the finals this weekend would have held comparison with any Olympics, so intense and viciously fought were almost all of them.  

The real fire comes from the scullers themselves.

Hats off to FISA, whose deliberate positioning of the Olympic single sculls as a premier event, rather than buried early in the timetable as the first race, has done a good job of promoting this endlessly fascinating boat-class. But the real fire comes from the scullers themselves, the only ones not taking part in a crew event in what is widely known as a team sport. Their dogged persistence, refusal to accept defeat, and ability to pull out move after move as their muscles are screaming in lactate-induced agony, without even the support of crew-mates to encourage them, is every scrap as impressive as the sheer speed on display in the eights finals.

Jeannine Gmelin celebrated W1x gold for Switzerland.

The women’s final was a welter of passion and prowess, enough to scare the pants off even Ekaterina Karsten, the legendary Belarussian who had to sit out the worlds this year. If she doesn’t decide to stick to crew boats from now on I’ll be very surprised: the generation who were toddlers or as yet unborn when Karsten first won a FISA medal (JW1x gold in 1990, by the way) are now well and truly in charge. The result of this weekend’s contest was the first ever world W1x gold for Switzerland, as Jeannine Gmelin stormed to a win by just under a boat-length. 

The two who most successfully challenged Gmelin partly did so by jumping quickly off the start, Vicky Thornley (GBR) and Magdalena Lobnig (AUT) leaving nobody under any illusions that it was going to be anything other than a hard race from gun to tape. It took 450m before Gmelin’s bow passed Thornley and started to inch up Lobnig’s boat, but when it did it was inexorable, rating a little higher than the Austrian and relentlessly powering through.  Just as Gmelin was about to lead Lobnig caught a tiny crab and wobbled, presenting Gmelin with a few free feet.

The next two minutes went all the Swiss sculler’s way, but the other two weren’t done yet. With Irishwoman Sanita Puspure roaring up on them from behind, both jacked the rate, but Thornley did it to better effect and suddenly shot forward at 38-39, ditching Lobnig and pushing back on Gmelin. But the woman from Sarnen simply wouldn’t permit the challenge, and rapidly lifted back out to clear water again as Lobnig did the same to Puspure.  

Ondrej Synek (CZE) shot off the start like a startled cat, matched in rate only by Robbie Manson.

And then the men’s singles, and I’m not sure anyone watching was at all certain beforehand who would win. Ondrej Synek (CZE) shot off the start like a startled cat, matched in rate only by Robbie Manson (NZL) but it was Tim Ole Naske (GER) who got the first proper lead before reality asserted itself and Synek started to move out with Cuba’s Angel Fournier Rodriguez (CUB) following. As he had done in the quarter and semi-finals, GB’s Tom Barras stuck to the leaders like glue. Metres 350 to 1150 was a straight side-by-side drag race for the Czech and Cuban, first one then the other taking a few inches but the two perfectly matched while Barras struggled to keep up and Manson flipped it along at an insane rate 39-40 more than clear water back.  

(L-R): Angel Fournier Rodriguez (CUB), Ondrej Synek (CZE), Tom Barras (GBR).

If you’re reading carefully you will have noticed that so far we haven’t mentioned Damir Martin. The Croatian who came off the wrong side of that agonising Rio 2016 dead-heat photofinish was by this point trailing, apparently spat out the back of the race and quite literally out of the [TV] picture. In already quite lumpy water, the poor guy was also fielding chunks of wash from Fournier Rodriguez and Synek in the lanes either side of him and veering onto his stroke-side buoys. As if to make Martin suffer even more, Synek now hardened on even further, slipping out beyond Fournier Rodriguez and not only cranking the power but also turning up the rate. As the Czech flew towards his fifth title in twelve M1x years, Manson drifted out of the back, Fournier Rodriguez clinched silver, and Damir Martin jacked the rate up to 46 to close rapidly on Barras, falling short by a couple of strokes and only 0.36 seconds.

