The actual distance between the United States and Bulgaria, where the 2018 World Rowing Championships are being held, is about six thousand miles, more or less.
It's much closer for rowing teams traveling from Great Britain, or squads from Continental Europe. From New Zealand and Australia, the distance is, well - it takes significantly longer to get to the race course in Plovdiv overall.
But those are just measurements of miles and travel time. More to the point, Plovdiv is exactly halfway from anywhere to Tokyo; that is, halfway to the 2020 Olympic games that will be held there.
The Plovdiv World Rowing Championships are the midpoint in the current Olympic quadrennial, the moment at which teams and athletes take stock of where they are.
This is the point where coaches and national federations decide if the direction they have taken since the end of the Rio Olympics will result in credible performances two years from now. For some teams, that means a result of either building a team that can medal, or reach at least an A final. For some athletes, it will help decide if staying in training for another two years is worth the effort.
All those answers will reveal themselves this coming week. Beginning Sunday, crews from 62 countries will race at the 2018 World Rowing Championships, starting with the opening heats Sunday and ending with the eights finals the following Sunday.
And while each result will be viewed differently by different teams and different athletes, each will be weighed by what it means for the next Olympics.
For an athlete like New Zealand's Mahe Drysdale, a veteran of five Olympic cycles, the last two of which produced championships in the single, he is back in a team boat for the first time since rowing in a four a decade ago in 2008.
Mahe Drysdale is rowing in the NZ quad
After taking a year off from racing and training and failing to beat Robbie Manson at World Cup III in Lucerne to reclaim his spot in the single, Drysdale chose to accept a position in the Kiwi quad.
Following Saturday's practice Drysdale said his focus was on this championship, and the quad, and just steered away from the question about what comes next.
"Yea, I'm really enjoying it at the moment," Drysdale said. "It's been an interesting five or six weeks and really new challenges. But so far so good, it's going pretty well. This is my fifth cycle, so I guess I am very much just seeing how things are going and keeping my thoughts open.
"I haven't fixed on what long term is going to hold, but I am very much focused on the quad, and the next eight or nine days. There is still a lot of water to go under the bridge and we'll see what happens over the next eight days and make some decisions after that."
On a fully different trajectory is the Croatian men's pair.
Brothers Martin and Valent Sinkovic were an unstoppable force in the men's double through the Rio Olympics, so much so that after Rio, they decided that they needed a new challenge and switched to the pair.
Martin and Valent Sinkovic
"We did everything we could in the double and we just wanted to try something different, something new, a new life style," Martin said Saturday after their final practice row.
"We thought when we started that we could compete in the pair, and that first year (silver, World Championships 2017) we showed to ourselves that we could. We're not where we want to be yet," he said. "But we have two more years and we know we can get faster. We think it will be good."
While it is not a question of age, or different personal challenges, for the US men's and women's teams, this quadrennial is a perfect example of two squads in transition and hoping that the path they began at the start of the new cycle will lead to the same place, on the podium in 2020.
That will not be a novelty for the women who won the last two Olympics in the eight.
But it will for the men's sweep program, who have one bronze medal to their credit from both the London and Rio Games. There were medals along the way at various World Championships, but when it counted, at the Olympics there was disappointment, and the coaches and athletes and team administrators all went home wondering how to change the coming fortunes.
What next became a complete revamping of the men's coaching staff, relocating the men's training center to the West Coast, and coaxing former US Olympic and World Championship winning coach Mike Teti out of his coaching career at Cal.
In his first year back, (an unofficial first go in 2017, that became official and full time this spring when the collegiate season ended), Teti coached the men's eight back to the podium and a silver medal. Teti is rebuilding the men's team by luring young collegiate talent into the fold, convincing some 2016 veterans to come back, and creating an environment that recognizes a balance between full time training, starting careers, and families.
This year, Teti said, the goals are small steps forward.
"We're looking for improvement," is how Teti put things after practice Thursday.
Last year, the first year of the new quadrennial, the men's eight won silver, the four finished 10th, and the pair one place below that in 11th.
2018 Men's Eight
So, this year, "We'd like the eight to be able to hold their speed, their consistency, maybe if the four can do a place or two better that would be great, if the pair can do a place or two better, that'd be great, and then we'll see.
"The focus really with this coaching staff, is although here we're thinking of placement, we just want to be able to say we've improved, that the athletes have improved."
That's where Teti's thoughts are today. But at night, when there is time to think big picture. That's what keeps him up at night. And he knows this is the half-way point because he has been here before.
"The guys that we have now have improved, but again, we're taking it year by year. Right now, I'm focused on the racing, but generally, in the evening, I start thinking about the big picture, like the four-year cycle, the eight-year cycle, the 10-year cycle. It keeps me up."
