By the time the US women's eight got through the first quarter of their final, they were not in the position they wanted to be. A few days earlier in the opening heat Wednesday, they owned the race from start to finish - but on Sunday when the medals were on the line, Australia was in front of them with 500 meters gone.
Coxswain Katelin Guregian has been in a few races in the US eight before, including the one that resulted in gold in the 2016 Rio Olympics. She was also in the boat that finished fourth at last year's world championships.
Still, a year is a long enough time to build toward a championship, and Guregian trusted the crew in front of her, stayed patient, and as the US approached the halfway point, she called for a move.
Sitting in the bow, Kristine O'Brien heard the call as "light hands." All the way back, in stroke, Oliva Coffey heard the call, but isn’t sure what the words were exactly.
But she felt the response.
"It was a lot closer at the 500 than it was in the heat, but we expected it to be that way. But I felt like we were down a little bit even coming through the 750, which was not where we wanted to be. Katelin made a call to go, and we made up our minds that we were going, and I could feel everybody behind me just drive my blade through the water. I then I knew that no one was going to catch us."
No one did.
Canada tried, and in the offing passed Australia to finish second. But the US powered through the line to win the gold medal and reset the 2020 Olympic cycle in their favor.
"I thought that was the gutsiest race I have ever been a part of, and I've been part of a few," Guregian said. "We just had so much belief, and so much trust, we believed in each other and that's what we did all the way down the course. I think if anyone had let go of their belief, or their trust, it would have been over," she said. "That's what carried us through."
For the US, the women's eight was the highlight of not just the day, but of a solid week overall. Their gold medal not only returned the eight to the top of the podium, but was the third gold won by the US squad which took home a total of 10 medals - three gold, three silver and four bronze, and finished second in overall points.
In addition to the gold the women's eight won Sunday, there were also two bronze medals won, including in the women's double and the PR1 women's single.
The men's eight, which had started the regatta by winning their heat on Wednesday with a new World Champs best time to advance directly into the final, missed out on the podium and finished fourth in a tight sprint through the final 500 meters with Great Britain and Australia.
Germany, which won, did not need to be involved in that dash to the line, as they led from the start and continued their dominance in the men's eight.
"There was a lot of pressure on us," said German three-seat Max Planner. "This was the second season in which we were unbeaten up to the World Champs, and it was the last day. We all felt the pressure, but we were excited for the race.
"We knew that the US boat was very fast in the heats, faster than us, so we said OK, it's going to be a tight race and we have to do everything we can in the first thousand meters to get in the front and try to hold on.
"The race went pretty well," he said. "I think after the first thousand meters we had a great gap on all the other crews, and we held it to the last 250 where my legs were burning. It just hurt, and I couldn't row a full stroke, couldn't get all the way up the slide. It was half slide the last 250. It was amazing."
The US lost out in the four-boat sprint to the line. Australia nipped Great Britain by 0.03 of a second, and the Brits beat the US by 0.17 to finish third.
Race to the line in the men's eight
"It wasn't the result we were looking for," said US men's coxswain Julian Venonsky. "It was not what we wanted or planned for, but we're looking toward the future and just using this as a learning experience to get better.
"Maybe the wind was a little more crazy than normal, but it was like that for all the crews. We knew coming into this that Germany, Australia, Great Britain, they were really good crews. It was a close race. It wasn't the result we wanted, but we tried our best."
The morning featured a total of eight A finals, that in addition to the performances by the US women and German men's eights, saw Switzerland's Jeannine Gmelin's unbeaten streak end when she was bested by Ireland's Sanita Puspure, who had been having a stellar regatta all week and won her first world championship.
The men's single final also saw the defending world champion finish second. Ondrej Synek hooked a buoy in the third stroke, dropped into fourth in the first 500 and could never catch winner Kjetil Borch.
"I lost the race in the first couple of strokes," Synek said.
Hours before the day began, a slight wrench was thrown into the plans of every crew in the final with a stiff tailwind that blew down the course and forced regatta officials to flip the seeded lanes from one side to the other.
But while the lanes were flipped and the wind got into the heads of several of the athletes - and under their blades, and shells, it really wasn't enough to have resulted in unfair conditions. And so, the race results came down again to grit and emotion and who could handle the conditions.
PR1 Men's Single
Finals racing started with the men's PR1 single, and Australia's Erik Horrie not only won, but beat the world best time he set in the heat earlier in the week. Horrie started slow and fell into second, while Ukraine's Roman Polianskyi took the lead.
Polianskyi held the lead over more than 1500 meters, with Horrie slowly chipping into the gap. But with a few hundred meters left, Horrie sprinted and beat Polianskyi to the line. As soon as the race finished, Horrie took off his hat and tipped it to Polianskyi.
Alexey Chuvashev finished third and US sculler Blake Haxton finished fourth.
After the race, Horrie said he had dedicated his race to his father-in-law, who passed away this spring. "I had to pull out of World Cup racing earlier this year to go home and support my family and pay my respects," Horrie said. "There was some talk of me having an injury, but that wasn't it. Family comes first."
On setting the new record, Horrie said: "Today's race between myself and Roman certainly shows that just because we're in a wheel chair, doesn't mean we're going to go slow."
