The contest for which hundreds of rowers have trained and dreamed for three years turned reality on Thursday. Shouts of triumph rang out across the flat Ottensheim water as more crews climbed the Everest of Tokyo qualification. The first Paralympic rowers booked their 2020 invitations in the semi-finals, and a rash of Olympic crews followed suit.
The tension is building in the PR2 mixed doubles, where Netherlands (world champions for the last two years) and Britain (out for two years battling injuries, surgery and rehab for the last two years after winning the Paralympics) will, fingers crossed, finally meet on Saturday for the first time this year. They have only raced each other twice before — score: one all — and that was two years ago. While the Brits threw down the gauntlet with a new champs best time, only a second off the Dutch 2017 world best mark, Annika van der Meer and Corne de Koning held themselves to a decorous and steady win four seconds slower.
Since they both race PR2 singles finals on Friday nobody could blame them for keeping a bit of energy back. The non-Paralympic singles and pairs have been a godsend for the mixed boats, offering a competition-practice lifeline for those whose crewmates are ill or injured at just the wrong time. They are unlikely to enter the Paralympic roster but since they are so useful, they’re stuffed full of temporarily partner-less talent and it should be no surprise that we’ve seen new speeds set at nearly every regatta this summer.
There’s a game of catch-up going on in the PR3 coxed fours, where the USA has tried to claw back GBR for the last six years. Every time the Americans raise their game — which is often — the British find another few revs and frustrate them. It happened again on Thursday, when the Yanks broke the tricky 7-minute barrier beating Italy by two lengths. But a race earlier the British had shifted the goalposts yet again, slicing five seconds off their own world best time. Talk about motivation for revenge in Saturday’s final.
The rest of the day’s menu was a spicy buffet of semi-finals, along with the eights and the women’s quad repechages. The men’s eights was the most brutal cut-off so far in the regatta, a six-boat single repechage in which four crews would instantly kiss goodbye to their chances of 2020 qualification this week. The casualties were Canada, who valiantly led to start with before being steadily eroded into fourth, Romania’s hopefuls who gave it a good go until halfway, and Italy and Russia who were off the pace throughout. Ahead of them the Dutch led strongly, calmly picking off Canada, and the New Zealand eight whose fortunes have been up and down this summer moved into a powerful mid-race rhythm which took them clear of Romania and into the safety zone behind the Kiwis
The women’s eights had two repechages, also with two qualifying from each race. The British and Canadians refused to relinquish control of their respective contests and were little troubled by Romania and Australia, who pushed hard to make certain of the necessary second place but never threatened to move alongside. That leaves Russia, Germany, China, Netherlands and the ill-fated Danish W8+ project temporarily stalled in the B-final, and it’s not obvious that all those nations will keep their expensive eights programmes going next year.
There were only two photofinishes in the day, but you couldn’t have guessed that since a clutch of races ended with a scurrying dash to the line and a significant pause before the result was announced. One of the best was the first W4x rep in which Britain took second place by 0.18 seconds, ahead of the charging USA on the nod after a nailbiting dive to the line. New Zealand was not much further ahead of Italy for second in the other rep. Shorn of a succesful French crew this year, the lightweight men’s doubles produced a flurry of sprinting as Italy carved through China and Poland — the former missing out by half a second — and the new Irish partnership with Fintan McCarthy replacing Gary O’Donovan finished ahead of Germany (just) and Norway (by nearly a second) in a fabulous race finish.
The equivalent LW2x semis were also high-octane, the first with all six crews in contention for second behind the Netherlands at the mid-way point of the first. This only resolved into Britain becoming runners-up ahead of Romania once all the Italian and American pushes had run out. New Zealand’s Zoe McBride and Jackie Kiddle set a new championship best time on the way to another win over Belarus, though the race was less exciting. Romania cocked a snook at the British in their men’s fours semi-final, bursting through to bag a slender victory and the better lane in the final at the very last minute, but there was too much pleasure at confirming the Tokyo entry for it to upset the celebratory atmosphere. Australia’s four was notably relaxed and clearly has all the pedigree of its illustrious predecessors, and stalked to a controlled win ahead of Poland and the very excited USA.
In fact Australia had another good sweep rowing day: their men’s pair won’t race until Friday after the re-row induced delay, but their women’s pair and four also won their semi-finals, and the women’s eight acquitted themselves well behind Canada. By contrast the USA W4-, with Caryn Davies returning to the sport after seven years’ retirement to join the defending champion crew, seemed to be struggling to find their best pace and qualified only in third behind the Dutch and Poles. A noteworthy qualification was the second men’s quad semi, in which Norway lost the chance for automatic qualification to China after both had pushed past leaden-footed Russia. Ahead of them the Dutch M4x were utterly on song, though it must be noted that Italy and Poland matched their speed in a slightly less competitive first semi.
The lightweight singles were also fizzing, and despite the looming Friday final nobody seemed to be in a mood to save energy. Peter Galambos (HUN) and Martino Goretti (ITA) may have been hiding their lights under bushels, and their rivals will need to be on their guard since both ended third and thus will have easily-overlooked outside lanes for the medal race. There was a frisson of history when Marie-Louise Draeger, now no longer in the German double, collected a win in the LW1x with immense ease.
Roll on Friday: A-finals begin with the categories which don’t feature at the Olympics or Paralympics. A few straight finals yes, but make sure you’re watching the lightweight singles, they could be incredible.