There is a regularity about the Paralympic rowing regatta: twelve crews in each of the four categories; heats then repechages then finals. It ticks along steadily and predictably. Until it doesn’t. More than four hours after the opening heats had been raced in the burning heat of the Sea Forest Waterway on Friday, official communications started being issued by World Rowing that two separate crews, including a new Paralympic world best time holder, had been sanctioned.
The minor mistake was made by France’s PR2 Mx2x, the supposedly experienced Perle Bouge and Christophe Lavigne relegated to last for their boat being underweight post-race, though this only moved them down two places and they were always going to be in the repechage. The big error came from PR1 W1x heat winner Moran Samuel of Israel, who had done a brilliant job finishing 7.5 seconds quicker than Birgit Skarstein had in the previous race.
It had been spotted on the video footage that when Samuel leaned back, her seat-back seemed to be moving with her. In Paralympic PR1 rowing every aspect of the seat must be fixed — no sliding, and a rigid back. After discussing it with the Israeli delegation Samuel was relegated to last in her heat — automatically giving Ukrainian Anna Sheremet a pass to Sunday’s final — and must race the repechage, with her seat being checked as fully fixed before each race. It remains slightly unclear whether World Rowing believe this was a deliberate innovation by Israel, or an error. Either way, unapproved innovations aren’t permitted.
The extra race barely troubled Samuel at all, she steamed out ahead of the rest immediately, taking several seconds per 500m split out of the times set by Nathalie Benoit (FRA) while winning the first rep, Samuel’s seat extremely visibly braced and stationary, but her sculling was as beautifully technical as usual. Times were faster due to a lighter head-cross wind than the previous day, and much flatter water. Runners-up in the W1x reps and also booking finals spots were Brazil’s triple-Paralympian Claudia Cicero Sabino and German sculler Sylvia PIlle-Steppat. “Of course I was disappointed and I never had any intention to go over any rule, everything was done in a very innocent way,” said Samuel. “I had to change a little bit the way I row. Yes it’s hot here but it’s a matter of attitude. I cannot be mad at the weather, it’s the weather you know? It’s hot, but we can do it.”
The rest of the reps went smoothly. Repechage day is the time when those who may not win medals can shine. Amongst these was Nigeria’s PR1 M1x and Marlow Rowing Club member Ijomah Kingsley, who got into first erging and then water rowing after a suggestion made by a friend when he was invited to Warwick RC’s dinner, and ended up competing for the country he left as a young teenager, after World Rowing suggested the option. No doubt they were motivated by the slight difficulty of Britain already at the time having two superb para-rowers (Andy Houghton was capable of reaching finals, and Benjamin Pritchard was already bidding fair to usurp him). Kingsley finished fifth in the rep won by former world champion Erik Horrie (AUS) ahead of Shmuel Daniel (ISR) and behind Mr Skateboard Michel Munoz Malagon (MEX).
The second rep was won by Benjamin Pritchard (GBR) taking 40 seconds off the Paralympic best time, ahead of Javier Reya Munoz (ESP) who had led for the first 700m before being overhauled by the Welshman who rows Tom Aggar’s old Paralympic-winning shell.” My mum and dad are having a street party today, and I’m sure it will be a long one until tomorrow morning”, said Pritchard afterwards. His new time was within two seconds of the world’s best set two years ago by Roman Polianskyi.
A PR1 W1x giving Skarstein a run for her money is Belarussian Lludmila Vauchok, who has been national champion in pairs wheelchair dancing and also competed in both summer and winter Paralympics since 2006. Vauchok was flag- bearer for her team in Tokyo earlier this week, as was Moran Samuel for Israel — their rival Skarstein has only done that for the winter Paralympics so far (in 2018). Vauchok has been beaten repeatedly by Samuel and Skarstein and may now be past her best, finishing a distant 4th in her rep which sent her to the lower echelons of the B-final.
The first PR2 mixed doubles rep was marred by Poland’s Jolanda Majka and Michal Gadowski getting tangled with their strokeside buoyline not once but twice. The first time they stopped completely, and had to restart and gun it for a good 600m to take back the second qualifying place from Australia, who were dogging leaders Netherlands to the line. The second tangle was during the last few strokes, but although their blades were over in the French lane, they managed to scramble through ahead of Australia and remain white-flagged to claim a place in the final. The second rep for the event was even closer, Brazil taking a narrow lead before being chased down by the Ukrainians and Italians. The trio crossed the 1500m mark almost alongside one another with Ukraine leading, and then Italy (whose strokeman has the best beard in the sport) rowed through Brazil as Ukraine moved away. The doubles A-final looks likely to be one of the closest races of the whole regatta right to the back of the field.
As had been the case all morning, the flatter conditions and less directly head-crosswind led to quick times in the PR3 mixed coxed fours, during which first Italy and Australia duffed one another up along the whole course, and then France stayed just ahead of an Israel and Ukraine dingdong in the second rep, with Israel racing through to the final in the last 250m. Australia claimed the rep 1 victory with a smooth late surge to trip up the rough and lurching Italians, and lowered the GB four’s new Paralympic best time in the process, only for it to be broken again by the French a race later.
This was an indication not only of the close competition but also of the better conditions on the second day of racing, a lighter and less directly head crosswind helping speed the crews along even as it also edged many worrying close to their bowside buoys. The doubles Paralympic best time set by the GBR Mx2x had already been broken by the Dutch, adding it to their world best, and only a handful of seconds outside the latter. Sadly the forecast for the finals day is likely to be a more direct head-wind which may make it tricky to achieve better Paralympic times or even get close to the world bests, even when racing for Tokyo gold. Still, anything can happen in a Paralympic final.