A glorious start to the day; several races later everything had changed.
There may be no better analogy for the Olympics than a circus. There are a bunch of different acts going on all at once, since it is a traveling show, the set up is always last minute, at any moment it could be a disaster, but once the show starts it’s the best show on earth... sometimes.
Leading into the games, all of the press surrounding Rio has been about protests, Zika, dirty water (as of today “the water is nearly drinkable at this point” according to FISA), problems with facilities in the Olympic Village, and concerns about safety. None of those concerns were apparent once racing commenced this morning. The real challenge on day one of the XXXI Olympiad was the conditions on Lagoa Stadium. While the day may have been a beautiful sunny day in the 80’s for the spectators, the middle of the course was anything but pleasant.
Conditions Begin to Change
Racing began with the usual suspects in the Men's 1x. Winners of the first 3 heats Angel Rodriguez, Mahé Drysdale, and Hannes Obreno seemed to have a comfortable lead in their respective races and crossed the finish line very relaxed. Mid way through the men’s 1x however is where conditions true began to effect racing. Or in the words of GB’s Alan Campbell while speaking to the AP and nodding toward the iconic Christ the Redeemer statue towering over the rowing venue, "He needs to spread his arms a bit more to protect us."
As the wind swept through the middle of the course winning times rose about 10 to 20 seconds as rowers dropped their ratings down to as low as 20 strokes per minute to simply keep their shells from sinking from the waves. Very quickly races suddenly became as matter of survival such that London silver medalist and 2015 world champion Ondrej Synek could be seen shaking his head and laughing after crossed the finish line. Following the men’s 1x however is when things really began to get weird.
Angel Rodriguez rows into perfect conditions early in the morning
Shocking Women's 1x
Heat 1 of the women’s 1x may have been one of the biggest shocks of the day. Kim Brennan, who is widely viewed as the hands down favorite to win Olympic gold at these Games, finished only two seconds away from being sent to reps in her heat.
"I have two boats in Rio," Brennan said after the race. "We made the mistake of taking the calm water boat out. It changed pretty fast, and I was left in a boat that was full of water. I've always had a bit of difficult steering that one. "
These are the best rowers on the planet and even they seem to be struggling to stay upright and in their lanes; in more than one race two rowers ended up in the same lanes.
Some seemed to relish the harsh conditions and turned the chop into an advantage. The surprise winner of heat 1 with the fastest time of the day for the women’s 1x was 22 year old Kenia Vanessa Lechuga from Mexico.
“I learned to row on a reservoir with waves," she said after the race. "I felt super confident from the start knowing the wind was blowing like crazy. I hope the course stays wavy."
Kenia Lechuga Alains of Mexico doesn't mind the waves
Are You Flipping Kidding Me
Not everyone was so lucky to stay upright however. Following the women’s 1x was the men’s pair, in which, for the first time since the 2004 Olympics, a boat flipped while racing down the course as the Serbian pair of Marko Marjanovic and Andrija Šljukic ended up in the lake midway through their heat.
While it is rare for shells to flip at this level, what made this occurrence so controversial was the fact that these rowers did not finish the race. Rowers are allowed to get back into their shells unassisted and continue their race, but if a crew receives assistance they are automatically disqualified. Despite being collected by the officials on the water, FISA made the decision to allow these rowers to advance to tomorrow’s repechage.
The Serbian men's pair did not reach the finish
("Fun" Fact: NZ W2- of Juliette Haigh and Nicky Coles was the boat that flipped in the 2004 Olympics in Athens. Juliette Haigh of course is now Juliette Drysdale, wife of Mahe.)
Follow the race FISA explained the decision.
“As we were so delayed in the schedule and a lot of rowers were already delayed down at the start waiting for their start time… the executive committee quickly agreed that we would drop that particular requirement (that a crew must cross the finish line unassisted to progress) on that crew.
“We got the word to the umpire, he told the Serbians you will be able to continue to the next round and be considered last place in that heat so that you can go forward to the repechage."
US Boats Struggle In The Wind
The US men’s pair of Nareg Guregian and Anders Weiss made their Olympic debut today with some tough results, placing fourth in their heat to advance to tomorrow morning’s reps.
"After the first 300 in, the side chop hit us pretty hard," Guregian said after the race. "But every other boat had to deal with it as well; I thought we did a decent job for most of it, and it kind of fell apart at the end. In the last 500, we lost it.”
“At one point, I think we had a solid lead on the Czechs, and then we just hit wave after wave after wave," Weiss added. "We didn’t compose ourselves after catching those diggers and crabs the way we should. I think the mindset for tomorrow will be to go out hard, and if it is as bad as it was today, just keep our composure and row through the crabs and the diggers. It’s the boats that deal with it the best that are going to make it through."
The US men's pair heading into the storm
For the US Women’s 2x of Ellen Tomek and Meghan O'Leary the battle with the conditions continued. After a promising start that had them racing for the lead, a couple boat-stopping crabs scuttled their efforts.
After the race O’Leary said “You know, the worst that could've happened, happened. We're not going to let it pull us down, obviously. It was pretty crazy water. Probably the worst water I've seen, but you just got to fight through it and hopefully tomorrow we can put a better full race together.”
