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Rachel Quarrell

Heroic racing seals the deal on the final day at Lagoa

by Rachel Quarrell

Saturday 13 August, Rio de Janeiro.

Rowing could not have picked a better moment to display its full glory.  IOC President Thomas Bach had just arrived in the grandstands with his extensive retinue, the sun was shining on sparkling water, and the TV helicopter hovered above Christ the Redeemer.  Fed into TVs across the world went what are quite possibly the best ever overhead shots in the sport, of six arrow-sharp rowing boats at a time darting away from the feet of the famous statue towards Sugarloaf Mountain and into Olympic history.

And then, right in front of Bach, whose committee are innately sceptical about rowing’s ability to produce nailbiting racing, Mahe Drysdale and Damir Martin produced a men’s singles final which will remain legendary for decades, the Olympic gold eventually going to the New Zealander on the tightest of photofinishes.  Under the new rules in which boats with the same time can nevertheless if possible be separated visually, they were both awarded 6:41.34, but Drysdale was awarded the gold by mere millimetres.  

NZL's Mahe Drysdale beats CRO's Damir Martin in a breathtaking photofinish.  The image is not real but composed of timeslices, narrow slivers of picture taken in 0.001 second increments right on the finish line.

NZL’s Mahe Drysdale beats CRO’s Damir Martin in a breathtaking photofinish. The image is not real but composed of timeslices, narrow slivers of picture taken in 0.001 second increments right on the finish line.

Croatian Martin, inspired by gold for the Sinkovic brothers with whom he had become world champion in the quad, took on the fight from the start and led out with Czech Ondrej Synek at his heels, forming a sandwich with Drysdale locked a length down in the middle of the pair.  True to form Drysdale started chuntering the Kiwi train at 1300m gone, powering through Martin as he has done several times before, on superb Games-winning form.  This is where in previous races it has all been over, but as the buoys turned red, that Olympic magic kicked in and with Synek still pressing hard, Martin started upping the rate one last desperate time.  40-43-45 and finally an incredible 48, Martin’s short punchy strokes chopped rapidly away at Drysdale’s lead, and the two boats swept across the line locked together, Synek a stroke behind.

It looked in the moment as if both of them thought Martin might have won, or perhaps a dead heat.  An agonising two minutes passed, then a confused announcement which had the Kiwi fans cheering wildly, but instead of the joint gold most spectators would have expected, the photofinish showed Drysdale’s bow a tiny but visible distance ahead of Martin’s.  Gold for the defending champion and the Croatian would have to take silver, a miserable reward for a famously exciting race.  Martin’s reaction on the podium was neverthless one of sheer delight, the sportsmanlike Croat aware that he would be seen as a champion by many after that performance.  Synek claimed bronze, clear-water ahead of Henley Royal winner Hannes Obreno from Belgium, with Belarussia’s Stanislau Shcharbachenia fifth and Cuban Angel Fournier Rodriguez sixth. 

It was one of the perfect ones, where I did 100 percent, even more.  The last 100 metres was incredible …

Damir Martin, CRO M1x

“I got the feeling he passed me, and I just chucked in a few short ones in desperation,” said Drysdale.  Martin, who may well inherit Drysdale’s space in the rowing roster if the Kiwi as expected retires, said “It was one of the perfect ones, where I did 100 percent, even more.  The last 100 metres was incredible, the shouts from the spectators were crazy.”

“I said in December my best chance in Rio was to be pushed off the pontoon by Dick [Tonks],” said Drysdale, paying tribute to the expert coach who is now leaving New Zealand after falling out with the federation.  With back issues, plans to give toddler daughter Bronte, who was clutching his shiny medal, a sibling, and age kicking in, the Kiwi may not fly in international competition again, but it’s been a tremendous career.

The women’s singles A final was lacking former and defending Olympic champions Ekaterina Karsten and Mirka Knapkova, who fought it out with Dane Fie Udby Erichsen in an epic B-final won by the Czech.  The medal race, despite the best efforts of USA’s Gevvie Stone, became a coronation for Australian reigning world champion Kim Brennan.   With 2014 champion Emma Twigg looking ordinary, and Brennan rapidly hauling out a two-length lead, the race was primarily for the minor medals, Chinese skills merchant Duan Jingli an ever-present threat.  

Brennan’s steering was erratic but she remained clear of the pack, with Stone taking over second place and looking increasingly strong as the line drew nearer.  Twigg’s sparkle returned in the last 500 metres, but she had lost too much time in the early stages and could not quite close on the medal places.  Gold to Brennan, silver to Stone with a superb final sprint, and bronze to Duan, with Twigg fourth by 0.35 seconds ahead of Jeannine Gmelin (Switzerland) and Austrian hope Magdalena Löbnig.  The woman who didn’t realise you had to use your legs when she took her first rowing outing at the age of 20 had become Australia’s first Olympic W1x champion, and the first to hold that title outside Europe, as well.

