PLOVDIV, Bulgaria – A strange mix of classic American rock and contemporary European techno music blasted from speakers on top of the boat houses at the base of the rowing venue in the center of Plovdiv.
The sound carried for at least 500-meters down the man made race course, a seven-lane, stone lined channel, protected from end-to-end by trees, and filled with special weed eating fish. There are very few places in the world where spectators can sit sipping drinks, or coffee while boats go screaming past no more than a few feet away. This is one of them.
For the first few days this week, the winds blew hard down the course and the number of athletes rowing was kept to a minimum, that is to say there was at least a few hundred feet between boats.
This morning, one day before the opening of the 2012 World Rowing Senior and Junior World Championships, the distance was down to a few feet. If not all of the 1000 athletes from 57 countries were on the water just after 9:30 a.m., they appeared to be standing in lines waiting to launch.
Having made their way down to the dock, Kendall Chase (Evergreen, Colo.), Georgia Radcliffe (Vienna, Va.), Deirdre Fitzpatrick (Cheshire, Conn.) and Ruth Narobe (Portland, Ore.) were settled in their junior women’s four and about to start up the course with Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son,” setting the tone.
“Some folks are born to wave the flag, Ooh, they're red, white and blue.”
It was a hectic setting in a far away, 6000 year-old Eastern European city that was baking in a warm summer sun, one-day away from the last big international regatta of the year. Tomorrow the practice will end and racing will begin.
Liz Trond, the junior women’s four coach, had every right to be nervous watching her girls launch into the madness off Plovdiv this morning – near misses happened on every inch of the water - but she wasn’t.
“It’s exciting,” she said. “Yesterday there were maybe only ten crews doing practice starts, so today to have everybody out there doing it, that’s great. They’re prepared. We’ve done a lot of work in pairs, so I’m comfortable that all four are very aware.
“We’re ready,” she said. “It’s time to go. It’s been a long, great summer and it’s time to check our speed.”
In all, 20 crews will represent the United States in Plovdiv this week. There are 13 junior crews and seven senior crews whose events are not contested at the Olympics here to compete. It’s a combined event run only during an Olympic year and it continues through Sunday.
And it’s the kind of regatta the venue was built for. Before 1988, the course was only 1000-meters long and all rowing events were held in Sofia, nearly 90 minutes by car from Plovdiv.
When the World Canoeing Championships were awarded to Plovdiv in 1989, a decision was made to remake the course to accommodate rowing events. The project was combined with the construction of the 55,000 seat Plovdiv Stadium that overshadows the entry to the rowing center.
The redesign for rowing was done by Svetla Otzetova, a former Olympic rower who won gold in the women’s double in 1976 Montreal Olympics, the first year women were allowed to row in the Games. The course looks similar to the Olympic Basin in Montreal, but it is built nearly level with the surrounding forest and runs parallel to the Maritza River.
Otzetova had already begun working on the project in 1983 but needed time to convince the local authorities to embrace the project. When it was completed, she went on to help design Olympic rowing courses in Barcelona, Atlanta, Sydney, Athens, Beijing and Eaton Dorney for the London Olympics.
“When they started working on the project it was 1983 and I was working with a design team on this whole venue,” Otzetova said. “It was my first project and I was pregnant with my first child. So this was my first baby. A few months later I had my daughter.
“I have been an athlete myself for many years, so I have had pretty strong feelings about how it should feel on the water or when watching racing and if you see the elements, they are different than other places. We have a certain atmosphere,” she said pointing to the waterside cafes. “People come here just to enjoy. When you’re watching the racing, you can feel the blades passing.”
Otzetova said the venue was built to blend in with the surrounding nature and to be as fair of a course as possible. The channel has a bed of sand covered by plastic. The sides are a combination of concrete and stone blocks set in such a way that they absorb any waves from launches.
The only problem they have ever experienced with the course was weeds. The water gets very warm and the weeds grew rapidly every summer. Five years ago a special species of fish was imported to eat the weeds. “You can see, there are no weeds. This is all very special to me,” she said.
Tomorrow morning, Plovdiv will get another chance to be the venue Otzetova envisioned when racing starts with afternoon heats.
But today, the first three American crews to row the course in the spares races where Emmett Gross (Wynnewood, Pa.) and Alex Richards (Watertown, Mass.), who finished second in the junior men’s spare pair, Lydia Keating (Little Compton, R.I.) and Katie O’Connell (Lansdale, Pa.) who finished second in the junior women’s spare pair, and Danielle Struck (San Mateo, Calif.), who finished third in the junior/lightweight women’s single sculls spare race.
Heats will begin tomorrow afternoon at 2:00 p.m. in the junior events for the junior men’s and women’s fours, the junior men’s four with coxswains, the junior women’s double sculls and the junior women’s quadruple sculls.
Senior heats will begin at 4:13 p.m. and run through 6:47 p.m. Racing will be featured in the lightweight men’s eight, the lightweight men’s and women’s quadruple sculls, the lightweight men’s pair, and the lightweight men’s and women’s single sculls.