As officials convened to figure out a new schedule for the men's pair trials on Wednesday morning, one longtime observer noted that "if someone ever wanted to do a flow chart of our trials, it would be impossible; it just couldn't be done." As the trials came to an end some 10 hours after they were scheduled to do so, it seemed almost odd that the men's single, which has offered some of the most unscriptable drama imaginable for the past decade-plus, proceeded in almost normal fashion – you know, heats, reps, finals, name a winner – no petitions, no DNS status, no row-offs. What a concept.
This year, it was the pairs that provided all the drama, in both the men's and women's events. On the men's side, an unfortunate injury to Jason Read in the warmup area after the first semi had already been run on Wednesday threw the event into a quagmire of uncertainty, ultimately requiring rescheduling of the final. On the women's side, a pair that had helped to set a world record in the women's eight just a couple weeks ago in Lucerne succumbed in the final strokes of the final to a crew that had spotted them what seemed an insurmountable 2+ lengths of water in the first half of the race – or, let's be honest, in the first half of the first 500.
We talked with the winners after the racing; here is what they had to say. Congrats and well done to everyone who made it as far as the trials, and raced with heart and style, win or lose.
Despite the relatively straightforward appearance this week, Ken Jurkowski's road to being named the US men's single was anything but direct: after qualifying the boat by a hair last summer in Bled, Ken had to win the early spring NSR in California, then race in Europe in two World Cups where he had chances to qualify the boat (a top four finish in either World Cup would have won him the spot and the chance to avoid a trial), and then boomerang back to the east coast finally to face the trials.
For Jurkowski, however, taking the long road was arguably part of the plan all along. Whereas many US crews approach the World Cup as a do or die effort to make the team and avoid a trial, Jurkowski took a longer and more inclusive view of the process.
"My approach is different than what most people think the approach of going to World Cups is," he said after the racing. "A lot of the US mentality seems to be designed around 'oh, we need to go to the World Cups and have absolute peak performance.' I find that not to be practical because there are a lot of steps on the way, and if you try to peak for the World Cups, you're going to end up compromising the rest of your season.
"So last year in 2011 I went out of my way to do all three World Cups without peaking, just by doing my usual training and gaining from my race experience. So I was able to really find a lot more speed than if I was training at home. This year going to the World Cups was an opportunity to again get some race experience, and to get some time in my new boat, but I wouldn't say I was going with the plan being to qualify - or I wasn't trying to peak for the races in order to qualify because then I wouldn't get the same experience benefit out of it because I'd be treating it like it's the last race of the season. You need to have a little bit more of a long range outlook.
"Having laid out the schedule way back in September, I knew I'd have quite a few race opportunities between the start of the season and the NSR and hopefully the end at London. So I really was just trying to have consistent performance and really learn from each opportunity. A lot of people put a lot of pressure and expectation on the international performance because they don't happen that often. My goal is to make international performances more of regularity in the schedule so I can really find what I need to do to be competitive."
So during his planning, Jurkowski may be said to have included this trial in his plans, although he was quick to note that "I knew it wasn't going to be easy; these (the trials scullers) are all very good scullers and competitors, and they pushed me to be my best, and I am thankful and honored to race them. But I'd say it was always on the schedule. I'm not trying to say that I wasn't confident going into my racing in Europe. I put in a lot of work and a lot of training this winter. I had my all-time best performances in terms of absolute time and I think as a race performance in Belgrade, and went stroke for stroke with Lassi Karonen, who is one of the most consistent and top level scullers for the last number of years. We went all the way down the course, and went 6:46 which is my best time to date. So that was a good, that was a real good step forward. I think I've got a ways to go in terms of really closing the gap to the top guys, but it's definitely a difficult event and it's the competition that makes the quality for it. I'm not going to be deterred by it being challenging. I've just got to figure out how to improve and how to get more out of my performance."
Looking ahead to the next six weeks before the racing starts, Jurkowski is taking a similar, wide-angle view of the week of racing in London.
