British spare Graeme Thomas thought he was done for the day when the GB men's quad rowed off the launch dock headed to the start for the final medal race of Saturday's World Rowing Championships schedule.
Thomas went to the grandstands and was ready to settle in and cheer for his mates when his cell phone started blowing up with instant messages. British stroke man, Peter Lambert - who had been fueling GB boat through wins in the heat and semifinal - was sick and had to be taken out of the boat.
"I was sitting in the stands and all the WhatsApp messages started coming in saying I was needed immediately. And I thought, whoa, this isn't right. I had watched the guys boat and I thought, that's it, my duty is done. But when I got down there, Pete was back from the water and it was tragic. He was distraught. He gave me a pat on the back and said go do it."
It wasn't enough to get Great Britain the win, but it was not for lack of effort. With "super sub," as his teammates are now calling him, the British rowed in a furious battle with Lithuania and Estonia that ended in a sprint to the line for a silver medal.
Lithuania held off a GB charge to win, and Estonia, which was in third all the way, won bronze. The drive to the line was so furious, one of the Lithuanian crew collapsed on the awards dock, and lay there while volunteers poured water over and draped him in in cold towels until it was time to get up for the medal ceremony.
It was "a horrible way to finish the day for (Lambert)," Thomas said. "I did my best and I think this shows the depth of the squad and that the quad is making a name for itself in GB rowing."
And so ended the second day of medal racing in the 2017 World Rowing Championships at Nathan Benderson Park in Sarasota, FL.
On a day not quite as hot as the previous seven, but still difficult enough, the racing was dramatic, fast, and without question, World Championship caliber. In addition to GB's last minute switch, notable medal races including the Australian men's four breaking a 26-year stretch without a World Championship title, and the silver medal won by the Polish women's four, who were also racing with a new athlete after one of the crew was nearly killed while cycling last month.
Just five weeks before the beginning of the World Championships, Anna Wierzbowska was struck by a bus cycling home from training alongside her sister Maria, who was not struck and was in the boat when the crew took silver Saturday.
"She is getting better, but she almost died in the accident," said Maria before the medal ceremony. "I was there because we were on bikes and the bus hit her and I needed to revive her. She was very close to death.
"But she is very strong and very ambitious. Now, after today, I know she has the motivation to get better and go to Tokyo."
The US won three medals, including silvers in the women's pair and the legs, trunk, and arms mixed four, and bronze in the lightweight women's double.
With lightweight single sculler Mary Jones' bronze medal won Friday, the US medal count stands at four with chances for five more on the last day of racing. On deck Sunday for the US are the men's and women's eights, the women's double, and the men's and women's para singles. In addition to the crews that won medals Saturday, the US women's four and quad also raced in finals, but placed fourth and fifth.
Trunk and Arms Para Mixed double (PR2)
The day's medal program began with the trunks and arms mixed double, which was won by The Netherlands. Ukraine was second and Poland was third. The US crew with Issaac French and Laura Goodkind finished fifth.
"We are happy with our race," said Annika Van Der Meer. "We made good, long strokes. We kept telling ourselves, long strokes, long strokes and not bothering to look at anybody else, just to do the best race we can."
Note that both of the Israeli para crews withdrew from racing today "for personal reasons" according to the FISA release; today's racing fell on Yom Kippur. FISA accepted the withdrawals without penalty.
Legs, Trunk and Arms Coxed Four
Over the last four seasons, the four from Great Britain has won this event, including last summer in the 2016 Paralympics, and for the last three of those years the US has finished behind them for silver; on Saturday, the one-two finish was the same.
Rowing with a new lineup and a new crew member, who has been rowing for only one season, coxswain Jenny Sichel, Dani Hansen, Zachary Burns, Michael Varro and Jaclyn Smith rowed in silver medal position from start to finish.
"It was a great first race; all the hard work and training went really well," said newcomer Varro. "I learned a lot from my crew. This was my first event, and it was great seeing all the other athletes here. It really makes you want to compete against the best in the world," said Varro.
"It was a great experience," said Burns. "It's definitely a different race, much longer now that it is 2k, but it gives us more of a chance to see the race, and the other crews and to know when to make moves. I'm proud of the whole boat. I feel like we did a great job, especially Mike, who just started this a year ago."