I didn’t know you could do a 2k and it not hurt, but it went better than I expected.  I had juice the whole time.

Gevvie Stone, USA W1x

“I’ve imagined this so many times,” said Brennan.  “I can stop feeling inadequate now — my husband [Scott Brennan] has a gold medal so now we’re even!”  Duan said she was surprised by the bronze, while Stone was ecstatic, running on adrenaline.  “I didn’t know you could do a 2k and it not hurt, but it went better than I expected.  I had juice the whole time.”

There was a second coronation in the women’s eights, USA’s empresses of big-boat rowing claiming their twelfth championship title in a row and their third straight Olympic crown.  They gave their supporters a worrying three minutes as they uncharacteristically languished in the pack before starting their surge towards glory.  British supporters, crossing fingers for a first-ever Olympic medal in this event, had to hold their nerve while the GB boat sat in last for a similar amount of time.  Then the two Anglophone crews began the inexorable charge, tearing through the pack together and removing Canada’s early lead without mercy.  

The USA were never realistically under threat, and earned themselves the press name “The Girls in the Boat” with a cast-iron victory which will write them new chapters in the record books.  New Zealand’s attempt at a first Olympic medal fell prey to Roumania’s rapid final sprint which nearly caught Britain and handed the East Europeans bronze ahead of New Zealand, Canada and the Netherlands. 

I’m an emotional wreck so you’re not going to get much out of me.  I can’t express how amazing today has been.

Polly Swann, GBR W8+

“Fifteen years of rowing, 30 years of family support, and an awesome group of girls who push me every day,” said USA’s Amanda Polk.  “No margin is big enough, no stroke is hard enough, but the important thing is we did this together.”  Polly Swann, Britain’s world champion in the W2- with Helen Glover before Heather Stanning ejected her from the seat in 2014, was finding it hard to put into words.  “I’m an emotional wreck so you’re not going to get much out of me.  I can’t express how amazing today has been.  I felt like I was the weakest link in the eight, that made me feel incredible, we can do anything.”

Men's eights medal podium. Photo: Rachel Quarrell.

Men’s eights medal podium. Photo: Rachel Quarrell.

And so to the much-awaited men’s eights, likely to be a show-down between Germany and GBR after the intense rivalry the two had run all Olympiad.  But the expected drag race evaporated in the face of Britain’s first powerful strokes, followed by a slick and speedy first 500m which put them a few feet ahead of Germany and confidently up on the Dutch.  As the crews settled the British started to move, inch by inch moving out to nearly a length’s lead.  This was a charge of champions, racing towards immortality and nothing was going to get in the way of the world’s best this Olympiad.  

Pushed hard by the Dutch, the green boat of the Germans was spurred on to new efforts and kept just ahead of the Dutch bows for silver, while USA, Poland and New Zealand were outclassed by the sheer speed of the final race.  The winners from first stroke to last were the British, completing a triumphant Olympiad.  As they drifted to a stop after the line and commentator Garry Herbert, himself a champion cox in 1992, said “Welcome to the club, Phelan,”, the GB cox stood to applaud his men, the equals of the US women this Olympiad.

The British are the stronger team, they rowed a very good race and now we have silver.  I think we need a little time to think about it, to see if we are happy with it.

Eric Johannesen, GER M8+

“We knew it was a case of eking it out until 300 to go, and then just trying to hang the hell onto the firestorm that was unleashed,” said Paul Bennett, a champion on his Olympic debut.  “I knew from the first stroke,” said Andy T Hodge, with Pete Reed becoming a triple Olympic champion after two Games in the four.  “We’re not perhaps the most technical boat,” said stroke Will Satch, “but we’ve got a shed load of heat, and we were able to put that down today.”  Coach Jürgen Grobler, whose crew had just given him his twelfth Olympic gold at a tenth consecutive Olympics, was wiping away the tears, shaking with delight and shredded nerves.  

Andy Triggs Hodge's gold medal. Photo: Rachel Quarrell.

Andy Triggs Hodge’s gold medal. Photo: Rachel Quarrell.

“It was not the medal I wanted to have, but it’s OK, it’s a medal,” said Germany’s Andreas Kuffner.  His crewmate Eric Johannesen said, “The British are the stronger team, they rowed a very good race and now we have silver.  I think we need a little time to think about it, to see if we are happy with it.”

Rio’s rowing closed with the Olympic flag being taken down, next to be raised at the Paralympic regatta, and nineteen countries on the medal table, ten with golds.  Sunset on the lake.  A glorious week.  Now roll on Tokyo.

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