Day three in Lucerne at World Rowing Cup II

Lucerne, Switzerland

4 minute read
Words Rachel Quarrell
Photography Steve McArthur and Benedict Tufnell
Published 27.05.24

Sunday 26th May: the last World Rowing races in Lucerne for 2024. Not quite the last event before the Olympics and Paralympics, but plenty of teams have said they won’t be going to Poznan for the third world cup, so this was the final pre-Games look at some of the top contenders. 

Photo Simon van Dorp NED M1x

The single sculls finals were rip-roaring races, each featuring the best solo scullers currently on the planet beating one another up all the way to the line. First up it was Simon van Dorp, the Dutchman who has harried and badgered world champion Olli Zeidler since he got into the single. Van Dorp’s tried pushing the German before but this was a masterclass, rowing Zeidler to a virtual standstill mere strokes before the beep while Yauheni Zalaty, the AIN sculler who has previously been unfazed by the great contenders, was left wallowing in their wake.


Two races later it was the women’s turn, and Tara Rigney (AUS) followed van Dorp’s example, chipping away at world champion Karolien Florijn (NED) down every inch of the course. Rigney had to settle for silver, with Olympic champion Emma Twigg uncomfortably close behind her, so it was a repeat of the 2023 Lucerne final, but this time with closer margins. Rigney is giving away several valuable inches of height against two taller and equally talented scullers, but is undaunted, and all three are magnificent racing one another every time they turn up. Twigg was one of several New Zealand mothers in the team jumping straight back on a plane to return home, while the rest of the Kiwis and the Aussie team stay in Europe for the third world cup and the Olympics.

Photo Karolien Florijn NED W1x

Four Anglophone nations — USA, New Zealand, Canadian and Australian senior teams — made their first full appearances along with a couple of Chinese crews, to join the previously Euro-centric party. They walked off with fifteen medals between them including a superb gold for the US men’s four, who blasted away from the pack and dominated the final from the first beep to the last. Behind them New Zealand were also looking powerful and the British, who have had a slightly uneven preparation period, were happy to keep their noses in front of Australia for the bronze.

Photo CAN W8+

“Now we’ve been in this crew for more or less a year, so I think that’s benefited us,” said US stroke Liam Corrigan. “You never know how anyone else is preparing, whether people are training through [this race], but it’s going well.” GB stroke and birthday boy Freddie Davidson was undeterred by third place: “We know within our crew there is speed to win races like that, I’ve struggled with injury this season but we all know what it feels like when we’re going well, and we’re getting there now. This weekend was actually really nice, not being on the physio table too much and just being able to race. We’re just going to see if we can add more and more speed.”

Photo USA M4-

His crewmates Ollie Wynne-Griffith and Tom George lorded it over the men’s pairs, while Spain mounted an astounding sprint which nipped past South Africa and grabbed silver from the Swiss. “We’re never going to stop and be happy with where we’re at, we’re going to keep pushing,” said George. “People keep telling us we’re favourites now but that’s pretty irrelevant, doesn’t really matter. Lots to do before we race the Olympics and we’ve got to find a bit more speed I think.” Another fearless crew in the many heading for Paris, the Spanish break all the rules, shortening up for their sprints and looking constantly at their opposition, but it works for them. “This was for trust, for Paris,” said Jaime Canalejo Pazos. 

Photo Jackie Kiddle NZL LW2x

At the other end of the sweep scale the US men’s eight, who had dented the GBR men’s perfect record this year by duffing them up in the preliminary race on Friday, were taken to the cleaners by the Brits who roared off the start like the Swiss air display team who had just buzzed the course, and flatly refused to let go of the lead despite a last-ditch US sprint which closed the gap to 0.2 seconds. The Dutch were third, but much further back than usual. 


To be fair it was the US men’s fourth tough race in the week, and came after qualifying for Paris a few days earlier. All five eights, including Australia and Germany, went away mulling over how to get revenge on one another, and a high-octane medal race is expected in Paris. For the British, who have led the field this year, it was a useful weekend, grounding them in reality before their altitude camp then the run to Paris. “We’re treating this like a loss”, said cox Harry Brightmore afterwards, who also praised coach Steve Trapmore for pushing the crew relentlessly to the highest possible standards. The Dutch squad are also about to go on altitude camp, their second of the season, and given that they lead the world cup standings such a training programme is clearly doing them no harm.

Photo ESP M2x

Two changes are in the air, one the end of an era, the other a gradual slide which is starting to occupy athletes’ minds. An amazingly thrilling PR1 women’s singles final gave Germany’s Manuela Diening her first ever World Rowing win, by less than a second, just ahead of Moran Samuel (ISR) and the reigning world and Olympic champion, Birgit Skarstein (NOR). Skarstein is always unflappable and generous in praising her rivals, but even she is starting to be concerned about the way leg use has become standard — for those athletes who have it — in the PR1 category.

