Apart from the eights' heats and two preliminary races, Tuesday was a tale of repechages for the most part with the US squad: reps escaped for the women's pair and the men's and women's quads who got the job done to move on, but also reps to come for the PR1 Mens Single and the PR2 Mixed Double who both faced one-to-advance heats in the first round and will need to try again tomorrow to advance.
The highlights came from the women's pair winning its repechage after a narrow miss on Monday, the two recently boated quads each rallying to make the A/B semis and keep their chances to qualify the US for Paris alive, and the US grabbing A Final spots with both the men's and women's eights.
USA M4x grabbed third in rep to make it to AB Semi
Also on the day, the light women's pair and light men's quad rowed their preliminary races for lanes, both finishing third of three in their test run down the course against the crews they will race 'for reals' on Friday.
After Monday's bluster and the shifting of schedules and lanes, Belgrade behaved itself today and the breeze was light enough for some record setting in the earlier races on the program: In the first heat of the PR1 women's single, Israeli Moran Samuel bettered the World Championships Best Time of the reigning World and Paralympic champion, Birgit Skarstein of Norway...only to have Skarstein, the queen of the event, reclaim the mark in the second heat. The two will battle it out in the final, and likely in Paris, since each qualified her country for a place in Paris by making the A Final today.
The Qualification Stakes
With that Olympic and Paralympic qualification on the line, crews in the reps are the first ones up on the chopping block, and the margin for error is slim, so those races quickly become a high stakes litmus test for crews hoping to earn those Olympic and Paralympic spots this year.
"For us, it's been high stakes the whole time," said US Olympian Alie Rusher, talking about both the rep in the women's pair, which they won, and how she wound up in the boat with Meghan Musnicki. The two have been performing in must-do-well races all year.
To stay in the pair, Rusher and Musnicki first had to perform well at the Winter Speed Order, despite hopping in the boat at the last minute when neither had a partner. Then they had to win the Selection Regatta, and even their trip to the Varese World Cup had a performance standard they had to meet to be officially named as the crew. Taking the win in the rep today keeps them on track to qualify the boat for Paris, but it does mean another high stakes trip to the line in Thursday's semi.
The qualification stakes get more real with each round of course, and the number of crews missing this initial cut is growing. We saw a bit of that, more heartbreaking end of the business to be settled here Belgrade yesterday, but most of it--apart from the men's' pairs and doubles--was in the men's and women's singles. In the singles, making the A/B semis and having a shot at the top 9 finish required was always a long shot for some, particularly in a 47-entry field like the men's single (the women have 32 entries vying for their nine spots). With another full round of repechages Tuesday across five more Olympic events, a good percentage of the boatyard is already out of the running for Paris places, even with five days of racing to go.
First Place and A Final for USA W8+
The US women rowed clear of the Australians and Olympic champion Canadians to take the single A Final spot on offer in their heat. Romania, last year's World Champions, won the other heat. With just five spots available for Paris, there is a lot more racing ahead for both medals and Olympic spots, but the US will now have a center lane for that action on Sunday.
"For a new crew, with a few people brand new to the senior team, it was just so exciting after weeks of hard work at home and in Italy, to actually go out there and see what we can do," said stroke seat Charlotte Buck. "We've had some really great pieces against our teammates, but it's so different being actually on the racecourse."
That work has included lots of pieces against the men's double and the women's four and quad, Buck said, calling the team workouts "super helpful."
Buck is one of three most senior women in the crew: along with her fellow Tokyo Olympians Regina Salmons and Jessica Thoennes, Buck has been in the eight for three years in a row and that experience is helping the three Olympians lead the crew:
"It's been really interesting having us take up the mantle of being the experienced people," Buck said. "I mean, it feels funny to me, because I still feel relatively new to the team."
Part of it, she said, is "understanding that we are not so different from the other people who are new to the boat, because there are a lot of experiences that we have still never had, that the older people who were our mentors did have. They had the experience of winning, and they experienced different ups and downs than we have.
"We have just tried to put forward this is what the training center is now. It's a very different vibe and a very different community than it used to be. Getting everybody on board with Josy and Jesse's plan has been one of our most important things," she said, referring to Josy Verdonkschot, the High Performance Director, and coach Jesse Foglia, "and then just all sticking together."
There is of course a history to reckon with when you row in the US women's eight, both by virtue of representing a country that has long put a premium on the eight, and because of the long string of successes--and gold medals--in the 2000s and 2010s. At the same time, Buck doesn't feel like her crew races with that tradition as a target on their backs.
"All of us acknowledge the great things that the US women's eight has done, but that era is not the current era anymore. There's no one in the boat who was part of the big winning streak," Buck said, adding that, "it feels important to acknowledge all the history, not just like the 2000s but the '80s, and all the things that have happened in women's rowing.
"But we're still different. We're new and still creating our own identity and I think that's what this week is about: looking on Sunday to be say this is what the US women's eight is now. It's not the same as it was before."
"It's honestly more interesting," said Buck of the fact that there is no country currently on a streak. "The field is open for the eight."
Men's Eight Makes Good, Moves On
The US men dictated the pace in the early going of their heat in the eight, leading to the 1000 and then some ahead of the Aussie crew that recently beat the GB eight in Lucerne, before coming home second to advance, well ahead of third place Germany.
