Ellen Tomek has rowed on eight previous U.S. national teams, the last four with Meghan O'Leary in the double, but never had the opportunity to represent the country in front of more than a few friends and family, or in equipment she had trained in before.
All that will change this September in Sarasota, Fla., at the 2017 World Rowing Championships for Tomek and O'Leary after winning Senior/Para Trials on Mercer Lake in West Windsor, N.J. Wednesday morning. "It's pretty exciting," Tomek said.
Tomek and O'Leary were favored to win the event and had led throughout all the early racing and again yesterday in the final, finishing comfortably over the other three crews. When it was, over O'Leary turned to her more veteran partner with a question.
"Meghan asked me on the water what number team this is. And I thought, ah, number nine. It's exciting and even more exciting to be racing in the U.S. It's really cool that we'll have the opportunity to have home water advantage for once, and that we get to race in our own boat and with our own equipment that we're used to. It's going to be fun."
No doubt it will also be fun for the entire U.S. team, which now includes 19 named crews - 18 from the trials racing this week. The women's pair has already been sorted out and all that is left are the crews from the men's and women's and para camps that are scheduled to be named on Aug. 28.
"With the conclusion of trials, we'll have 19 of the 26 para and senior events named for the world's this year and it will be time to focus our preparations solely on Sarasota," said USRowing Director of High Performance Matt Imes. "It's an exciting time with the worlds in the U.S. We look forward to hosting the international rowing community and beginning the competition process towards Tokyo 2020."
This will be the first time the world championships have been held in the United States since 1994 when they were run in Indianapolis. That year, the world championships were held in the middle of the 1996 Olympic cycle. Sarasota worlds will be the official kickoff for the 2020 cycle and set the path to the Tokyo games for many of the athletes at trials this week.
The first year of any cycle has a unique feel to it that is both good and different, but never a complete look at what anyone can expect the 2020 Games could look like. Following most Olympics, veteran athletes take a break, new athletes jump in and the numbers at an event like trials can be underwhelming.
Of the 19 events on the schedule this week, 8 were uncontested and only six had more than three entries. The new Olympic cycle played a part in that lack of turnout, for sure. But there are other layers and reasons for this - but more on that in a bit.
To the racing:
After several events already run this season and from looks at how the boats were moving in the time trials, heats, semis and finals this week, there were really no surprises and only a few tight fights. Predictably, the hottest run on the course was among the men's pairs. All of the athletes in those crews are in the mix for one of the men's camp boats.
California Rowing Club's Michael Clougher won the elite event at club nationals last month, beating John Graves, who was rowing in the double this week. Clougher won all three races, and was only really challenged - at least by looking at the results - in the Monday heat. Clougher said he will be heading back to California to prep for his first world championship and was excited to have earned the chance to race in September.
"It was a good win and I'm looking forward to moving on to Sarasota," he said. "We've got a lot of work to do before then."
Felice Mueller has been making her presence known in the single since jumping from the sweep program and moving to the new boat class. After spending most of her time on the sweep team, competing in the pair in the Rio Games and finishing fourth, she has been gaining experience in every race, including at the Lucerne World Rowing Cup in July where she finished fourth.
Mueller was expecting to be pushed, especially by 2012 Olympian Kara Kohler, and that was what happened. Mueller got a lead off the start, but had to work to stay ahead. "It feels really good," Mueller said immediately after getting off the water. "But, I'm in a lot of pain still. It was a really tough race. I got up a little bit off the start and that was mostly the margin that was held the whole way down. This is exciting. I have to figure some things out, but I hope to go to Florida and train there for a few weeks before worlds."
This was one of the events that was surprisingly undersubscribed. With only two entries, there was just a time trial run, followed by the final. Craftsbury's Ben Davison and John Graves have been planning to row this event together ever since making an unsuccessful run at the 2016 Olympics at the Final Qualification Regatta last spring in the quad. With Davison rowing in the Washington 1V and then in the USA coxed four at the U23 worlds, the two had to wait up until just recently to get their timing and racing feel together.
They finished well ahead of the Penn AC/Vesper combo of Nicholas Goode and David Judah, but were not completely satisfied with the piece.
"We're looking forward to going to worlds, but not super excited about our piece, but at the same time we've had only a few weeks together," Davison said. "I've been trying to battle with jet lag and switching to sculling and I think we still have a lot of speed to gain. We've had a lot of very, very good days and I think the more we row together, the more consistent we're going to be."