"I think one of the biggest things that makes single sculling different than the other events, especially the events like the eight which is sort of the other end of the spectrum, is that in single sculling you're going to count on having four races at the Olympics," he said. "You're going to have a heat, a quarter final, a semi final and a final. So the eight being the other end of the spectrum, if you win your heat, you go straight to the fina,l so you just have two races. So twice as much racing in the same amount of time, you really need a different preparation. You need to focus on being able to put out a consistent race form over back to back days, and that definitely tends to doing a lot more volume, and your whole approach has to be a little more meted out than an eight, where you just go all out and it's a five minute race. So I think my approach I have to sort of take a broader scope in terms of developing my approach and my training because I need to be both really, really fit to be able to race that many times and I need to be really, really efficient because it's just a lot of times down the course and a lot of strokes. If you try to peak at the beginning of the week, you'll be in pretty serious trouble by the end. So you really are trying to be as efficient as possible to get through the races and have performances that will obviously advance you without sort of putting yourself in a hole that you can't climb out of by the next race."
The chasmal gap between the winner and loser of an Olympic trial – and especially a two-boat Olympic trial -- is almost impossible to reckon; the last time I saw something quite so stark was in the men's single trial leading up to the 2000 Olympics. The spectacle in the women's pair this year was made that much more racking due to a couple factors: first, the pair of Jamie Redman and Amanda Polk were in both last year's world championship women's eight, and also in the eight that set a new world record just a couple weeks ago in Lucerne; second, the final saw one of the biggest comebacks in recent trials history when the pair of Sarah Zelenka and Sara Hendershot overcame a minimum two-length deficit in the early going to catch up and then row through in the last 500.
Back on Tuesday up at the start during the race for lanes, observers who did not follow that race were excused for assuming the result based on the start, given that the Redman/Polk pair had open water before the crews passed the 250 mark. But when they saw the two-second final margin from the Tuesday race, it made one wonder; and perhaps it made the two pairs wonder, as well.
That said, come Thursday's final, when the Redman/Polk pair had fully a half-length within one length of the starting line, it was hard not to think the same thing once again – this is over. If you think I am exaggerating, look for yourself – the dock in the background is just one length from the start , and this photo was taken less than three lengths from the start, on about the fifth or sixth stroke of the race .
By the 1000 there was a solid two lengths separating the crews, and although they had been going the same speed for most of the way once the start was resolved, there was nothing to indicate what was to come. With about 550 meters to go, when the shouts from the gazebo started to thunder, things were shifting incredibly quickly.
And the crews knew it; see the sequence starting here for almost painful evidence.
(By the way, I spoke to the NBC camera guys after the race, and by luck they had panned back to the trailing pair just as their charge started; the broadcast of the event on June 23 should show the comeback vividly.)
At the end, "the Sara(h)s," as the pair has come to be called, finally got their bow ahead with just under 300 to go, and then blasted away for a three-second win.
The pair had been rowing around on Lake Carnegie for three weeks while the rest of the team was in Europe. A fair guess would have had both the women's pair and eight crews as all but set on paper, but these two never lost sight of their one remaining chance to make the team. Then when the women's eight just barely held off a challenge from the Canadians in Lucerne, and putative pair rowers Erin Cafaro and Elle Logan declined their spot in the pair to vie for the eight, the eight opened up, and so did the pair – and the Sara(h)s had a chance.
"When the team went to World Cup, I think we could have really gotten down then, and we didn't," Hendershot said after the race "We decided that we were going to put in the work and get ready, and take our little time in our own bubble to prepare. And I think that did help us as we came down the race course. We knew we had put in all this time. "
But what about spotting the competition a couple lengths; this could not have been in the plan?
"No," Hendershot said with a laugh. "The plan (after the race for lanes) was not to let that much get away from us in the first 1000. We were hoping to have a better first 500 and they still took some away from us. But we knew were going to be down and we were prepared for that. So this distance that we had to make up, we were just like 'okay, well we have to go harder and earlier,' so we did that. We just kept pushing."
At about 400 meters to go, Hendershot could feel the work paying off.
"At 400 to go, the momentum changed, I could feel it. And I just kept saying "we're going, we're going. This is London."
