Quality quarterfinals were the order of the fourth day’s rowing in Racice, with some superb world championship shoot-outs to the line after a few days of slightly quieter skirmishing. The tone was set in the very first contest of the day, the four-through women’s PR1 singles repechage, in which Israeli Moran Samuel just managed to hold off Germany’s Manuela Diening by a quarter of a second. French Paralympic double medallist Nathalie Benoit won that one, but only after having to row steadily through Moran after a toe-to-toe battle over the first 1100m.
The promise of para-rowing photofinishes was fulfilled two races later, when the second PR1 men’s rep ended in a dash to the line by Brazil’s Rene Campos Pereira and German Marcus Klemp who finished 0.07 seconds apart after Klemp mounted a major charge in the last 400m. It was a masterclass in victory timing from Klemp who was in the first ever world championships adaptive crews as what we would now call a PR3 rower twenty years ago. He won world gold in the mixed coxed fours five years later, was reclassified as a TA2x (PR2 Mix2x) in 2013 due to his condition deteriorating, and then moved into the PR1 singles in 2018 for the same reason, finishing eighth last summer in Tokyo. The rapidly-improving teenager Egamberdiev Kholmurod (UZB) won the other rep from Japan’s Takuya Mori, behind them the USA’s Andrew Mangan catching and then passing Pole Arkadiusz Skrypinski late on to take the last qualifying spot.
But those were all repechages, and it was the quarterfinals for open and lightweight singles and doubles which really turned up the heat after the para-rowers left the lake. Blistering races, many impossible to call without a camera, crowded the schedule and had everyone dashing to the lakeside to watch as the fate of new and old names was decided in a tense racing session. The M1x quarterfinal had looked like the race from hell with champions Olli Zeidler, Melvin Twellaar plus Canada’s Trevor Jones joined by Lithuanian legend Mindaugas Griskonis. But the Griskonis experiment of returning to racing derailed with a bang early in the race as he dropped to a paddle leaving the other three to collect the qualifying places. Twellaar did his usual number on Zeidler, who enjoys shooting off fast but wasn’t going to hold back Twellaar’s inexorable mid-course push.
The other three races were considerably tighter, starting with Jack Cleary (AUS) just managing to whip third place off Filip Matej Pfeifer by 0.04 seconds after the Slovenian made the most extraordinary gains in the last quarter of the race which nearly upset the Aussie. Cleary had in fact been passed but retook the lead on the very last stroke. Fabulous. Up ahead of them Brit and Lucerne winner Graeme Thomas again tried the tactic of staying high on the rate to match Olympic champion Stefanos Ntouskos until he strode out near halfway. This worked, holding the Greek nicely and then powering through to seize the lead from the former lightweight whose rate was not enough to resist the move.
The third quarterfinal (QF) went to New Zealander Jordan Parry, who kept himself safely out in front while a battle royal developed between Dane Bastien Secher, Irishman Brian Colsh and Pole Piotr Plominski, the one to miss out being Colsh by a scant two seconds. QF 4 was also close, senior citizen Kjetil Borch stalking Japan’s Ryuta Arakawan until very late in the race when he upped the rate slightly and got through for a win as both pulled away from American Ben Davison.
Later in the day we were also treated to a W2x repechage photofinish (France the unlucky fourth kicked out by China’s 0.07 second better sprint), and four men’s doubles quarterfinals where it appeared that everyone wanted to get as high as placing as they possibly could even when qualification was assured. Honourable mentions to the Greeks and Czechs, Moldovans and Italians plus the Norwegians and Irish for some intensely close results, the Irish the most disappointed of those because for them it was a 3rd/4th call which saw them end on the wrong side of the cut-off, whereas all the rest got through. The excellence in the men’s doubles came from QF winners Australia, France and Croatia, all considerably faster than the Spanish who won QF 2 and all leading the whole way. Roll on Friday’s semifinals where the French and Croatians go head to head for the first time at this regatta and the Australians will find out whether or not the Spanish have an extra gear.
But before that the real treat was some incredible lightweight racing. The expectation that we will lose Olympic lightweight rowing after Paris poignantly overshadows every event now, since it will undoubtedly weaken the whole weight category. Meanwhile they race their hearts out every time, as proved by the singles and doubles this morning. Most impressive LM1x heat winner was Mexico’s Alexis Lopez Garcia, playing an openweight-like card by carving his way from fourth to first over a full 1500m grind and just managing to hold off Australia’s Hamish Harding while both burned through early leader Andre Struzina (SUI). This was almost matched by Gabriel Soares (ITA) who took half the course to get past an extremely good start from Sid Ali Boudina (ALG) and was only a few feet up on the Algerian at the end. Dale Flockhart (GBR) closed dramatically on winner Uruguay’s Bruno Cetraro Berriolo at the end of the third quarterfinal while yet another excellent Greek sculler, Antonios Papakonstantinou, continued his good run with a confident win in QF 2.
The lightweight men’s doubles ran even closer, with the added spice of nobody being at all sure whether or not anyone can genuinely challenge the Irish for the gold medal later in the week. They’re certainly practising trying, and in the first of the LM2x races at first it looked as if any three of the six could qualify. Italians Pietro Ruta and Stefano Oppo, the top two members of one of the most competitive lightweight squads currently on the planet, very nearly stuffed their chances up completely, unable to keep up with the fast Czech pairing (Jiri Simanek and Miroslav Vrastil) but then coming under serious pressure from Ukraine and Poland to yield a three-way scrap for the last two semifinal places as the Czechs stayed safely in front. As the last stroke was taken it was totally unclear who had finished where and after a very long wait it was confirmed as Ukraine second, Italy third and Poland fourth with a 0.04 second gap. The timelapse picture makes it obvious why the decision took so long to make.
After that Norway and Portugal delivered a winner’s photofinish special in QF 2, Portugal trying but failing to slam the door on fast finishers Norwegians after a very early lead, and Estonia missing out on third courtesy of Germany. But that wasn’t the end of it: in the third race the USA were the ones to lose out, Spain winning third place off them after a duel which lasted all of 1999 metres. Up ahead of both the Irish used their ‘finish it in the second quarter’ tactic, passing France’s bow-ball just before halfway and then swanning off serenely for their usual first place. And the last of the LM2x tight margins was a narrow qualification for New Zealand, joining Belgium and Mexico in a three-way charge which closed very hard on leaders Jan Schaeuble and Raphael Ahumada Ireland (SUI), Belgium putting in the quickest last split and followed closely by the Kiwis to edge Mexico out.
If you’ve got any breath left after all that, good luck to you. The video stream is usually put up with only mild editing about an hour after racing finishes each day: do go and watch the best bits back, they’re astonishing. Thursday turns mega-serious with a clutch of semifinals for the smaller events, joined by the unfortunate LM1x who have back to back race days because of their Friday medal final.
It’s going to get brutal.