Grins, hugs and some heroic sculling bookended the last day of the 2022 world rowing championships as some of the sport’s great single scullers got back into boats again to celebrate the career of Czech M1x legend Ondrej Synek. The brainchild of Synek’s agent and the host federation who wanted to give their superlative sculler a proper send-off after illness during 2021 forced his early retirement, the Grand Finale had Synek inviting back five of his former rivals and friends back to the lake in a 500m dash which took place after the women’s eights final but before the last two medal ceremonies of the regatta. With weak autumn sun shining over the course and crowded grandstand, Synek lined up with Iztok Cop (SLO), Mahe Drysdale (NZL), Olaf Tufte (NOR), Alan Campbell (GBR) and Lassi Karonen (SWE) with a former World Rowing chief umpire being brought back to adjudicate.
The smart money was on Norway’s Olaf Tufte, who will probably carry on training like a 20-year-old and staying fit until the day he dies, which may not be for 80 years the way he’s going. Alan Campbell admitted beforehand to being likely to blow at 250m gone, whilst some of the others had put on rather a lot of weight since bringing their international careers to an end. The group went out for beers the night before (a notable absence being Tufte) but they were clearly thoroughly enjoying being back together and racing once again. The day started with a photocall outside the media tent and ended in a shamelessly rigged race to the line in front of hundreds of spectators.
Umpired by a World Rowing master who had come out of retirement specially to adjudicate, the floating start was — more or less — lined up straight at 500m to go before the race began. The wily Iztok Cop shot off the start like a scalded cat before Tufte predictably took over the lead ahead of Synek and Cop, then stopped racing just in time to let Synek glide over for the victory. The rest joined Tufte in stopping early with various degrees of decorum — Karonen screeching to a stop as as he realised the line was approaching fast — and allowed Drysdale to catch up before the five of them glided over in line abreast. Excellent choreography. Medals were awarded and the official ceremony photo taken with Synek on the shoulders of the rest.
The maestros on the water were six of those who raced in the first year of the Great Eight, a dashingly epic early-2000s enterprise intended to prove that the single scullers of the world could jump into a crew boat and beat the sweep masters at their own game. They did, first winning the Head of the River in the UK and then crossing the Atlantic to repeat their victory at the Head of the Charles (in a snowstorm). The same group, encouraged particularly by Tufte, Cop, Campbell and Drysdale, developed a camaraderie both on and off the water which became famous.
Tufte regularly invited singles rivals to stay and train with him at his farm in Norway, where he crosstrains by log-carrying and ski-ing, while Campbell’s coach Bill Barry was instrumental in bringing on Drysdale from his start as a strong and tall but raw sweep rower into a world-beating single sculler. Never shy of throwing their total effort into beating one another on the water, it was always good-humoured, with the group inventing the tradition which continues to this day of hoisting the winner onto their shoulders for pictures after the medal ceremony finishes. They recognised that in the world of the non-stop single sculler, the only people who fully understand what your life is like are the others you race. Their example quietly encouraged similar friendships in the women’s singles too, and they have all been role models for many, both in and out of crew boats.
And so racing friendships which spanned years and celebrated a degree of respect for rivals which is one of the most positive things about the sport of rowing brought the curtain down on a superb regatta, with scullers lifting one of the greats onto their shoulders. Viva Synek, and all who raced with him.