Graves has also had to make a boat class switch and should be a little boat weary after racing the single all spring, winning the speed order and then finishing second in Diamond Sculls at Henley last month. "I'm excited," Graves said. "I feel like we're in a position to make a lot of speed gains in the next month or so. It's kind of a different year because normally we would have only two weeks after trials to get geared up but we've had about ten days together and I think we're going decently.
"Still, I haven't been in the double for years and he has been sweeping. There is just a lot of room to grow," he said. "We're excited to see what we can do. We're not looking to just be competitive, we're looking to make some waves at worlds."
The six crews that were entered in event and started the week Sunday in the time trial, were all hoping to have a shot at ending the camp selection process for themselves. The crews that reached the final were gunning for that result and moved aggressively down the course.
Andrew LeRoux and Ben Delaney pushed into the front off the start, but Anders Weiss and Michael Colella caught up and took control.
"We knew we had very competitive group coming into this and we raced them all year long. We knew their speed and we needed a good race, and we had one," Weiss said "We had one of our best starts and even with one of our best starts, the LeRoux/Delaney pair was out ahead and we didn't really settle. We were at 42 and a half for a large portion of the race."
Anders is experienced with senior level competition after winning Olympic trials last year and racing in Rio. But this is Colella's first senior team. "It's pretty unreal and it's a ton of fun to follow Anders down the course. He knows how to turn it on and when to go. I'm just trying to follow him and learn from him right now.
"We had a great warmup and stayed dialed in and we knew we just needed to stay calm in that first bit and then push out in the middle one thousand," Colella said. "That is our strength. Anders just kept it high and we just tapped it right along and got lose and long. In the end there, we were holding on for dear life."
Women's Lightweight Double
Michelle Sechser has been out of the lightweight double since the 2016 season and has been working toward getting back in the boat class for the senior team since then. Yesterday, she marked that goal off the list, rowing to a spot on the roster with Emily Schmieg. "It feels great to be back after a year away. It was really exciting to be back on the starting blocks at Mercer. It's starting to feel like a home course," Sechser said.
"There was some really great competition and there are some very good young doubles coming up. It should be a very exciting quadrennial coming up. We'll see what happens."
Sechser said racing in Sarasota gave her a little extra motivation through the final strokes. "It definitely got me through the last five-hundred knowing that my parents can watch me represent team USA."
Men's Lightweight Single
This was one event that had experienced racers firing everything they had throughout the week, and featured some of the closest finishes. In the end, Nick Trojan pulled through over Matt O'Leary, Hugh McAdam and William Solberg.
"The race was good. I was a little optimistic this year after having taken, what, eight months off," said Trojan who raced in the Olympic trials last year. "I knew I didn't have a lot of candles to burn so the racing was all about efficient rowing rather than grinding speed. But I had to kind of carry on in the end there because Matt was coming back really strong in the last thousand."
Women's Lightweight Single
Mary Jones has been the favorite in this boat class for a bit. She has been training at Cambridge Boat Club in Boston against Olympic silver medalist Gevvie Stone and gaining speed from that. Last month she raced at the Lucerne world cup and finished fourth in a tight finish with Swiss sculler Patricia Merz, and she has been leading this event all week. She finished the job Wednesday and is now preparing for worlds.
"I had a good piece. I liked my rhythm and executed the day," Jones said. "I'm absolutely looking forward to worlds. I had a bit of a heartbreak with the photo finish in Lucerne and I'm looking forward to another shot at some of those girls."
Women's Arms and Shoulders Single (PR1)
If there was anything close to an upset this week, it was Medstar Paralympic's Hallie Smith beating 2016 Paralympian Jacqui Kapinowski. With the new Para Rowing distance going from 1k to 2k, beginning this year, Smith led throughout the length of the course. Kapinowski, who typically rows a lower, longer stroke, moved back into Smith in the last 500-meters but could not sustain the attack when Smith upped her rating.
"This feels amazing," Smith said. "Three and a half years ago, I couldn't walk and this feels twenty-times better than anything I did while walking." Smith has only been rowing a little over a year, and had been following Kapinowski the entire time. "Going into this I was really intimidated by Jacqui. She's absolutely amazing, so this means a lot to me."
