Day one of the Racice 2022 world championships, and it must be the most leisurely start to a senior worlds for 25+ years. It used to be the case that as many events as possible rowed heats on the first day, giving time and space to recover before progressing later in the week. But this time quite a few have been held over to Monday, with the opening day of racing focusing on the five events in which there will need to be quarterfinals, plus the men’s pairs to make up the numbers.
So that made it a small-boats day: all four non-para singles, plus the men’s doubles and pairs, testing out the chilly waters of the Labe Arena and finding that the west/southwesterly tailwind wasn’t too bad under the shelter of Racice’s deep banks.
You see the Labe Arena — Labe because it’s tucked into the armpit of the meandering River Elbe which is called the Labe in Czech — is a former sand pit dug out to create a watersports venue which is linked to the local water supplies so goes up and down depending on how many baths the inhabitants of Roudnice and particularly Steti (just across the Elbe) are taking. Well, that and the summer droughts from this year’s scorching weather. And the Steti paper mill, of course, which is the largest in the Czech Republic. The Arena lake now used for rowing was dug down well below the local ground level and so has deep banks, particularly in this dry year, which funnel slightly cross winds into a direct head or tail, mostly the latter due to the prevailing trends of westerly winds in this region.
As is usual at the world championships the distribution of top crews across the heats is based on a seeding system created by past results. This means it’s rare for any of the opening-day races to be tight, especially when you discount the elaborately acted dawdling many leading crews drop into for the last 500m once they are assured of a win. Iran’s LM1x Amirhossein Mahmoodpour managed to get to within a second of Italy’s top-class Gabriel Soares, but only because the Iranian sprinted at the end to close a 5-second gap and the Italian didn’t bother. Most of the results had 3+ seconds between first and second, the exceptions mostly coming where a quick qualification for a single crew was at stake.
Lydia Heaphy (IRL LW1x) had a really good go at Lucerne 2022 silver medallist Kenia Lechuga in the last 150, but it didn’t particularly worry the Mexican who had already whizzed down the whole course at 38-39 and barely batted an eyelid as the Irishwoman came barrelling up to her. Lechuga clinched the only semi-final place yet on offer, and was joined by the brilliant Ionela Cozmiuc a race later (whose husband Marius also won his own M2- heat and claimed a semi-final place in typically dominant Romanian style). The LW1x event had been set up to feature what I believe would have been its first ever world champs quarter-finals, but the pre-draw exit of Turkey’s original entry, Elis Ozbay, put paid to that so semis it is.
The middle of the morning turned out to be a busy period for surprisingly close races, with the next one, the first heat of the LM2x, featuring Portugal’s Duarte Costa brothers (who were on fire after narrowly missing a medal in August’s European champs) up against Italy’s mega-experienced Pietro Oppo and Stefano Ruta. With their coach John West bellowing at them from the cycle track alongside the lake, the Portuguese pushed the Italians the entire way and ended with a sneaky final burst which closed them to within a quarter of a second of Italy’s winners. With most of the top crews 30+ seconds outside the world best times, this one was closer, within 15 seconds of the quickest LM2x race in history last summer.
Earlier on the men’s singles had begun with Olli Zeidler parading along ahead of Kiwi Jordan Parry, a confidence-builder after his disappointing fourth in Munich last month. True to the seeding all the top names won their heats, the toughest perhaps being that first race, although Graeme Thomas (GBR) v Kjetil Borch (NOR) was also a big one. Thomas won that comfortably after seeing off Borch’s late-race push but it has to be remembered that Borch is far too canny to worry about exact time gaps or lane draws at this very early stage in the week. The Athlete Lane Selection system is not being used here, by the way, so raw speed is not going to be an issue in deciding lane selection for later rounds.
Similarly the women’s singles produced no surprises, though with 23 entries it was a brutal qualification with all but the top four going to the repechages. Emma Twigg (NZL), Alexandra Foester (GER), Karolien Florijn (NED) and Tara Rigney (AUS) duly won, all by four seconds or better. Quickest of the rest was Rigney’s runner-up Virginia Diaz Rivas (ESP), the 2009 JW1x silver medallist now back in the single after her strong W2- years of 2019-2021.
The lightweight men’s singles were a tad more unpredictable, partly due to the fact that as a non-Olympic category those from outside Europe don’t always get enough funding to be able to race early in the season, so seeding is less accurate. Hence Hamish Harding of Australia upset everyone by beating seeds Bulgaria (Lazar Penev) and Sweden (Ahmet Rapi) in his heat. However Greece’s newly minted European champion Antonios Papakonstantinou was in fine form and bossed the opening races, finishing six seconds quicker than anyone else, whilst Bruno Cetraro Berriolo (URU) also looked strong enough to match the Europeans’ speed.
The men’s doubles races were not close and all the form crews qualified comfortably. Valent and Martin Sinkovic finished within 15 seconds of their own 8-year-old best time, as did Armandas Kelmelis and Dovydas Nemeravicius (LTU). The men’s pairs saw everyone of pedigree grab a top-two route straight to the semi, with the sad exception of sixth-seeded Lithuanian twins Dovydas and Domantas Stankunas who fell off race pace soon after halfway and clearly had some kind of problem.
In other news, the Dutch mixed coxed para-four was forced to drop out after the draw but before racing, due to a para-classification issue, and Taipei’s W1x Huang Yi-Ting had to withdraw for medical reasons, halving their team. There were several feisty little rain-showers throughout the day, and more of the same is predicted for Monday. However, World Rowing refused the British team’s request to move racing or hold a silence on Monday for Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral, and to fly flags at half-mast. Nevertheless the GBR team have been wearing black ribbons when racing on Sunday and Monday during the official mourning period, and anyone not engaged in racing heats will observe the two-minute silence at the end of the state funeral, at about 12:55 Czech time.