Astonishing. Both Barras and Ole Naske acquitting themselves most maturely in their first full senior season, and Barras coming out with a startling bronze.  Manson fading to fifth with no sign of the speed he showed earlier in the season. Martin befuddled with wind, wash and stress, but you can bet he’ll be back. And Fournier Rodriguez and Synek confirming their mature superiority over the field, but not by so much that they can’t be challenged. That’s one to note for your worlds 2018 planner — next year’s sequel is bound to be even more compelling.  

The M2x has been supercharged for years, but seems to be getting better and better.

What an absolute delight to watch the men’s doubles storm down the course, five of the six finalists at different times vying for the lead. The M2x has been supercharged for years, but seems to be getting better and better, and predictable it is not. This particular edition started with a bunfight between France, Italy, New Zealand and Poland which saw France lead then fading rapidly while Poland staked a strong claim early on. Then it started to get interesting….Italy’s not-really-a-stride did them a lot of good as others found it harder to get into a boat-moving rhythm, and that put Mondelli and Rambaldi into a useful second as Henley Royal winners Storey and Harris (NZL) started shoving through. For a while the trio remained suspended in pretty much the same margins, but it was only a matter of time before Italy’s 40+ rate made the difference and put them in front. The final sweep to the line took the lead from Italy to the Kiwis and back again, Poland came scrambling back, Lithuania spiralled the rate behind them, everything was happening. Gold to New Zealand, silver to Poland and bronze to Italy.  

The disappointment — particularly for his loyal band of vocal bell-ringing supporters — was that Olaf Tufte had to add fifth to his list of results, along with 2013 world champion Kjetil Borch, with whom he rowed to bronze in Rio. Whereas in the semi Norway had stooged along and then nipped into second, this time the closest they got to the medal positions was in the first quarter, when they were only a few feet off Lithuania in a tight starting pack. Whether it was bad pacing in the race, or across the week, it was a reminder that not everyone has an unlimited number of great races in them.

The best-laid plans of mice and television producers to have a rousing all-American finale with the women’s eights last on the programme was scuppered by two problems:  the US W8+ aren’t that good this year and their M8+ are better. The men’s race was of course redrawn like all the other A-finals to put the fastest crews, Italy and Germany, into lanes 5 and 6, while lesser mortals like Roumania and New Zealand had to languish in the supposedly worse water on the far side. It wasn’t, by the way, obvious how bad the wind was, and though lumpy, the water didn’t seem to be affecting speed much for any race.

Anywhich, back to the big lads’ title, and who was going to bet against Germany? Not us, but the real question was by how much they could win, given that Italy were cooking up a rowing storm all weekend, the Dutch have been a force to be reckoned with this year, and the USA were hardly going to give away a home-water medal if they got a chance to steal one.  

We were waiting for the German cosh to drop, and it duly did in the middle of the race

Off went the Deutschlandachter machine, drilling through the water with their trademark green boat, the black shell of the Kiwis flashing along just behind on the far side of the course. The USA stalked the pair of them well, making the Italians’ heads swivel as they tried to work out where they stood behind these three leaders. [A spectator later pointed out they break all the rules: have a stride – no; eyes in the boat – no; fly and die – no way.]  We were waiting for the German cosh to drop, and it duly did in the middle of the race, sending them zooming out from the pack as if launched by a rocket, while the Kiwis dropped away. The entire field covered the last 500m above rate 40, for a moment it looked as if the US might get right back on Germany with a frenetic sprint but that was an illusion, and the world cup winners even moved out a couple of places on the States as they approached the line. Stupendous silver for the USA, and Italy did their usual completely random standing-up-celebrations for bronze.

The blue-riband event to close the regatta was the women’s eights, but it was Roumania not USA who set the water alight, dashing out fast and then finding answers to every single move New Zealand chucked at them in the middle thousand. We haven’t seen a bowball-to-bowball race in the women’s eights for donkeys years, and for minutes it was unclear who was going to win the punch-up, the Europeans or the Antipodeans.  Finally with 400m to go Roumania hit the gas again hard and suddenly New Zealand found themselves three seats down and now having to fend off a top-class power move from Canada.  

