In her first years in international competition, Kara Kohler was still rowing at the University of California while making fast crews for the US. She won gold in an under-23 eight in 2010, gold in the four at the 2011 senior World Championships, and in 2012 topped all of that with an Olympic bronze medal in the quad in London.
Kohler came back for another year in the US quad in 2013 and finished fifth as part of her last US worlds team for a few years. Despite rowing at the US women's training center and racing a pair at the first national selection regatta in 2016, she was not in the mix for a return to the Olympics when the Rio Games came around.
Still, Kohler was not finished, and she came back to try again in 2017, that time going for the single. She got close, but lost in the trials to Felice Mueller. It was not what she was apparently going for, but after finishing second in that event, she was named to the US women's quad for the 2017 World Rowing Championships, where her boat placed fifth.
This spring, Kohler again went for the single, but instead of having to go to trials, she won the singles event in the first NSR, and with it the right to race at a World Rowing Cup and earn a direct placement with a top four placement at Lucerne in July.
Monday morning, Kohler went to the start line in her opening heat as the US women's single sculler at the 2018 World Rowing Championships, in Plovdiv, Bulgaria - and she nailed it.
Off the start, she rowed behind Austria's Magdalena Lobnig, last year's worlds bronze medalist and a 2016 Rio finalist, but Kohler closed the gap in the second 500 meters and then took control the rest of the way.
She won the heat nearly 10 seconds ahead of Lobnig, and advanced directly into the semifinal, giving herself an extra day's rest and a boost of confidence as she works toward making the final.
"It means quite a lot to me because I've worked really hard to get here, more than I ever have in my rowing career so far," Kohler said, "It means a little more to me to have this opportunity to race as the women's single, knowing how hard I worked after to Rio to get back on my feet and be here. I was happy to have that first race, to get a win and to have some confidence moving forward."
While Monday was only the second day of racing in the eight-day event - and the tactics of knowing when to push for a direct placement into a semifinal and when to realize it is time to back off and save energy for a rep when it becomes apparent still leaves a ton of room on the podium for many of the crews racing in the midpoint of this 2020 Olympic quadrennial - the US squad had a pretty good day.
Of the eight US crews that raced, five moved to the next round.
Advancing along with Kohler were the para PR3 mixed four with coxswain, the women's four, the women's double, and men's single sculler Kevin Meador.
Meador was facing elimination from medal contention in his repechage, passing under the bridge that spans the course a thousand meters from the finish in third place. But he began sprinting and rowed through the pack and advanced to the semifinal.
The first crew to qualify for the US Monday was the PR3 para mixed four with coxswain, which led the length of the race and advanced directly into the final. The mixed legs, trunk and arms four is a boat class that has been a highlight of the US para program the past several years, with four consecutive silver medal performances, including the 2016 Paralympics.
Para four with coxswain
Coxswain Jenny Sichel was part of those crews and knows that this boat can contend for a win in this World Championships.
"It was a good race," she said. "We went out there and did what we wanted to do, and now we race again on Saturday. A lot of this morning was just about staying relaxed and loose, and knowing that we've practiced and we've been there and we're ready to go. We're ready to go fast."
Next to row directly to advancement was the women's four, which got off the line in first ahead of China and New Zealand and stayed there. All three of those boats advanced into the semifinal.
US women's four
"Goal number one was to have a really aggressive race from start to finish," said three-seat Molly Bruggeman. "Just get out there and have the very best race we could have and build off of the practices we've been having.
"The second goal was to qualify and to be in the best position that we could be - so we did both of those things and finished first," she said. "Off the line, our goal was to be very internal and wherever we were at the 500, that's where we were going to be, and we were just going to keep moving.
"It wasn't the goal to be up necessarily, but it was a nice surprise and it was good that we kept working through."
Up until last year, the women's four was a development boat. Under FISA rules that dictate a boat class must be dropped when subscription fall below seven for more than three consecutive years, the women's four was eliminated from Word Championship competition after 2011.
It was not only reestablished after London, but it became an Olympic boat class following the Rio Olympics.