After a post-selection training camp largely on their own in Hanover with coach Steve Gladstone, the crew was eager and ready to get down to racing, according to coxswain Jimmy Catalano.
"Our mentality was to go out there, row our race, and see what we could do," said Catalano, in his second year coxing the crew. "We definitely executed for the first, 1250 to 1500 meters, but we've got some things we want to work on moving forward, so we put ourselves in a better position going into that last 750."
"We had a lot of focus on rowing our framework, rowing our rhythm. One thing about this kind of training style [we are doing] is that there's one eight, one coach. You can do those time standards and kind of know how fast you are, but you really don't know until you line up."
Even though the US and Australians spent most of the race well in front and securely in the two spots to make the A Final, Catalano said that, "I don't think there was ever a point where we thought we were safe."
"Our mentality was always, we're going to the World Championship with the opportunity to win, and with that, you also qualify the boat for the Olympics. I think if you shoot a little high, you might not always hit it. That's fine, but I think having that mentality for us was a lot more important because it frames it for us at the highest possible level, which is winning. That's way we talked about it as we were training."
As with the women's eight, the men's final on Sunday--the last race of Belgrade 2023--will be a barnburner, with just five crews earning the Paris passes on offer.
Women's Pair Makes the Most of Their Extra 2k
The women's pair made the most of their trip through the reps, not only by nailing their start and winning the race, but also by using the extra round of racing as another chance to get better as a crew.
"Obviously it was stressful, just because there's a lot at stake," said bow seat Alie Rusher, about lining up for the rep today.
"It's really important to make the AB semi, at this regatta especially, because of Olympic qualifications. But I felt like our race yesterday was so tight that physiologically it wouldn't matter if we were on the other side of that win, so we were kind of looking forward to another trip down the course together since we have only rowed together for one season."
Stroke seat Musnicki agreed: "It was not actually that challenging to come back and do it again, because we don't have a lot of racing experience together as a pair, and so we thought, great, we have another opportunity to go down the track together."
"I'm learning something new all the time, still, which is incredible," added Musnicki, the two-time Olymoic gold medalist who is on her tenth US team here in Belgrade. "The pair is a different boat class than what I'm used to racing, and so it's very new for me, too."
"Everybody always wants to improve from race to race," she pointed out, "and there was one glaring thing that we needed to fix and that was our start, so that was our focus, the one thing we want to improve upon from yesterday.
"That's what we did today, we executed on that. Now what are some of the other things that we're going to take away from today that we can bring to the semi on Thursday. Because the number one goal is to qualify this boat for the Olympics for the US team, and that's where the focus is."
"We definitely have a few more gears we can go," said Rusher, "especially in our second 500. Our third 500 is what we've really focused on since the World Cup, and we're really pushing through crews there and in the last 500. We were happy with our whole race plan today, but it's going to be a little more competitive for the semis."
Notes From The Course
No Waiting for Breakage - the seven oar in the Chinese men's eight snapped--loudly--just under six seconds into their heat, on maybe the third or fourth stroke...and so this is a good an occasion as any to remind folks that there is no longer a breakage rule at World Rowing events.
That change went into effect starting in 2013. There is a backstory, and no doubt a lot of discussion, behind that change, but what happened today was exactly what the rule book says: no one had to stop, and the Chinese will just get another chance in the rep. Had it been a semi-final or final, they simply would have finished in last place in that race.
Start Dock Mascot - A local dog cruised the area around the bar at the starting line, and inevitably scooted up onto the dock and all the way out to Lane 3 of the racecourse; it's a friendly cur as you can see here, so stopped to say hello to the photographers on the dock and was leashed and taken back to shore. The dog was still there at the end of the day, romping around the lawn and getting pets as the volunteers, start line workers, and photographers headed home. Hey, he lives there.
New Wheels in the Peleton - The para coaching peloton has a coach in a motorized wheelchair; it was handling the roads just fine, and worked great for the coach who was chasing races.
Most Lightweight Photo Ever? - Soon after USA light women's pair bow seat Solveig Imsdahl pulled into the starting line, she replenished some blood sugar by enjoying a stroopwaffle she had brought along; one former lightweight rower who saw the photos online called it 'the most lightweight photo ever taken.'
New One on Us - After the Dutch men's eight had to pull into the dock bow first to replace a lost bow marker, the starter actually announced a new starting time for the race, which was a new one by us--the new time? just one minute later than the original time.
Who Tooted? A crew member in one of the para mixed doubles let one loose inside the two-minute mark, busting up the field on that side of the course; he just raised his hand to take credit and didn't crack even the slightest smile, staring straight ahead, while his partner in the bow had to make a serious effort to gather herself together so she would not still to be cracking up when the race started. Here is a photo of the neighboring crew laughing:
Favorite Movie Theme? Australia's Eric Horrie sure sounded like he whistling the theme to Harry Potter in the starting blocks. He won, so maybe it will catch on.
Very Sporting, Gents - The men's para pairs wished each other a good race and good luck moments before blasting into a side by side two-boat race; once the racing starts all niceties are put aside, but it was a solid moment between the crews inside the two minute mark.
Sweet "Stern Ball' - GB light women's sculler Olivia Bates has what looks a whole lot like a "stern ball" on her shell:
After some crowdsourcing by intrepid reporter @TheRowingVoice, we can tell you it is an extender to help her relatively short single meet World Rowing's minimum length requirement...and an extender must have a bow ball, for safety.