Celebrations continued on the lake on Friday, as the last of the finals places were decided and along with them, more 2020 bookings. Athletes not normally given to big demonstrations on the line were punching the air as they finished anywhere from first to third meaning that they had metaphorically put their boat on the Tokyo trailer. Premier amongst them were the Sinkovic brothers (CRO), whose takeover of the men’s pairs has been complete, regular medical issues notwithstanding. They refused to let Italy’s 2017 world champions get a sniff (which is the safest way to avoid being beaten by them) while Spain beat the valiant but struggling South Africans to third.
The other semi was won by New Zealand in a four-boat finish which took away spectators’ breath. The Kiwis had overtaken Australia minimally soon after halfway, but the Aussies never gave up and mounted repeated challenges which kept New Zealand pushing. Meanwhile the Onfroy siblings (FRA) were battling against Romania’s Marius Cozmiuc and Ciprian Tudosa, those cheeky souls who had swiped Canada’s second place in the famous M2- re-row of Wednesday. (FISA managed to ‘accidentally’ land Romania and Canada not only in the same semi but in adjacent lanes, so neither had anything to complain about regarding fairness.) In the scramble to the line France narrowly held off Romania for the last guaranteed Tokyo place, but by only a slender 0.06 seconds. Talk about missing the boat by a sliver.
Amongst a glut of good racing the singles semis stood out. Sanita Puspure (IRL) answered any doubters with a majestic win over Emma Twigg (NZL), seizing such a stranglehold that the Kiwi clearly decided discretion and not too much wasted effort was the better part of valour this time since it will all have to be repeated on Sunday. Carling Zeeman (CAN) was the stand-out behind them, stalking along in third and calmly containing a massive Magdalena Lobnig (AUT) charge backed by locals cheering. Lobnig also took her foot off the pedal when the result became clear and let China’s Yan Jiang take fourth.
Meanwhile Kara Kohler (USA) had produced the race she always threatened to, boring her way through Fie Udby Erichsen (DEN) inch by inch and then deterring Vicky Thornley (GBR) who had managed to stop being sucked down the hole when Jeannine Gmelin (SUI) leant on her blades and tried to claim second. As a side-note Mirka Topinkova Knapkova (CZE) was last throughout, but is probably pinning her hopes of a fifth Olympic Games appearance on the B-final.
By contrast the men’s singles both settled into split races, the top three knowing they could qualify from soon after 1500m gone, and as a result slightly easing up, particularly in the second semi-final. This was won by Ondrej Synek (CZE) easing up ahead of Mindaugas Griskonis (LTU) while defending champion Kjetil Borch (NOR) seemed content to coast into third despite having given both a nasty scare earlier and having led for a decent chunk of the race. Damir Martin (CRO) appeared to give up all hope of qualifying mid-way and saved his energy for the B-final. So too did Robbie Manson (NZL) who could never quite get on terms with Oli Zeidler (GER), Sverri Nielsen (DEN) and Stef Broenink (NED), the three leaders who swapped the advantage around over the whole course. They finished in that order, Zeidler reclaiming the briefly-lost lead from Nielsen in a final push with the air of a man patting a cheeky child on the head. Synek and Borch should try and get a look up Zeidler’s sleeves – he’s hiding more than his arms and looks set to pull out all his tricks in the final.
The men’s PR1 singles boasted two exceptional semi-finals, for very different reasons. The second of the pair of races had the latest phenomenon in top-end para-sculling, Briton Benjamin Pritchard. He has only been in a boat for two and a half years, having been a cyclist and triathlete before the 2016 accident which lost him the use of his legs. Yet here he was leading his semi-final by a very comfortable margin and on world class pace which lasted until the finish line. He will be a very competitive cat amongst the PR1 pigeons in Sunday’s medal race. Incidentally, Pritchard’s boat has been to (and won) many more championships than its current owner: it used to belong to legend Tom Aggar, who has told his successor that he is proud of him. Pritchard has been improving so quickly that he has recently been able to raise his floats off the water to reduce drag, and is working on a stronger catch and more efficient finish.
But the first semi-final was a feast of rivalry, featuring the top four scullers from 2018 of whom only three could qualify for the 2020 Paralympics and the A-final. The one who lost out was American Blake Haxton, a sculler who lost his legs to necrotising fasciitis while at high school. Haxton has only just finished competing at the para-canoe world championships where he finished twelfth, and couldn’t manage better than fifth this time at the rowing, perhaps due to exhaustion.
