ETON DORNEY – Rob Jones is the type of person who likes to challenge himself.
He first tried out a rowing machine before his tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he remembers it being “very hard.” That made the ergometer an obvious choice for his rehabilitation when he was injured in an IED explosion in July 2010.
“I’m the type of person that likes do the hardest thing possible,” said Jones. “I think being challenged and overcoming challenges is what makes you grow as a person.”
To say that Jones (Lovettsville, Va.) and his teammate Oksana Masters (Buffalo, N.Y.), an adopted bilateral above-knee amputee, have overcome significant challenges up to this point is an understatement, but they were faced with a new test at the Paralympic Games this morning, lining up for the first time in the opening heats of rowing competition on Dorney Lake.
Racing in the second of two heats of the trunk and arms mixed double sculls, the U.S. crew needed to win in order to advance to the final and avoid the repechage. Instead, they finished second to defending Beijing Paralympic champion China, who set a new Paralympic and world best time of 3:54.92. Tianming Fei and Xiaoxian Lou shattered their own previous world best time of 4:01.81, set last year at the 2011 World Rowing Championships.
The U.S. will now need a top two finish in Saturday’s repechage in order to qualify for the final. France’s Stephane Tardieu and Perle Bouge advanced to the final from the first heat with a winning time of four minutes flat.
Jones and Masters say they are trying to keep focus and perspective, and treat the Paralympic Games like any other race.
“It wasn’t what we were hoping for, but to put a positive spin on it, we set a personal record (4:01.00) and beat the old world best time (4:01.81),” said Jones.
“The most challenging part about this whole (Paralympic) journey so far has been approaching every single row with the same intensity. Even six months out, seven months out, you have to realize that the training that you do back then is going to come full circle when you get to race day.
“Everybody on race day is going to have the will to win, but you actually have to have the will to win when it doesn’t really seem to matter. That’s the hardest part.”
Eight races went down the 1,000-meter course under sunny skies and brisk tailwind on Friday. In addition to the mixed double, two other U.S. crews – the men’s arms and shoulders single sculls and the legs, trunk and arms four with coxswain – finished fourth and second, respectively, and will have another chance to qualify for the final in Saturday’s repechages.
Kicking off racing for the U.S. was single sculler Ron Harvey (Downingtown, Pa.), a nine-time national team veteran and two-time Paralympian. Harvey lined up with Great Britain’s Beijing Paralympic champion Tom Aggar, who has been unbeaten since his 2007 world championship debut, and didn’t disappoint his roaring home crowd in the grandstands today.
Aggar won the heat with open water in a 4:56.65, with Korea’s Jun-Ha Park and Brazil’s Luciano Luna de Oliveira going two-three. Harvey finished fourth in a 5:05.45.
“I looked over at one point and saw (Aggar) had a pretty big lead on the field,” said Harvey. “I wanted to see how I could do against Korea and Brazil. I think I moved back on them for a little bit and then they had a hell of a move in the last 250 (meters). They’re going to be tough to beat in racing tomorrow.
“I didn’t get there (today), but it was good to get the first race out of the way. It would be incredible (to win a medal here). After many years of hard training, it would be nice be rewarded for that. I’m hoping for the best.”
China’s Cheng Huang advanced to the final from the second heat, setting a new world best time of 4:45.02.
In the four, coxswain Alexandra Stein (Stamford, Conn.), Eleni Englert (Oceanside, Calif.), Emma Preuschl (Indianapolis, Ind.), Dorian Weber (Brighton, Mass.) and Andrew Johnson (Greenwich, Conn.) finished second to Great Britain.
Preuschl, who won a silver medal in the event at the 2008 Paralympic Games, said she came to London expecting a faster field of competitors. And she was right.
Germany shattered the previous world best time (3:21.22) and Paralympic best time (3:33.13), winning the first heat in 3:15.91. Great Britain won its heat in 3:23.59 to the United States’ time of 3:28.36.
“We get another chance to come together – one mind, one team,” said Preuschl, 27. “Going through the repechage can only make us more prepared for the A final.”
“We’re feeling really excited right now,” said Stein, 27, who coxed last year’s crew to Paralympic qualification at the 2011 World Rowing Championships. “We went out there and this is the first real test of our speed against the international competition.
“Obviously, GB is a favorite, so to be able to stick with them and hold contact all the way through is really exciting, and seeing our speed relative to Canada and France, who were great competitors of ours last year (at the world championships), is nice.”
Stein says her crew’s focus going into the repechage will be on two things – togetherness and rhythm.
“We know that if we’re going to go down the line, we’ve got to do it together.”
Repechage racing tomorrow begins at 9:30 a.m. local time, with the top two crews in each race advancing to the final. Click here for a full start list.
For complete results of Friday’s races and Team USA news, features and a race photo gallery, visit the 2012 Paralympic Games coverage page at www.usrowing.org.