That the US men are in a rebuilding state is not entirely different from the US women's team. After a run of 11-years of being the standard in the women's game, at least in the eight, which did not lose in that entire time, and in the process notched back-to-back Olympic championships.
The women's system is deeper, from the collegiate system up, but the Princeton training center turned over some through athlete retirement after London, and again following Rio and head coach Tom Terhaar is doing more teaching and more nurturing this quad than he has in some time.
At the last word championships, the US sweep squad had some success with the pair winning silver. But the unbeaten streak ended for the eight. They not only didn't win, they didn’t medal.
There were other high points for the women's crew, including silver for the open weight double and bronze for the lightweight double and lightweight single. In the para rowing group, the mixed four won silver, making the overall haul for the US six total medals.
But the single medal from the sweep crew and a non-podium finish for the vaunted eight, told the story of where the US women started the Tokyo cycle. The Princeton training center is younger and has less experience than it has been in years.
So, while not actually in the second year of a rebuilding cycle, the squad is at least retooling.
2018 women's four
"It's totally different," Terharr said of this second cycle year than at least the past two quadrennials. "We definitely have less experience overall. Our quad is brand new, basically.
The straight four - I mean, how many of those kids made a team before? Not many made a team before. The eight, (veterans are) just Olivia (Coffey), Tracy (Eisser) and Katelin (Guregian). There's some experience there, but not all from the eight.
"It's definitely been, I won't say rebuilding, but definitely building back up," Terhaar said. "It's fun. It keeps things fresh. The attitude has always been good, but it's good with the young kids too."
As far as the competition:
"You see the teams with the athletes that have been around. They're a little bit ahead of us. I think we can catch up but, yea, you see New Zealand and there's a lot of experienced kids from their Olympic eight that are back.
"You look at, let's say Australia's four, there's two kids that were at the Olympic eight. You just see who has the experience. For us, it's just a time game.
"Basically, three of the kids in the eight joined us in June, so we're just getting to building the team itself. We just keep learning, and making small steps," Terhaar said. "Right now, we're just trying to learn as much as we can, race as hard as we can, and see where we end up."
The first races of the regatta are always the spares events. In this year's races, held Saturday afternoon, both US entries won. Lauren Schmetterling won the women's single and Jessica Thoennes and Meghan Wheeler won in the pair.
Jessica Thoennes and Meghan Wheeler
Racing starts tomorrow, and for the first of the eight-day schedule, there are 44 races set to run in 11 events. The US, which has entered 27 crews, will have a boat in each of the events.
The random selection of who races who in the first heats of the regatta was done yesterday afternoon, and can be found here. There are a few races for the US that jump out:
Andrew Campbell, a 2016 Olympic finalist in the light men's double, is scheduled for the very first race of the regatta and is in the same light men's single race as Michael Schmid of Switzerland.
Schmid is considered a slight favorite coming in. The fourth place finisher in Sarasota has been solid this season, winning both World Cup III and the European Championship. Campbell has not raced yet this year, except for the US trials, which he dominated.
The top two finishers from the five-boat heat will advance to the semifinals.
US women's pair Gia Doonan and Vicky Opitz open their regatta in the same heat as the Kiwi pair of Grace Prendergast and Kerri Gowler, who have gone unbeaten the last two years, including a world title in 2017 and wins at both World Cup II and World Cup III in 2018. The first three crews advance to the semifinals.
Notes From the Course
The first few days of practice at any regatta can get crowded and dangerous. Yesterday was a good example of that. We're not sure exactly how it happened, but British lightweight single sculler Samuel Mottram walked back to the boat yard from the start area carrying his boat and rigger after half of it snapped off on the water.
Luckily the Ukraine women's quad was there to back up and give him a tow to shore near the start line.
There was also a near collision between US light men's pair Romanian's men eight.
Lots of rowers use bungee cords wrapped around their hulls to create drag through the water.
New Zealand's Robbie Manson might be racing tomorrow, but that didn't stop him from throwing up some serious water has he pulled himself up and down the course with a bungee strapped on his hull this morning . . .
Cats. There are a lot of them roaming all around the course. But they are friendly. . .
Last year at the 2017 World Championships, a fairly large number of fans, vendors and international team staff where sporting Yankees baseball caps. This year the cap of choice is the Boston Red Sox. Testing the idea that the hot team gets the popular hat, row2k asked one volunteer if he was keeping up with the Sox's season.
There was a language barrier, but it was sorted out after a few back and fourths that went like this:
"No?" (Translation, what!?)
"Baseball? Red Sox?" (Now pointing to the hat."
Luckily a local that spoke both English and Bulgarian intervened.
"Ah! No. Football. Bulgaria."
For the record, it was a Boston Red Sox hat.