Anyway, the answer to the question “who’s faster, world champion Erik Horrie (AUS) or Paralympic champion Roman Polianskyi (UKR)” may be on hold: Horrie led the Ukrainian for most of the race, but Polianskyi sneaked past with a clever little push in the last 100 metres, which may not represent either’s ultimate speed. Third was Russian Alexey Chuvashev, very comfortably ahead of fourth. The women’s PR1 singles stuck to the script, the clear top performer being world champion Birgit Skarstein (NOR) and Nathalie Benoit (FRA). It looks set to be one of Skarstein’s years: like Pritchard she has exceptionally long reach and swing so can hold a lower rate (and lower lactate-production) than her rivals.
In the men’s doubles China showed their true colours, inexorably dominating their semi ahead of Poland and Switzerland, and everyone having to push hard to deter Australia who occasionally looked to be threatening for third. The second race was a war of attrition for everyone else behind Ireland, who came steadily through fast and early leaders New Zealand then watched as the British slowly picked everyone else off, recovering their wits after being discombobulated by the Kiwis. However Romania could not resist having a try and snitched second from the bemused British with an emphatically strong push at 1600m which also overturned Dutch hopes.
The women’s doubles still looks to be New Zealand’s party: despite being hounded by Canada and the Netherlands, they only had to lift the rate a tiny bit at the end of the race to ensure their win and were serene and smooth throughout even though it took them more than 1000 metres to plod through to the front of the race. While Lithuania, 2018 champions and usually reliable, faded to fifth, the Chinese initially looked dangerous for a while but could not hold the Dutch who went past them to qualify for the final and Japan. The second semi was incredible, five crews in contention for most of the race with only Italy off-pace, and the action waking up properly at 500m when the USA started to move out into the lead. They held it for a long time but a contraction of the field in the last two minutes saw them passed by first Romania and then a sprint-hungry France, while Australia were forced into the B-final.
MEDALS CALLING: THE FINALS
The first of the three finals days is traditionally reserved for the non-Olympic, non-Paralympic categories which don’t often feature on national TV broadcasts, and are a chance to test the medal-awarded part of the competition without any risk of embarrassment on live TV. The 2019 non-Games finals had an extra edge of pathos this year, particularly since the lightweight singles contain many athletes who will be hoping to push their way into the last ever Olympic lightweight doubles competitions in 2020.
Nowhere was this more obvious than in the men’s lightweight singles, won by Martino Goretti who used to be a sweep lightweight. “Now I cry”, he told FISA after the race. “I said before this regatta that this would be my last world champs. Now I am old enough to quit. When the LM4- was cancelled I lost my Olympic dream. I thought the sport was no longer for me, then I discovered rowing in the single and realised I could still enjoy it.” Goretti had done the only thing possible in a field including Hungary’s ever-dangerous Peter Galambos and Mexican speedster Alexis Lopez Garcia: he had rattled off hard. That tactic put paid to any chance of Galambos threatening to seize the lead, but a stunning battle had developed between Galambos and Sean Murphy, the Australian who had been laid low by a back injury last week. As Goretti kept out of the firing line in gold medal position Murphy and Galambos swapped second place, the Hungarian eventually claiming silver while Murphy batted away Lopez Garcia for bronze.
In the lightweight women’s singles Marie-Louise Draeger pursued her usual policy of ‘get out early and stay there’. This brought yet another world gold to the former LW2x doubles diva, who started her championships career eighteen years ago. “My son told me this morning that gold was a possibility. I went out there and did it for him,” she said afterwards. Behind her Japan made an early bid for silver, a canny tactic which worked even when Britain came roaring through South Africa for bronze.
Australian Paralympian Kathryn Ross has had a three-year break from rowing, but returned earlier this season hoping to find a new PR2 male partner with whom to qualify the double for Tokyo. She didn’t manage that, but made up for it with gold in the PR2 women’s singles on Friday, devastating Annika van der Meer (NED) who was already ten seconds down before halfway. It was a second silver in a row for the Dutchwoman, whose doubles partner Corne de Koning kept the upper hand in a battle with Canada’s Jeremy Hall by just under five seconds to win his second consecutive PR2 men’s singles title before both men go in the doubles on Saturday.
Canada and the USA won the low-contest PR3 pairs, and the lightweight women’s pairs earned the second of its two strikes with another straight final. The lightweight men’s pairs were at least competitive but gold was undeniably earned by Italy over Russia. PR3 mixed doubles is an interesting class, surprisingly popular despite there being no bigger sculling boat for it to support, and this suggests that sculling skills will become part of the PR3 arsenal over time. This edition was won by Russia out of twelve entries, reasonably uncontested with Austria a popular second and the USA (with service dog and mascot Cinder waiting in the wings) coming third. The LW4x was a straight final in which Italy beat China and the LM4x a full event in which that was reversed, China coming up on top of Italy. Which jumbling gives us Italy serene on top of the medal table, as is their usual wont.