The number of crews and level of competition has responded. Thirteen countries have crews entered here and several of them have Olympic veterans in them. None of that changed the level of commitment from the US athletes that made the four, Bruggeman said.
"I think the level of competition is still the same," she said. "Fours from US rowing past are still a bunch of bad ass women, and we're all in that same mindset. We want to win no matter what. We want to win no matter if it is an Olympic boat class or not. The goal is the same."
The final crew to qualify from the Monday heats was the women's veteran double of Meghan O'Leary and Ellen Tomek. They've been the US women's double since 2013 through the Rio Olympics and had their best finish last season, a silver at the 2017 World Championships.
O'Leary and Tomek
Rowing in fifth crossing the first 500 meters, O'Leary and Tomek reeled in the four crews in front of them and finished in the second of two qualifying spots behind Great Britain. The direct placement into the semifinal gives them extra rest and time to adjust their game.
"For us, it's always good to get that first piece in," said O'Leary. "You kind of build up toward this, and being able to unleash a good first piece is the objective. For us, the goal going into the race was to progress, finish top two, and we got the job done.
"From here, it's improving on our stroke. We've been building and getting used to a new boat and all those things that go with showing up and preparing for World Championships."
Tomek agreed, and she added that the extra day off will be well spent.
"We're always striving to be a little bit more efficient, match up a little better, handle the conditions a little bit better than other crews," she said. "Today we went into the race knowing that everyone was going to go out hard and fast and they did, especially GB. We just kind of chipped away during the race.
"We didn't quite get them in the end, they still had a second or so on us," Tomek said. "But we have some things to work on the next few days. We get to have Wednesday off, and so we have several days of fine tuning left, which we're excited about."
While not advancing, the lightweight women's quad finished second in a three-boat heat with only one spot available for a direct placement to the final and will race again Wednesday in the quarterfinals. China won the piece just under three seconds ahead of the US, but the crew seemed pleased with the way they had rowed.
"That was my first start at Worlds, so I'm pretty happy," said senior team newcomer Michaela Copenhaver. "I think we had a good piece and we're excited to get back out there on Wednesday. Our goal was just to stay super internal to the crew, and I think we did a good job at that. The course was a little calmer up top, so the goal there was just to establish a rhythm and get going and then the work started in the second half when it got a little bumpy."
Lightweight women's quad
Notes From The Course
Tuesday has the shortest schedule of any day this week, just 16 races including four para heats, one para preliminary race (PR2, mixed double), and 11 reps. Here's the schedule.
The Gold Cup Triple Challenge is a new event this year that will pay $50,000 to any single sculler, male or female, that can win at the Henley Royal Regatta, the World Rowing Championships and the Philadelphia Gold Cup Race, a 750-meter dash run at the Head of the Schuylkill Regatta.
Since Mahe Drysdale won Henley, but lost in Lucerne and is not in the World Championships in the single, that purse is safe.
But, Switzerland's Jeannine Gmelin not only won Henley, she won her heat Monday morning and is headed directly to the semifinal. Gmelin has dominated the women's single game since winning the World Championships last year in Sarasota.
In Lucerne at World Cup III, she beat all three of the other heats winners here Monday morning and so is in the hunt for what should be the biggest single money prize for a rowing race in recorded history - right?
Just saying . . .
Don't turn around Kara. That had to be the thought of anyone watching the start of Kara Kohler's single heat this morning. The Plovdiv course is pretty tight and crew warming up are often in racing lanes down river when the races start. There are at least six crews visible in this photo, all in Kohler's lane one . . .
There are plenty of current former University of Washington rowers competing here. There were three in the women's double events alone this morning, including Sofia Asoumanaki of Greece, Italy's Valentina Iseppi, and Great Britain's Anna Thornton.
Calling Mr. (FISA) Fantastic. Not all of the para four shells were the same length. And not all of the young volunteer stake boat holders had long enough arms. So if Mr. Fantastic (the elastic guy in the Fantastic Four comnic and movies) is not around, there are always FISA officials to jump in.
Check out the series of photos starting here.