“We had a really good start," Tomek added. "We've been working on that area of our race and it's really great to see that that has improved, so now I'm just hoping that tomorrow that we can continue after that first 500.
“We just wanted to go out there and have the best race that we could and throw down a really good time. Unfortunately, that’s just not going to happen when you catch several over-the-head crabs and your boat goes into the other lane and stops.
“That was not everything we had physiologically, so that is a positive. We just have to handle the conditions a little better and not catch so many crabs. Hopefully, we can stay up with the pack and be able to lay down a better race. I guess in those conditions, everyone feels like a rookie.”
The US women’s double will be racing in tomorrow morning’s reps.
Closing Out Day One
Closing out the last race of the day was the US women’s quad. While the 4x had a tough outing, placing third of three (in a really stacked heat), Megan Kalmoe took today’s outing in stride.
“For me, I don’t know if I have ever gone to a major regatta in the quad without going through the repechage," she said. "It’s something that we don’t prefer to go through, but we do see it as just another opportunity to work on our race and develop skills and gel together as a crew. We were named a lot later than a lot of the crews that we’re racing against here, so anytime that we get another time to line up and practice our race plan and race against the girls that we are going to be seeing in the next race is just an opportunity to keep trying to get better”
Looking Ahead: Conditions Could Get Worse
While the major of today focused on how each of the crews would deal/not deal with the windy conditions. The main concern going forward is conditions are not supposed to get any better.
“We're looking forward at the weather for the coming days. In fact, it's going to be even worse.” FISA’s Matt Smith said following today’s races.
“This afternoon we're going to start having a careful look at what we can do," he said "We have eight days; if we lose rounds of racing, your results from the prior rounds could determine your placement in finals or semi-finals. Everyone is on notice that every race counts in a FISA event. You have to do your best to get your best placing. If we get two or three days knocked out, it could be the case.
At a FISA event, you have to be ready for all weather. Those of you who were in Brandenburg this year saw we had really, really tough conditions, but no one went under, no crabs caused boats to flip, and we raced. And the ones who won had boatsmanship, had experience, and that's part of rowing. When I was rowing and when I was coaching, we went out in all conditions to be ready for that race that could take place like today.
"We've had many FISA events where it's been rough and we faced a decision, "Oh, is it too rough?" We cancel everything and send them home with no race, or we keep going and then hope that everyone stays above water and boatsmanship and skill is a part of being a rower. So, that's kind of our attitude about tough conditions. You have to be ready for all conditions."
A lot of factors seemed to go into the decision to pull the flipped pair out of the water earlier in the day and to continue pushing forward with racing despite the dreadful conditions. One of the more telling comments came from FISA at the very end of the day.
“We have a huge television audience wanting to watch our races here, and eight o'clock is the start time for enough light for HD television, and they're (television) our main sponsors here," Smith said. "They're a key stake holder in any decisions. When it comes down to really extreme circumstances, we have the freedom to do what's right for the sport, but we're in early days now to go to such scenarios.”
Even if the rest of the regatta goes off as planned, the ripple effects of today may be felt for the rest of the regatta. Athletes who may have won their heats easily in flat conditions now find themselves in a position where they will be facing medal-winning competition before the medal rounds due to their lower heat placement. We may see some very tight competition in the rounds to follow that could alter how this regatta plays out… but hey, that’s racing!
Notes from the Course:
- The overhead cam provided an unprecedented look at Olympic rowing, unfortunately on what was a nearly unprecedented day of Olympic heats. The water in Karapiro was as bad (or worse at times) than it was today, but never before has row2k received texts while sitting at the starting line from folks at home noting that stream viewers could see the water sloshing around in the cockpits of singles, whew.
- At-home viewers also noted that while the wheels were coming off the regatta, the announcers were preternaturally calm, sounding as if it was business as usual
- More seeding vagaries: in addition to the women's quad draw mentioned yesterday, a heat of the women's single included both Emma Twigg of New Zealand, and Ekaterina Karsten of Belarus. Karsten had been in the double earlier this year, so didn't get seeded in the single, whew.
- And an odd coincidence combining both boat class and draw issues: the second heat of the men's double included three boats that had previously prominent single scullers in the crew: Olaf Tufte at stroke of the Norway double, Marcel Hacker at bow of the German double, and Mindaugas Griskonis at bow of the Lithuanian double.
- The Kiwi pair doesn't mess around with their warmup; they did two pretty full bore pieces in their lane that took them over the 500 meter mark before they turned around.
- The tradition of crossing themselves at the start may have given way to long looks up at Corcovado this morning.
- Even the lane markers are in the Rio 2016 font.
- The locals who live in the building overlooking the start line were both excited and non-plussed; while a few folks were taking pictures out their windows and from rooftops, at least one other was beating rugs over the windowsill.
- Unlike the past few World Championships, at which commands and warnings for minor discrepancies in uniform, uh, uniformity were rampant (and controversial), there was only one call for uniform fixes today, addressed to Marcel Hacker, who only had to roll up his sleeves to turn a longsleeve into a shortsleeve to meet regs.
- Despite the warnings about the water, a large number of rowers were dipping their hands and handles into the water, as you can see in today's galleries. Unless the entire regatta gets sick, it's not an issue.
- Finally, to all folks who had the toe in steered boats today, we feel for you.