Is GB’s rowing team now completely back? On the evidence of this year’s Caversham final trials then yes, it is. The green shoots of last September’s substantial revival have continued to grow fast, and the shape of not only the Paris 2024 squad but also its LA 2028 successor are starting to show. Close racing, happy athletes and dropped hints at quick times during Sunday’s finals on the Redgrave-Pinsent lake show the medals at the Racice 2022 worlds were no accident.
Following the races a modest presentation ceremony was held crowning the trials winners and giving out various annual awards including the BOA Rowing Athletes of the Year 2022. These went to 2022 world champions Rebecca Shorten and James Rudkin for their demonstration of the BOA values of responsibility, unity, pride and respect as well as performance. Apparently new CEO Alistair Marks had signed off on the team trials winners continuing to be regarded as pairs and singles national champions, a legacy from earlier years even though the open-entry national champs regatta is not currently held.
But back to the racing, which was particularly tight this year: several photofinishes spiced up the morning and there was a noticeable lack of athletes dropping way out of the back of the field early on. This suggests strength in depth in the development pathway, a part of the national team very close to the heart of performance director Louise Kingsley, who used to run it, and the key to Olympiad after future Olympiad of successful results. Conditions were still and overcast for the pairs, with a light and minimal tailwind rising for the singles finals.
The finals all featured clashes of semi-final titans, with the two pairs titles going to the time-trial winners, both of whom demonstrated a fierce determination to stay at the top of the pack both internally and internationally this season. First out of the blocks was the men’s A-final, upon which GB Rowing’s own Butch and Sundance double act Ollie Wynne-Griffith and Tom George stamped a heavy authority, pulling out fast to take control.
As a result they could cruise home (as much as such a race is ever cruising), watching a massive battle for second and third which saw Morgan Bolding and Rory Gibbs, bow pair of the world champion eight, successfully storm through in the last half-minute. This manoeuvre worked well, making Bolding and Gibbs runners-up ahead of 2022 crewmates James Rudkin and Tom Digby and edging fast starters Oli Wilkes and Jacob Dawson out of a top-three finish this time, though fourth will have done their 2023 chances no harm at all after missing out on team spaces last year. The scrapping closed down the margin to Wynne Griffith and George but never seriously threatened them.
“[Some people] thought it was going to be close, and we took that a bit personally”, said George. “We’ve earned the right to be the top pair, and we know we’re quick. We know everyone’s blasting out really quick 500s and 1kms, but it’s about keeping your head for the whole track. One of the guys said it to us after the race, that it ended up being quite close on the line but it was never really a race. We had the job done from the km and it was just about putting ourselves in the best position.”
So would they like to be in the pair again and put right some of the mistakes they feel they made last year? “We enjoy the pair, and the project doesn’t feel like it’s come to fruition yet, so we’d like the opportunity to keep doing that”, said Wynne Griffith. “But it’s not our job to think about strategy, so we’ve just got to keep making whatever we’re in go as fast as possible.” “The whole team is in a really really good spot, with twelve world champions in the building”, added George.
Rebecca Shorten and Helen Glover bossed the women’s pairs with similar authority, seizing an instant lead and never relinquishing it despite an equally stormy battle for the minor placings between Hattie Taylor & Annie Campbell-Orde, Rowan McKellar & Esme Booth, and Tash Morrice & Juliette Perry. The victors in the runner-up contest were Morrice and Perry, who mounted a brilliant assault to claim second in a photofinish with McKellar and Booth, a big statement of intent from two athletes not previously in the senior team. Granted that several 2022 medallists were missing but Morrice and Perry have put up a convincing claim to be involved in what may be a larger squad this year.
“We always had that thing where if anything happened, we would just go”, said Glover afterwards. “We didn’t have to do a full 750m run-in [to the finish], we felt quite safe. It’s a really good combination, but it’s either a good combination or a good way to start another boat. Either way it’s a really solid start whether it’s a pair or a four. Andrew [Randell, chief coach] is really smart and I put a lot of trust in what he sees. It would be really interesting to look at combinations and how fast they go in bigger boats and smaller boats.” “We’ve got some testing in crew boats this week so at the minute it is very much just one step at a time”, added Shorten.
The singles finals were marvellous bunfights, presaged by their competitive semi-finals. Both rather heavily depleted by key people absent, nevertheless these were quality races with current and former under-23s stepping up to make their mark. Taking the men’s singles firmly by the scruff of the neck was world silver medallist George Bourne, showing his quality by not succumbing to the pressure created by a constantly changing scuffle close behind him.
After the usual speedy start from Seb Devereux with added attack from John Collins, it was Callum Dixon who steadily forged his way through the pack picking the rest off, and crossed the line second behind Bourne. Wingfields winner Devereux hung onto third while Matt Haywood pushed up at the last moment to take fourth ahead of Collins while Seb’s younger brother Miles Devereux, was sixth and top U23 sculler. Collins later admitted to having run out of beans at the end of a tiring weekend, while Tom Barras, watching from the bank this time, felt the squad was showing encouraging strength despite recent retirements from the sport.
In the women’s singles Saturday double winner Emily Craig (LW) found herself slightly outgunned by a fascinating race between the leading openweights present, Hannah Scott and under-23 Lauren Henry. Scott led off with Henry just behind her and Scott then held on, setting an international-class pace to halfway while the race shifted back and forth behind her. As lightweight partners in crime Craig and Imogen Grant began to settle into their mid-race rhythm and push through the field past Georgie Brayshaw, the race tightened and ended in a super-close result, Henry narrowly beating Scott to the win by a slender margin with Grant and Craig third and fourth.
And so the gates were locked at a now silent and empty Caversham, the next chapter awaiting the excited and exhausted rowers is that of crew selection. Several weeks of intense testing will culminate in a team for the European Championships in Bled during late May, Britain’s first step on the path to the 2023 worlds and 2024 Olympics.