PR1 Women's Single
Following the men's para single event, Norway's Birgit Skarstein rowed into the lead from the start and just kept pulling away from the rest of the field, winning easily. Israel's Moran Samuel finished second with Hallie Smith of the US taking bronze.
This was Smith's second season in the event. She finished sixth last year in Sarasota.
"This is amazing to medal," she said. "I have been training so hard and my coaches, I have two coaches, they both push me on the water, but one pushes me in the gym and I think that is what made the difference to back it up," she said.
"The wind was really blowing, and I kept scooting over to the side, and I had to correct. But I'm happy it was a bit of a tail wind instead of a horrible head wind."
Norway's Kjetil Borch
Men's single Sculler Ondrej Synek came to Plovdiv the defending world champion, and has won every world championship since the start of the 2016 cycle. He has not had the same success in the two Olympics he competed in.
New Zealand's Robbie Manson was among the favorites to take Synek's title this year. Manson won his heat, but finished third in the semifinal and landed in an outside lane. Manson never really got going and finished fifth. Synek was pushed into the buoy line by the wind in the opening strokes, hit a buoy, caught a crab and never recovered.
"I lost the race in the first couple of strokes," Synek said. "I hit the buoy. The wind hit me from the side and blew me over. There was nothing I could do. It was my mistake. After the (first thousand) I believed that I could be on the podium, but first place was too far away."
Norway's Kjetil Borch took advantage of the mistake and jumped into the lead and held the defending champion through the finish. "I’m very tired now," Borch said. "I followed my race plan and then gave it everything from 1500 meters.”
Lithuania's Mindau Griskonis finished third. "It was a very difficult race," Griskonis said. "They changed the lanes and I was afraid I had the worst lane, but everything was OK and I raced well and I am very happy."
Kara Kohler wanted to represent the US in the women's single in the 2017, but she lost out to Felice Mueller at US trials and rowed in the quad instead in Sarasota. She came back to the single this season, and earned the right to claim the seat this spring.
Kohler won her heat and then finished second in the semifinal and went into the final in a middle lane bookended by defending world champion Jeannine Gmelin of Switzerland and Denmark's Fie Udby Erichsen.
Kohler started in sixth and managed to move back into contention, but finished fourth. Meanwhile, Puspure jumped into the lead ahead of Gmelin and stayed there. Austria's Magdalena Lobnig followed in third.
Puspure has been finishing behind Gmelin all spring, and rather than go to the European Championships, she stayed home to train and be ready for Plovdiv.
"I wanted to make more gains so I could come on top here, and thankfully that gamble paid off," she said. "That was the plan all along, not to go to Europeans, but to have two or three more weeks of a training block.
"I was a little bit worried about how the conditions were going to play out because I am not a huge fan of choppy water, but I suppose when you're in a good racing mood, and you're ready to go, there's no stopping you," she said.
Gmelin was said she was disappointed in her race, but still pleased with her progress since last year overall.
"It was really hard, not my best race," she said. "I really struggled with the conditions today and I think that the results showed that the one that could handle it better won. So a really good job to Sanita.
"It's logical that at this moment I am disappointed because I came here to win, but I think I have to see the big picture and I think I'm on the right track overall and still really quite happy with the result," Gmelin said.
Hugo Boucheron and Matthieu Androdias of France
There were no clear-cut favorites coming into Plovdiv. Seven crews medaled in the three World Cups and European Championships this season. That did not include the defending world champions from New Zealand.
The six boats that lined up in the finals were France, Switzerland, New Zealand, Great Britain, Germany and Romania.
Hugo Boucheron and Matthieu Androdias of France gained an early lead, and stayed in the lead until the end, finishing first. Switzerland Barnabe Delarze and Roman Roeoesli were second and John Storey and Christopher Harris of New Zealand finished third.
Ellen Tomek and Meghan O'Leary
Ellen Tomek and Meghan O'Leary represented the US in the women's double since the 2013 World Rowing Championships, including at the 2016 Olympics and last year at Worlds. They reached the second level of the podium last year in Sarasota in taking silver, and had set themselves to climb one step higher with a middle lane gained in the heat and semifinal.
Great Britain took the lead in the first quarter, but fell back into second and then out of contention and finished fourth. Tomek and O'Leary, meanwhile, trailed in the near back of the pack, but moved from fifth to fourth and then sprinted into third to take their second World Championship medal in two years. Nearly the entire women's eight stopped their postrace interviews to cheer them on.
Lithuania won and New Zealand was second.
"That was a very hard fought race," Tomek said. "We were down off the start and we weren't so happy with that. It felt like a good start, not sure what happened. We fought like hell til the last 500 meters, and then we were just hanging on for dear life because we went so hard," she said.
"We fought into the medals, so we can't not be happy with that. I think actually that was not our best race of the regatta, so still things to improve on for next year to keep us hungry."
Notes From the Course
Wearing pogies when rowing is usually done in the cold, not for the German bow of the German women's double..
By the time Sunday arrived in Plovdiv, the only crews left were the ones in the finals. Not everyone sticks around and the boatyard starts to look empty . . .
The wind was a ripping tail for the final day in Plovdiv. Here's the proof.
Rowing photographers are always looking for the best place to take a picture. The top of the finish line tower was a good spot Sunday.