In the British four, James Fox has raced in the event for the last five years. "Maybe I should give up now. It's been a long time," Fox joked. "I'm not really thinking that. I'm looking forward to Tokyo. The race was tight between second, third and fourth. It was good competition. It was nice to be out that far, but watching the boats behind me fight it out was good. It was good for the sport."
Among the US crews racing this week, Megan Kalmoe and Tracy Eisser were favored to medal after winning the National Selection Regatta in May, and then placing second at both World Rowing Cups II and III.
The New Zealand pair (and world record holders) of Kerri Gowler and Grace Prendergast dominated the 2017 season and were the favorites to win. Both crews delivered, with the US taking silver behind the Kiwi gold, and ahead of the Dutch bronze.
"I thought the race went pretty well," said Eisser. "We did a good job of executing our race plan. We knew that everybody was going to be going for it, so we were really just trying to do what we know how to do and it worked out."
Kalmoe said the final was a fun end to a week of racing in front of a home crowd.
"We had a really fun week," she said. "We had a blast in our heat on Monday, like just letting it rip and seeing how fast we could go.
"I think Demark has done a really nice job over the end of the summer, stepping up their race from Lucerne. So it was just really fun to come and race them in the wake of these two amazing two Kiwi girls. To have someone to duke it out with blow for blow down the course was really fun and I think it was extra to do it in front of this incredible crowd.
"We were really counting on the grandstands being loud and uplifting coming into the last 600-meters and it definitely was," she said. "I'm overall happy, and really proud of Tracy."
New Zealand bow seat Grace Prendergast said she and Gowler wanted to get ahead early because of the US support in the grandstands. "We just wanted to get sort of a bit of a buffer, knowing that the US had the home crowd, so I think we sort of went pretty hard and hoped to still have some length at the end. So we're really happy."
Most of the focus this week has been on two crews: the New Zealand pair of James Hunter and Thomas Murray stepping onto the international scene following the retirement of double Olympic medalists Eric Murray and Hamish Bond; and Croatian Olympic double sculls champions Martin and Valent Sinkovic switching into the pair.
It wasn't that Giuseppe Vicino and Matteo Lodo in the Italian par weren't expected to be fast, it was only that the two other pairs were getting more attention.
It was different Saturday. The Kiwi and Croatians traded leads all the way down the majority of the course, while the Italians followed in third. After the three crews crossed into the final stretch, the Italians bolted into the lead and won, leaving second to the Croatian brothers and third to the Kiwis.
"I think we could have done more," said Martin Sinkovic, "but for the first year in the pair we are more than satisfied. We don't have enough kilometers yet. Because of that I think we could have won. We had a lot of injuries. It's OK for the first time."
"Congratulations to the Italians," Valent Sinkovic said. "They were really fast in the last five hundred. We tried to pull the rate up, but we couldn't match their speed. We didn't feel tired before the last five-hundred, but I don't think we have the technical skills yet."
"The first five-hundred meters was very fast for Croatia and New Zealand," said Italian Vicino, "but the last four-hundred meters, we came through with the legs and we passed them. We did the race as we planned. We wanted to stay in touch with them and then sprint. We've done a lot of training on our final five hundred meters, because we knew that would be the toughest part with the Croatians."
Men's Lightweight Double
It should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the results of this boat class the French double won. Jeremie Azou and Pierre Hourin are the reigning Olympic champions, and Azou has been arguably the best lightweight sculler in the men's field for several years.
He did not disappoint Saturday, even if he didn't think they had a great race. Azou and Hourin lead the entire way, followed by Italy and China.
"It was an exciting finish, but it's not our best race because on the first stroke there is a crab on the left and then we had to push very hard all the way through, and the finish was a little higher than we wanted," Azou said. "The finish was amazing and now I think we are going to enjoy this and share this with our family and friends."
Women's Lightweight Double
US light double scullers Michelle Sechser and Emily Schmieg were impressive in the semifinal when they outwaited a determined field that rowed in a tight bunch through much of the race before taking a move and pushing in front to win and advance to the final.
