Tears and Cheers of Delight Under Tokyo Skies

Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games

4 minute read
Words Rachel Quarrell
Photography Benedict Tufnell
Published 29.08.21

The last day of racing at the Tokyo Paralympic Regatta, and there was no chance of new best times on Sunday, the wind a strengthening head-cross which led to World Rowing reallocating the A-final lanes in echelon formation (heat winners in lanes 1-2, rep qualifiers in 3-6). This put world PR1 W1x champion Birgit Skarstein (NOR) in lane 1, two away from challenger Moran Samuel (ISR) but the expected battle quickly vanished as Skarstein sped off from the start and shut the door on the Israeli. She meant business, and was having no chance of losing her title or even letting Samuel get a sniff. Vanishing over the horizon, she left it to France’s Nathalie Benoit to vie against Samuel for the minor medals, while the most famous para-sportsperson in Norway took up the Paralympic crown and the Israeli finished 10 seconds ahead of the Frenchwoman.

Photo An emotional Birgit Skarstein (NOR)
Credit Benedict Tufnell

“The strategy for the race was to go really hard from the beginning and kind of scare everybody off. And really put on a statement”, said Skarstein on claiming the medal she could not achieve in Rio. “Johan Flodin has been our coach for nine years and this is his last race with us. I just so very very much wanted him to get a gold medal.”  Her rival was phlegmatic, but also harbours ambitions to overturn her one day. “I lost the race to one of the best athletes that I know”, said Samuel. “With the current position of my chair I had to row really arms and shoulders, that was very tough. I have my bronze from Rio, I have my silver from Tokyo, so who knows?”

Photo PR1 W1x Podium: ISR, NOR, FRA
Credit Benedict Tufnell

With volunteers and support teams doing their best to fill the spectatorless grandstands, the men’s singles final went off with a blast, Spain’s Javier Reya Munoz having gained confidence from his successful rep and whizzing out, while defending Rio champion Roman Polianskyi steadily ground him down over the first 500m, three other scullers very close behind. As Polianskyi started to build a very strong lead, the pattern started to sort out within the pack, Reya Munoz doing a brilliant job to hold off Horrie by nigh-on a length, who stayed just ahead of Israel’s Daniel Shmuel and Brazilian Rene Campos Pereira. This battle pushed Horrie past the fading Reya Munoz for silver, and Rene Campos Pereira passed him too to give Brazil bronze. Valiant newcomer Ben Pritchard (GBR) couldn’t quite keep up with the horrendous pace set by the more experienced oarsmen, but did stay ahead of Shmuel to come fifth in his first Paralympics. 

Photo PR1 M1x Roman Polianskyi (UKR)
Credit Benedict Tufnell

“I definitely did my best, however during the first 1000m I had problems with my left leg many times”, said Campos Pereira, who was a black belt in karate before suffering a spinal cord abscess. “I’ve worked very hard the last six months, but I managed to reach the podium and I think I deserve that. It’s an undescribable situation. I wish I could be in a higher position but I’m very satisfied with my result.”  Horrie, claiming his third Paralympic silver, said, “Every single athlete that was in that final could have won a medal. That was one of the toughest battles we’ve had out there. I guess my kids won’t be arguing who gets which medal: I’ve got three kids and now there’s a silver each.”

Photo PR1 M1x podium: AUS, UKR, BRA
Credit Benedict Tufnell

First to show in the PR2 doubles medal final were the Dutch, quickly overtaken by China who tried to leave the top two Rio medallist crews for dead as they settled into their rhythm and pulled out a clear-water lead. However British reigning Paralympic champions Laurence Whiteley and Lauren Rowles were on the warpath after a slightly inefficient wheel-spinning start and began grinding back through first the Dutch and then China, then turned the screw further to ensure their victory. At first it looked as if the Dutch would falter, but they got their second wind and began to peel back the Chinese advantage over them, intent upon claiming silver while the British duo put the gold beyond reach. As they managed that, behind these three Ukraine were well clear of the struggle between Poland and Italy, who swapped the honours twice before Italy finished fifth ahead of a the slowing Polish crew. Whiteley, who turned 30 that day, found the entire boating area singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to him as he and Rowles brought the boat in to the pontoon after collecting their medals, and had been presented with lots of origami paper cranes. 