Zelenka never looked out, instead focusing on her rowing, and steering the pair.
"I was just listening to her (Hendershot)," she said, as Hendershot said ""London. London. This is it. Row well. London." Zelenka said she was "so focused on like keeping us straight and making sure I was rowing. And so when she kept saying 'we got four seats. We got three seats,' I thought 'we can really do this. We're moving.' And then the last, what was it, 200 meters we were getting through them and I was like "we're doing it!"
Asked if there was ever a point where they thought they were just too far behind to make up the distance, neither flinched. "Never," said Hendershot. "It was never in our minds," said Zelenka.
"We visualized ourselves winning over and over and I think that was huge," Hendershot continued. "When we believed we were going to win and there was really never any doubt. It was like "oh, okay we've got to work a little harder to win" but we really felt that we could."
And yet there still had to be some element of surprise when you came across the line - you just won the Olympic trials. Even though you think you're going to win. No?
There was a pause.
"It is totally surreal," Hendershot said. "It hasn't set in yet. Maybe in a few hours!"
For the men's pairs, the athletes had to wait another 10 hours to find out who was on the 2012 Olympic team, after the second semi had been delayed by four hours on Wednesday, and so the final was delayed until Thursday evening to allow all crews to recover from the previous day's racing. When the race finally got underway, the millpond tailwind of the morning racing had turned to a bit more biting headwind that nonetheless seemed not to faze the crews too badly. And once the pair of Tom Peszek and Silas Stafford got a little momentum and breathing space, their rowing looked anything but labored, no question.
An early bid for the lead from the pair of Brandon Shald and Brad Bertoldo was really the only worrisome element encountered by Peszek and Stafford as the pair notched a bit of water between them and the otherwise extremely tight pack just over the 1000 meter mark, and rode the momentum to pile up a five-second lead on the field by the finish line.
"They had us off the line, but I think we knew if we just got out clean it was just ours to shift away no matter what," Peszek said after the race. "Those guys really did put up a fight, but we just stuck to our guns, we did our race plan and just kept moving through. I don't think I had any doubts at any point in the entire race. It was just right on target."
Peszek was in the pair that qualified the event for the US last summer, but was in the mix with Stafford for the men's eight; within minutes of learning they would not be in the eight, the two decided to row the pair.
"We were the last two guys cut from the eights camp," Stafford recalled. "We came out of the meeting and we're walking away, obviously both crushed. And then Tom says, 'hey do you want to row the pair?' And I said, 'yep' and that was that."
The stakes and mishaps at the Olympic trials did not seem to affect the pair – although their celebration was anything but muted.
"It was the same as every NSR," Peszek said "It's just another regatta. We knew the stakes were a lot higher but it's still the same regatta, it's still the same preparations, it's still the same execution."
"I was just telling Tom actually, it's just kind of shocking how serene I was after all this preparation," Stafford added. "This is the most important race I've ever had and it really just felt like another practice out there. A Zen experience."
Zen, yes, but quiet it was not; Peszek could be heard issuing a steady stream of calls from the bow.
"He was chatting, he was chatting the whole way," Stafford said.
Anything in particular?
"I don't think it's appropriate to say in an interview but it was all good things," Stafford said. Peszek added: "A lot of positive energy!"
Looking ahead, the pair joins a formidable field in the event, which is not only topped by the most dominant crew in rowing right now, the Kiwi men's pair, but is very deep as well. "In some ways it's going to be fun too because we're a new pair, we've never raced internationally, so nothing is expected of us," Stafford said. "It's kind of whatever. I think we've got a legitimate shot at the medals if we really get on top of our game. So but on the other end we really have nothing to lose, no one expects anything of us. So it's just going to be fun to train and race. "
"There's always somebody that comes from nowhere," Peszek said. "I don't feel like we've come from nowhere. I feel like we know our speed and I know we're good. But, you know, we're going after anybody we can. We have a ton of respect for the Kiwis, the Italians, the Canadians, the Greeks... there's a whole bunch of great pairs there. But we want to be in that final. We want to be on that podium."