Saturday, they continued their resilient week, winning bronze, and repeatedly challenging the eventual winners from Romania, and the second place Kiwis. After rowing in third through the body of the piece, Sechser and Schmieg started sprinting in the last five-hundred and appeared to move briefly into the lead.
Both Romania and New Zealand responded to the move, and the finish was dramatic.
"We knew the field was tight. I didn't have the best eye on Romania so I just had to keep calling it up. It was a really good piece, I wish we could have gone just a little bit faster," said Schmieg. "I didn't even know where we finished when we passed the line. I'm really pumped; I have a bronze medal at Worlds."
"Even though we are experienced as a crew and as racers, we're finding out what the fine line of where the full throttle is, where that red line is," said Sechser. "It was a fun semi to find out where we could lift to, and today we were on the other side of it where there wasn't one gear left."
While Schmieg didn't see the Romanian's in lane five with the Kiwi's between them in four, Gianina-Elena Beleaga had an eye on the US.
"I just screamed, come on, come on. I screamed two or three times and she came and she took me and I felt that our boat just flies," she said. ""In the last 40 meters the Americans were close to us. I didn't realize we were first, so I asked somebody in the medical boat how was the finish and they said you are first. And I just started crying."
At the start of the season, the focus of the Australian four was to break a 26-year World Championship drought in the boat class. And that was what they did. Leading from the start, Australia won, while Italy finished second and Great Britain, who had had to switch out stroke William Satch earlier in the week before he returned for the final, was third.
"I thought we didn't have the best first 250 of our race, but our second 500 was spot on and we just sort of held speed and got a bit of a jump on the field," said Jack Hargraves. "From there we nailed every call of the race plan. It was a bit weak toward the end, but it didn't matter because we got there.
"I thought we did such a good job in the first 1250 that we would have had to pretty much stop rowing to lose. That was the first time in 26 years that we have won the four; the last time was 1991. Our coach told us earlier in the year that this was the year we were going to do it. It was first or nothing, and that has been out mentality since November of last year."
With the Australian's men four already wearing gold medals, followed right behind them. Australia raced from sixth place at the start to first in a sprint to the finish. Poland, raced in second the majority of the piece and Russia took bronze.
"It was a really good race," said Molly Goodman. "I didn't even know where we finished at the end. We came out better than I thought we would. There were so many other good crews. It was awesome. I was so nervous. This was the first A final for me in a senior worlds, so it's pretty exciting to get a gold medal," she said.
"I think it was the best race of my life," said Maria Wierzbowska. "I just felt in the middle that we had the strength we needed. Before the race, we thought we could do anything and we could go very fast."
Trailing Poland and rowing in second place with the finish line coming as the meters passed in the last 500 meters, Sophie Souwer, the three seat of the Dutch women's quad, had enough faith in her crew to know that she did not have to worry.
Coming through the last few hundred meters, the Dutch sprinted through Poland to win. Russia, which had trailed in third and was battling with the US, managed to hold the edge over the American crew of Emily Huelskamp, Kara Kohler, Maureen McAuliffe, and Elizabeth Sonshine to take the bronze medal.
"We have so much trust in our stroke (Nicole Beukers) that even though we were not leading, from the start, I just knew if we continued the pace we had and then just go nuts we would be OK," she said. "We knew it would be close, but I didn't expect that it would go down to the last hundred meters. But it did and I'm very happy."
So was Beukers. "The only thing I feel is joy, finally," she said. "We knew we could do this, and it's super great that we made it. We wanted to break the others at the end, in the last 500 meters. All we could think was we wanted this so badly."
Notes from the Course
Crowds were large starting pretty early this morning, and they were standing spontaneously for almost every race that came down; more of this please!
Overheard by locals sitting on the park benches in the public areas along the road below the finish line: "We've got the best seats!" In a sport like rowing that has very little interest outside people who participate directly, being able to view from public areas seems to me a very good thing.
The US National Team rowovers resulted in truly heaps of former US teamers on site; very cool to see.
The bow seat of the Italian pair collapsed out of the boat on the dock, so what else would the stroke do but... Smother him!
But not bad enough not to have some fun; one of the members of the Estonian quad took the pelican and put it on one of the Lithuanian's shoulder during the photo shoot.