Photo PR2 Mix2x: Laurence and Rowles (GBR)
Credit Benedict Tufnell

The GBR seat-switch, putting Rowles in the stroke seat because they discovered they liked it when having a go in the winter to keep themselves fresh, may have misfired slightly off the start, but it came into full force with their rowing rhythm through the middle of the race. “I find rhythm a little bit easier and pace in the boat, boat feel”, said Rowles after their heat. “Laurence is obviously a big strong guy and having that in the bows of the boat has been really helpful.”  After retaining their Rio title she apologised, saying “To the 500 people who were probably getting a bit nervous at home, sorry for getting everyone’s nerves up. It’s not about who leads the first 1500m, who leads to the 1900m, it’s about who came through first and that was always going to be us.”  “It’s not a shame to become second after the already reigning Paralympic champions”, said Dutchman Corne de Koning, whose partner Annika van der Meer is retiring from rowing after these Games.

Photo PR2 Mix2x Podium: NED, GBR, CHN
Credit Benedict Tufnell

The para-fours in the last race on the Paralympic waterway were always going to see yet another attempt by the USA to rip away the stranglehold that Britain has held over this event since 2011. Like Skarstein they set off like bats out of hell, initially heading the GBR crew as well as the field and rowing a long smooth stroke. But the British power was just too much to cope with, and despite the superb American start took less than 500 metres for the Empacher bow of the GBR boat to poke past the US bow, before they started extending their lead out. Nobody was going to realistically challenge the US for silver — France tried, but were nearly 7 seconds behind the Americans at the line, though themselves well clear of Australia. The whole field finished in lane order and spaced out, a last flourish of this week’s crosswind. US oarswoman Dani Hansen was happy with silver. “The one thing you can do when you come here today despite the past is to put everything you can on the water”, she said. “And if you’re capable of doing that — which is already difficult — then you can feel proud of yourself. I think all of us did that today.”

Photo GBR PR3 Mix4+
Credit Benedict Tufnell

GB double Paralympic champion James Fox is considering stopping now, after having to have several surgeries and injections just to keep going, and can no longer use the erg. “Erin [Kennedy] started calling out our clubs,” he said. “Touches a nerve, you know?  That’s where we came from. We owe a lot to them. My coach in Peterborough (Bob Bridges) passed away earlier this year, my first ever coach, so I’d like to dedicate that race to him. I wouldn’t be here without him so in a way, that’s his medal.”  Oliver Stanhope, whose father Richard won Olympic silver in the 1980 eights, referenced the fierce selection battles which take place out of sight in the British para-rowing team. “If you’re making the boat, you’re already at the front end.”  “We have the toughest moments at home, so that we want to be able to come here and put out a performance that’s good enough to win on our worst day”, added cox Kennedy. “Today I’d say we won on our best day, it was amazing, but also credit to our competitors as well. The Americans stuck with us for a long time.”

Photo USA PR3 Mix4+
Credit Benedict Tufnell

This Games — both Olympics and Paralympics — have summed up the new perspective that athletes aren’t superhuman or perfect, that it is OK to have worries and anxieties and then to compete. Also that it’s OK not to win a gold medal, the key is being happy with what you have done. Post-race comments from champion Lauren Rowles illustrate this. “A few weeks [Laurence and I] were sat there going, ‘Can we do this?’  When we sat down and had this chat we were honest with each other, we just said these are our fears and this is where it’s at. We said we can do this and we believe in each other. That’s the biggest thing. The times when you don’t really believe in yourself, that’s what you need, somebody telling you that. After [Rio 2016] I wasn’t in a good place in my life, the pressure of performance sport just took me away from what’s important in life, and that’s being happy. I don’t think this performance would ever have happened if I’d just kept pushing through and not overcome the anxiety.”  

Photo A birthday card from the Tokyo 2020 volunteers and OC, presented to GBR PR2 Mix2x athlete Laurence Whitely
Credit Benedict Tufnell

We’ll leave the last Tokyo word to birthday boy Whitely, whose words ring with the Paralympic lesson that fantastic is not just about golds and records, but about how you support each other. “The trust comes out a km into the race”, he said after the ceremony. “[Lauren and I] both want to set out to leave a legacy. The medals are one thing, but going down in the history books and being remembered as a fantastic combination, a fantastic boat, is something else, and we’re writing that story today.”  

Job — beautifully — done, Laurence. 


PR1 W1x:  Gold Norway, silver Israel, bronze France; 4th-12th UKR, GER, BRA; KOR, ARG, BLR, USA, JPN, KEN.

PR1 M1x:  Gold Ukraine, silver Australia, bronze Brazil; 4th-12th ESP, GBR, ISR; RPC, GER, MEX, USA, NGR, SRI.

PR2 Mx2x:  Gold GBR, silver Netherlands, bronze China; 4th-12th UKR, ITA, POL; AUS, BRA, FRA, USA, UZB, CAN.

PR3 Mx4+:  Gold Great Britain, silver USA, bronze France; 4th-12th AUS, ITA, ISR; RPC, CAN, UKR, BRA, ESP, JPN.