The spring rowing focus in the US will take a brief step away from the collegiate and scholastic scene this week when the first National Selection Regatta opens racing for elite scullers Tuesday on Mercer Lake.
The busy West Windsor, New Jersey rowing venue will host the four-event singles regatta with results that will open the seeding and placements for the Herb Lotman United States Rowing Challenge, determine which open men's and women's scullers will earn the opportunity to represent the US in a 2018 World Cup Event, and help identify potential national team sculling candidates.
"The NSR is an important identification and assessment tool for the current state of available talent for the various boat classes, and primarily more so for sculling," said Penn AC head coach Sean Hall, which has 21 scullers entered.
"Sculling is more spread out and is less impacted by the athletes who might still be in school, whereas sweep tends to be more centralized, and often has to wait until the end of the university season to get a full accounting of available talent," he said, adding that the Lotman Challenge purse brings added incentive - and entries.
"The purpose of Lotman is to help drive US sculling to international standards, and now fits more squarely with the training and competing aims not only of the athletes, but of the clubs and programs that are training them," Hall said.
The three-stage Lotman Challenge events are NSR l, the Head Of The Charles, and the Head of the Schuylkill. Points earned for individual placements in the three regattas will determine how the winnings are awarded.
At the conclusion of the series, the American sculler in the men’s and women’s divisions with the most points will receive $5,000, with second place earning $3,000 and third place $1,500. Fourth place has a $1,000 prize, fifth place $750, sixth place $500, seventh place $300, and eighth place $200. If a rower wins all three events, the foundation will award $10,000.
While it is not unusual for an opening NSR event to draw a large number of competitors, the addition of the Lotman Challenge stakes, and the fact that 2018 is the second year of the 2020 Olympic quadrennial, boosted the number of single entries to 113. By comparison, there were 100 singles entered in 2014, the second year of the Rio cycle.
"It's the most that we have in the last five years and might very well be the most single entries we've had ever," said USRowing Director of High Performance, Matt Imes.
"To have a 113 in the single is great. I definitely believe the Lotman Challenge enhances it," Imes said. "I'm excited, and USRowing, is excited to be working with the Lotman Challenge and the enthusiasm they have brought to sculling."
Felice Mueller at the Head of the Schuylkill
Featured in the open singles racing will be many of the top scullers in the country, including 2017 men's single sculler Michael Clougher, 2017 women's single and Rio Olympian Felice Mueller, 2017 men's double sculler John Graves, and 2016 Olympic women's single silver medalist Gevvie Stone.
Stone stepped away from competitive international rowing after Rio to begin her medical career. She said then she was unsure about trying to compete at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics; last week Stone said she has decided to compete for a spot in the next Olympics, but will not commit to international racing this season.
NSR l was not in her plans until the Lotman Challenge came into play. With her medical career slate full, Stone said she had at first planned just to focus on training and not enter events that would require her to regain her race speed this soon in the cycle.
"I'm as active as possible for this year," Stone said. "I'm finishing my intern year and actually starting my second year, and then I will take a leave of absence starting August 15th. The long-term goal is Tokyo, with the short-term goal being 2019. But I am going to be in residency through Aug. 15th."
Stone said her plans for this spring were to just focus on training and her medical work.
"It didn't make sense peaking to go to this race at this point in time. But having that motivation of having the purse persuaded me and my dad (coach Gregg Stone) to race, and now it's more fun and it gave me something to work towards. It's definitely exciting," she said. "It's a bit overwhelming right now because I have so much on my plate, but I love being out there and being in the boat."
John Graves winning the final at the spring Speed Order, run in place of the NSRA last year.
Graves said he is also racing to test his speed and possibly create opportunity. Graves rowed the double at last year's World Championships with Ben Davison and said they are still planning to race the double, but with Davison rowing as a University of Washington junior, Graves has been training in the single. He is hoping to also to help fund his quest through the Lotman purse.
Both Graves and Mueller won the top $9,000 prize last year.
"It's a pretty big field," Graves said. "I can't remember the last time there were that many singles, so it's pretty cool. I'm happy that it is going to be a competitive week of racing with really good guys there. I'm looking forward to having tough racing.
"I would think the Lotman Challenge has attracted a lot of people," he said. "And it should, but I also think that as the quadrennial gets going, more and more people are starting to get involved, especially since it is the second year.
"At the same time, anytime you put a chance to have a little bit of a pay check in there, especially given how little sculling is supported, it's a no-brainer that guys would show up."
The Lotman Challenge has a few new twists this year, including making the NSR the first event, but also finding a way to involve lightweights. Last year, the first Lotman event was the championship singles final at the USRowing Club Nationals and finished up as a head race at the Head of the Schuylkill.
This year only the Head Of The Charles will be run as a head race. The Lotman will be run as a sprint event and contested on the Gold Cup Course on the Schuylkill .
According to Elle Carolan, of the Gold Challenge Cup Foundation, organizers of the Lotman Challenge, after the conclusion of last year's prize awards, several lightweight scullers expressed a desire to be included in the competition.
But because the NSR event has a specific international element for the open weight singles, and identification consequences for the lightweight Speed Order events, to include lightweights, the top two lightweight finishers will be seeded into the Head Of The Charles leg, along with the eight top men and women's open weights.
"After the race last year, we sent out a survey to some of the scullers asking for input, and (2017 women's lightweight double silver medalist) Emily Schmieg came to me once or twice to say that the lightweights would like to get in on the action," Carolan said.
"I don't think the Lotman Challenge is at a place right now where we could support separate open and lightweight events, but we are kicking around the idea of how to incorporate the lightweights, and the only real barrier to entry they have is this first race, which is the NRS1," she said.
"We were trying to think or a fair way to do it and we decided that the top eight heavyweight men and women are going to go the Head Of The Charles, and whoever places top two in the lightweights will also go to the Head Of The Charles."
Seeding into the Head Of The Charles for the Lotman challenge will be based not on just placement, but overall race times from the NSR events. To help facilitate a fair comparison, USRowing has agreed to race the open and lightweight A finals back-to-back and as close to 10 minutes apart as possible.
"We appreciate and realize that wind and other condition can vary from minute to minute, and felt this was the fairest way we could do it," Carolan said.
"We want to incorporate the lightweights, especially because we have seen that lightweights can come and crush the champ single at the Head Of The Charles when they are not necessarily making weight, so those final two legs, the Head Of The Charles and the Head of the Schuylkill, they are competitive in that mix and that's a fun twist to this."
Note: The Gold Cup Foundation is sponsoring two different events with prize money this year. The first is the Lotman Challenge and is intended for US scullers. The second is the Gold Cup Triple Challenge. It offers a $50,000 prize, for both men and women.
The Gold Cup Triple Challenge is open to all international competitors competing in the single. To take the purse requires wins in the Henley Royal Regatta, World Championship, and the Gold Cup sprint event at the Head of the Schuylkill.
Both events conclude at the Head of the Schuylkill, and on the same 750-meter sprint course. However, should a US sculler be in position to win both the Lotman and Gold Cup challenges, he or she must choose one. In other words - no double dipping,