Photo AUS W2-

Although classification is not simplistically about which parts of the body can be used by the athlete, PR1 did start off in the early 2000s as “Arms-only”, so there is still a sense that the levels don’t chime with what the athletes are expecting. A sense only exacerbated when observers can see athletes with the full use of one leg coming up the medal gangway from the raft in all three categories: PR1, PR2 and PR3. 

“The big talk in the para town is how much legs you’re going to be able to use, and arms and shoulders,” said Skarstein. “I see it changing, it’s been going on slowly the last couple of years, but now it’s really taking off. I’m worried about Paris: we’ll just have to show up there and see how it goes. We just have to have trust in the governing body to take care of all athletes and all classes, to ensure fairness and ensure integrity. My biggest dream is that I can go to Paris and that the audience on the stands will feel like it’s fair, and the athletes that the Games will have integrity.” She isn’t the only rower concerned about this, it’s becoming a general issue across classes and events in para-rowing. 


With reigning world and European PR1 M1x champion Roman Polianskyi (UKR) having withdrawn on Sunday morning, Italy’s Giacomo Perini, who has come second to him for the last three races, had a clear run to gold with Erik Horrie (AUS) an unthreatening second. “I tried to give my best since the first stroke, without thinking of the other crews,” Perini said afterwards. 

Horrie, who turns 45 after the Paralympics and has been reaching World Rowing podiums since 2011, was delighted to see the famously steeply wooded Lucerne course finally embracing equality of access. “It’s great to see that there’s no courses now that we can’t race at. He tore his bicep twice in 2023, the second time just hauling himself into his team van, but is now well on the road to recovery. “It’s a shame that Roman had to pull out, and I got stung by a bee last week in the eye, so I was a one-eyed pirate most of the week, but it’s good to get out there.”

Photo Bente Paulis NED W4x

The other big change which has been sliding towards rowing like a painfully slow-motion avalanche is the imminent demise of Olympic-class lightweight classes. As a result the furiously intense racing in Lucerne was tinged with sadness. The course which has logged so many hairs-breadth lightweight finishes played host to two classic fireworks displays, one yet another bravura victory for the British LW2x over New Zealand and the USA. The other was a barnstormer involving Italy grabbing hold of the LM2x gold while close behind them the Swiss overtook world and Olympic champions Ireland in the final 500, buoyed by the cowbells and shrieks of their excited home spectators. 

Romania ducked Lucerne, focused as they are on training for the Olympics. This left gaps in some of the smaller boat events, but they were not missed in the women’s eights, which was a thriller. With expectations running high of the US women, it was actually Britain who dashed out hard, holding Canada — defending Olympic champions — off as long as they could. The final Canadian push came after the boating area, and was inexorable, mercilessly carving through Britain to take a well-deserved gold. Afterwards the crew huddled on the raft as they had done three years ago in Tokyo, revelling in the pre-Olympic boost to morale. Britain were delighted to have put right an underwhelming performance in the heat, and the USA go back to the drawing board to think again before Paris. 

Photo Sophia Vitas USA W2x

The Dutch claimed predictable golds in the women’s pair and men’s double, neither without pressure from the high-quality fields around them. For now the question of whether Australia’s W2- can yet beat the Dutch has been answered in the negative: it was a good effort but they will need to find another gear. They also seized another win in the men’s quad, after the Polish crew tried like fury to find a new edge, but couldn’t quite better them. There is a hell of a lot of strength in the Netherlands team at the moment. But the Dutch women’s double having not made it to the final, the door was open for the excellent American W2x to claim gold, which they did in style. 

Sophia Vitas and Kristina Wagner had a rocky start, with a little steering trouble, but corrected quickly before drilling their way back through the field with a relentlessly high speed, snatching the lead in the last minute and defending it against the last efforts from Australia and Norway. They train with their lightweight double, Michelle Sechser and Molly Reckford, who are also hard as nails, and the victory along with that of the US men’s four put a deserved gloss on the weekend after the qualification regatta.

Photo Emma Twigg NZL W1x

There were golds for Britain for two quietly confident crews: their women’s four and women’s quad. The four were commanding, sweeping down the Rotsee with the Dutch and Americans behind them, and honourable mentions for New Zealand and China not too far off the pace. The Dutch W4- are still on the back foot trying to find a gear which will give them a magic weapon against the British, whose combination has really settled down now into something reliably high-performing. The GB W4x are also solid, demonstrating enough early speed to get out in front of the pack, to keep a cosh on the Dutch necks in a repeat of the European championships, and give defending Olympic champions China too big a hill to climb.

Photo GBR W8+

The third world cup in Poznan in three weeks time may feel a little light on rivalries, with many of the countries racing in Lucerne giving it a miss in favour of their final pre-Games training camps. There will be development crews from large European nations, likely some good contests in the Paralympic categories, and the usual crews who just like racing. But the next time we see the cream of the Olympic crop together will be in July, in Paris, where the calm waters of the Rotsee may seem like an impossible dream.