Day Five, Belgrade: Semi-Final Surprises on Bumpy Waves

Belgrade, Serbia

4 minute read
Words Rachel Quarrell
Photography Benedict Tufnell
Published 08.09.23

Thursday at Lake Sava was time to get out the lifebelts, as a lively cross-headwind brought back echoes of Tokyo and Rio, turning the qualification worlds into a survival exercise.  As usual in these conditions the programme was tweaked and lanes redrawn so that winners from earlier in the week were tucked under the southern lee shore of the lake, with a big chunk of extra shelter from trees as they came into the last 250 metres. Only one crew capsized as a result of the bouncy water and/or a possible crab, Germany’s lightweight men’s double doing a flip not long after they’d passed halfway in a race led home by the unflappable Swiss who kept their foot on Italy’s necks throughout. 

Elsewhere in lightweight doubles the Irish LM2x won again, though their female counterparts were edged out of the A-final by the USA in a very tight four-way finish (Canada and New Zealand took the top spots).  China managed the opposite, qualifying their lightweight women but not the lightweight men, and the British world champion LW2x soared to victory well clear of Romania after taking early leaders China apart with clinical mercilessness.  

This was also Olympic Paris-booking time, with hundreds of athletes claiming their countries spaces for next summer.  Two of them were the USA’s fresh new women’s pair of Alison Rusher with veteran Meghan Musnicki, who have surprised everyone with their speed.  Amongst those they shocked were Greece’s excellent Evangelia Anastasiadou and Christina Bourmpou, pushed into fourth after the Americans launching a missile-like attack in mid course.  Ahead of them a duel between the Dutch and Aussies through the last 500m of dirty water was won narrowly by Australia, while Romania won the other semi to book an inevitable favourite’s lane for the final. 

The men’s pairs were in copycat mode, a similar duel going on between super-fast Switzerland and Britain for the semi victory in the first race and a bigger gap in the second but with some crucial races.  Britain took the laurels from semi one, third place hoovered up by the US team’s even bigger surprise duo of William Bender and Evan Olsen, cramming out Croatia.  Denmark’s earlier boat trouble, which turned out to have been through dropping off their trailer, may have dented Frederic Vystavel and Joachim Sutton’s spirit as they finished sixth.  

The second men’s pairs race contained a massive shock, as the usually superb Jaime Canalejo Pazos and Javier Garcia Ordonez from Spain were squeezed out of the A-final by an indomitable performance from South Africans John Smith and Christopher Baxter, the damage being done long before the line.  “Sounds a bit surreal at the moment”, said Baxter afterwards.  “But yeah, so great.  South Africa has a huge tradition in this boat class, my aunt (Colleen Orsmond) went to the Games [in the pair], so [I’m] happy to follow in her footsteps.”

Reactions to qualifying for Paris varied, because some rowers in small teams are certain to be racing in “their” seats next summer, barring injuries, and others will contest Olympic places against big competition.  “We’re just at a loss for words” said Melita Abraham, who with sister Antonia clung on to Ireland to claim Chile’s first ever Olympic women’s pairs spot.  “We trained so hard, so long for this moment”.  The sisters have been together since 2016 when Melita moved out of the lightweight double into the openweight sweep boat.

By comparison Dutchwoman Marloes Oldenburg, first to cross the line in the women’s fours, was pragmatic.  “It’s only the boat [that qualifies for the Olympic Games].  I’m really happy, we did a good job, but we’re here for this world championships and not for Paris”, she said.  “Everyone is like ‘you have to be celebrating’ and we’re like ‘no, we’re here for the finals.”  Her crew fended off the very strong Romanian quartet to take the win (after Romania’s boat had been rapidly repaired following their little contretemps with the British LW2x the previous day), while the other semi-final was won by a much improved British four well clear of the USA and China, in cruise mode after establishing a clear-water margin.  

The men’s fours were also very successful for the Americans, whose new quartet won their semi-final ahead of a surprised Dutch four.  With some of the season leaders under pressure the remaining angst was applied by third-placed France, who put Italy into absolute desperation mode and squeezed them out of the A-final.  “It was a race to forget, but we’ve done the job and are looking forward to Saturday”, said Dutchman Niki Van Sprang.  “I didn’t want to go back to the Final Olympic Qualification Regatta, I have been there, done that before!”

Britain coasted — there is no other word for it — to a win in the second race after having to chew up a brilliant start from New Zealand who were on the ball right from the first stroke.  The inexorable mid-course push from the Brits did its job and it was left to an apparently struggling Australia to take third which relegated Romania, who have been regular medallists, into the B-final and the all-in fight for the seventh and last Paris place.  “It was a difficult race, a really long race with the head breeze”, said Aussie Spencer Turrin.  “Made it a lot harder.  But happy to get the boat qualified for the Olympics.  We just want to get as many boats qualified for next year as we can so we can have as many of our mates there representing Australia and doing what they love.”

Yet more interesting results were in store during the women’s quads, where the Dutch flatfooted China and then held on in the finishing sprint, and Britain’s composed quad continued their high-quality run at the championships to stay well ahead of Switzerland and Australia.  The men’s quads were both very close contests, lane advantages disappearing as the wind briefly dropped.  A blanket finish in one semi saw Poland’s world champions stay strong ahead of Italy while Germany rowed through a desperately disappointed Ukraine to bag the last finals spot.  The Dutch remained their usual calm and inviolable selves in the other semi, while behind them a scuffle resolved into Britain and Switzerland slightly ahead of Romania.