Mixed Para Double (PR3)
Back in the event after a year out is Natalie McCarthy. Rowing to a win with new partner Russell Gernaat, McCarthy said, "It feels good to be back." Gernaat and McCarthy rowed a tad behind CRI's entry of Katherine Barrett and Aidan Porter. "That was one heck of a race," she said. "They had us off the start and we hung right with them until about the last five hundred."
Mixed Para Legs, Trunk and Arms Double (PR2)
In the second para double event, AIRON's Isaac French and Laura Goodkind defeated Miami Beach Rowing Club's Helman Roman and Betsy Mitchell. A relative newcomer to para rowing, French said he and Goodkind had limited time training together because they live on separate coasts, but said they were able to work what training time they had in their favor.
"Me and Laura just started rowing about a month ago for like a few days and then, since she lives in California, she had to go back. She came back to Saratoga where I row and we just worked on form and power, got in sync, and pulled it home."
There were eight uncontested crews racing this week. Each crew had only to race the full distance and finish. There was no time standard. Of those crews, four finished at or over 90 percent of the world record "gold standard."
The eight uncontested crews - in order of how they raced the Mercer Lake course today - are:
Lightweight men's double; Christopher Lambert-Rogers and Peter Schmidt - Riverside Boat Club.
Men's quad; Leonard Futterman, Jonathan Kirkegaard, Erik Frid, and Lucas Wilhelm - Schuylkill Navy.
Men's coxed pair, William Hakim, Julian Maxwell Goldman and Greg Davis - California Rowing Club.
Lightweight men's quad; Jack Ruske, Will Young, Jacob Georgeson, and Brendan Harrington - Riverside/SoCal Scullers.
Lightweight women's quad; Jillian Zieff, Kathryn Schiro, Cara Stawicki and Jen Sager - Schuylkill Navy.
Lightweight men's four; David O. Smith, Thomas Foster, Nicholas Dawe and Andrew Neils.
Lightweight men's pair; Alex Twist and Jack Devlin - Seattle Rowing Center/Potomac Boat Club.
Arms and Shoulders Men's single (PR1); Blake Haxton - Unaffiliated.
There are several reasons that factor into why this year's trials had so many uncontested or undersubscribed crews. row2k sat down with USRowing's Matt Imes to talk about what they are.
The most obvious reason is the timing of the world championships and the start of a new Olympic cycle.
Younger athletes who might have competed but are still undergraduates could have been reluctant to take time away from the start of classes and their collegiate teams to try and race for a spot they could not fill. Couple that with the fact that the beginning year of a new Olympic cycle can be a good time for veteran athletes to take a season off to recharge for another Olympic run, which typically reduces the pool of available athletes.
Add to that the disruption to USRowing following the disappointing results from the last Olympic cycle and the formation of a task force to determine what changes needed to be made before the new cycle began, the findings of which were not released until winter of 2017.
That forced USRowing to hold off announcing what the selection procedure would be until after the report was released. And that moved the time table and the dynamics of the selection procedures.
Prior to this year, there were two NSRs during which events like the singles and pairs were sorted out and athletes who won had an opportunity to race in a world cup event and, with a high enough finish, automatically qualify for a national team.
"The result of that is athletes are then funneled into other events like the quads and the lightweight doubles," Imes said. Imes also pointed out that the elimination of the lightweight men's eight a few years back, and, at this last FISA Congress, the elimination of the light men's four, means there are not a lot of choices for lightweight men.
All of these factors contributed to the amount of uncontested crews and the low numbers across the board. Imes said USRowing plans to look at how to proceed into the remainder of the quadrennial and is probably moving back toward the earlier selection events.
"We like the early selection that focuses talent, and then moves athletes to the next event through the NSR. That makes the trial a smaller pool to funnel athletes into. That along with the later worlds, along with the post Olympic year, it's just one of those things.
"This is an unusual number. I just think this has been an odd year, but it is something we are going to look at. We want to find ways to identify the top talent in specific boat classes and then create opportunities within other boat classes. That is something that is going to be looked at, even before the world championships," Imes said.
Editor's Note: an earlier version of this article referenced 19 crews qualifying for the World Championships; after this article was posted, the Men's Coxed Pair crew, who had raced uncontested today, declined their bid to the US National Team; the article has been amended to reflect this change.