At the champs a blanket finish gets everyone going more than a number on a stopwatch

The rowing got frankly rather scrappy in a desperate dash to the line, with Roumania taking gold by half a second and Canada’s momentum carrying them past the Kiwis by 0.18 seconds for silver. This was the fast and the furious in spades, and Roumania’s first worlds title since 1999. The USA managed a last-ditch push to claim fourth but whoever wanted the women’s race to close the regatta was spot on, they just planned it for a different winning crew. Admittedly the time was a bit on the slow side compared with other finals, but in the end at the champs a blanket finish gets everyone going more than a number on a stopwatch, and it was magic to have the women doing it for once.  

The women’s doubles had promised plenty, but in the end though thrillingly close at half-way, became more of a procession in the second half as the latest incarnation of world-beating New Zealand W2x, Brooke Donaghue and Olivia Loe, proved too powerful even for the highly motivated Americans Meghan O’Leary and Ellen Tomek. After the Kiwis had moved into a sustained lead, Australia kept up the fight for silver for some time, but the roaring grandstand urged on the home double until they managed to pull safely into second, leaving the Aussies unable to match them. The US surge did bring them closer to New Zealand, but you were left with the definite sense that Loe and Donaghue could have found another move if needed.  

Norway’s star para-sculler, Birgit Skarstein, had health issues last year which resulted in a fourth place at Rio, but she has adapted beautifully to the new 2000m para-distance, and predictably sculled to a fantastic gold medal here, pushing herself all the way and ending only two seconds outside her own world best time set a couple of days earlier. Behind her Moran Samuel (ISR) could do absolutely nothing, but the revelations were German Sylvia Pille-Steppart and Italy’s Anila Hoxha, who battled each other to third and fourth respectively, while Sandra Khumalo (RSA) was not far off them.  

Horrie has an unusually long amount of body swing for the arms-and-shoulders category, and worked it to great effect

The men’s para-singles was also rather predictable, with Australia’s Erik Horrie taking revenge on Roman Polianskyi for the Rio Paralympics result, and neatly reversing it. Horrie has an unusually long amount of body swing for the arms-and-shoulders category, and worked it to great effect, steadily forging his way through the field to claim gold. He had to pick off both his biggest rivals though, after Russia’s Alexey Chuvashev went out fast with Polianskyi, the two vying for hundreds of metres until the Ukrainian’s more consistent power and pace began to take over. By this time Horrie had come up between the two of them, and as all three slowed in the second half of the long race, turned the tables on Polianskyi. The entire field had gone out at world record pace, and Horrie duly stole the world best time off the Ukrainian too, to add to his medal. 

Alas the wake for the lightweight fours (also called the LM4- straight final) failed to deliver something to live up to the great past of this fabled event. Italy led all the way for the least stellar of their three championship victories, and the only serious excitement was provided by Russia taking full advantage of lane five to snipe at China and Germany and nab silver, upsetting the Chinese enough for them to fade into fourth.  

There’s something bigger here than simply a very talented group making their way up the age ladder.

A word about Italy, prompted by the remark from a colleague that this was the U23/junior generation coming good. Yes, they have featured in the medals at every age-group final of the last 10 years or more, and often with at least one men’s gold.  But the only year they have significantly swept the medals was in 2012, when their junior vintage of that year took four under-18 golds. Only a few of those have made it into the senior sweep team, along with many who have been in the squad for years. There’s something bigger here than simply a very talented group making their way up the age ladder. Whatever Italy are doing, this year they got it absolutely right, and are no longer content to sweep up low-ranked titles such as the coxed pair or lightweight quad. They have earned the right to be considered a serious threat in all categories.

‘Italy have earned the right to be considered a serious threat in all categories.’

There isn’t much left to say. The only fly in the perfect Nathan Benderson Park ointment was the grumble of spectators confined to a small island space and unable to walk round to watch further down the course as they have in some other venues. No more hurricanes, not too many athletes felled by the heat, Italy top of the table and the US won an eights medal. We left, satiated with fabulous rowing and drama on the water, and in a year’s time we get to do it all over again.  

Sarasota Florida, over and out.

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