If you are a rowing person who has not used "capsizes" and "fun" in the same sentence, you probably haven't made it to your first coastal rowing event.
The final day of the 2022 Beach Sprints had plenty of both--along with a few jumped slides, buoy entanglements, shells spun sideways in wave troughs, plus athletes who made it through on grit, determination, and more than a bit of knowing how to row in the waves.
Christopher Bak used all three to claim the USA's first Beach Sprints gold in the last final to be contested before the wind and chop at the bottom of the ebb tide cancelled racing.
You read that right: sometimes even Coastal gets a little too wild to be safely fun, and today, with the wind blowing near 30 knots and more south than the expected 'sou'east,' World Rowing officials decided that the surf, with the number of capsizings and crews that could not race all the way into the beach, was indeed a bit much.
They pulled the plug after running just the first of Women's Quarterfinals. Those medals were awarded based on the fastest times from the last completed round, the morning's elimination races. That gave New Zealand's Emma Twigg the gold, GB's Helen Glover--the time trial winner on Day 1--the silver, and the Czech Republic's Michala Popisilova the bronze. The Czech sculler was thrilled to share the podium with the two flat water Olympic champions, and asked for a selfie with them at the end of the official ceremony.
The other US crew racing in that same afternoon session where the low tide and high wind met was the Junior Mixed Double: Britt Wotokovich and Brian O'Leary, the defending silver medalists from a year ago. They showed plenty of grit, too, toughing out both the waves and their draw to make the semis, but lost out to eventual champ Italy when an errant stroke twisted the boat and an oarhandle knocked the wind out of bow man O'Leary. Not sure he could run the finish sprint, Wotokovich jumped out instead, but the Italians were already up the beach and into the A Final.
Their subsequent race for the bronze in the B Final was cleaner on the bladework, but the boat still got swept sideways in the building waves as they closed on the beach, prompting O'Leary to dive out of the boat to try and swim to where he could start a sprint. The valiant effort did not work--and may not be strictly legal--but it was an impressive commitment to finish when he and Wotokovich started...and, according to one coach, the pair said the racing was wild and fun all the same, and they escaped the fate of the Swedish duo, who were the first boat to capsize mid-race on the day--though not the last.
US junior doubles
The US junior crews in the morning fared better: both also made the semis but came away with hardware. The Junior Men--Malachi Anderson and Gary Rought--made the A Final and won silver behind Spain and the Junior Women--Annalie Duncomb and Annalise Hahl--came through in the B Final to win bronze over Great Britain. Both sets of finals saw crews surging ahead, only to have a seat--or buoy or wave--mishap, allowing the trailing crew to make it a race, ands even to win in a few cases.
One of the crews on the wrong side of that coin was Canada--and the bow seat, Alexandra Duggan, tossed her seat away when she jumped out for a sprint that was not going to catch. That same crew had nearly capsized coming off the beach, then rowed back into contention before the seat finally became a final hurdle they could not overcome.
USA's Cassidy Norton also went out in that morning session, finishing second to Spain's Teresa Diaz Moreno in the round of 16, and missing out on reaching the quarterfinals for a second year in a row.
CM1x: Gold for Bak and USA
Across nine events, only two golds went to folks who were from someplace other than Spain--which topped the medal table--and Tunisia, and one of them was Christopher Bak's in the single.
Bak, one of the elder statesmen of the USA's Beach Sprints team after making the inaugural team in 2021 and then winning gold, silver, and bronze at the 2022 COPA America Coastal Championships earlier this year, proved today that having skills is as crucial as having speed and power. In conditions that saw the singles vanishing from view in the troughs of the waves, Bak kept things simple and relaxed in his boat, rowing short strokes when the water called for it and even pulling with one arm at a time to keep himself straight and beach-bound.
Bak, surfing in
The wild nature of the waves and the racing in Bak's event, the CM1x, made his march to the final even more impressive. The CM1x finals saw one athlete capsize entirely and try to swim to the beach to complete the race--Ben Mason of New Zealand--and another get spun 180 degrees by the waves--Gregor Hall of Great Britain--who opted to back a few strokes before exiting his boat via the stern for his run.
The Czech sculler Ales Susky, had an oarlock open on the first stroke, but deftly balanced himself atop the swells as he got it back in (see that sequence, starting here), though he could not get back into the race and the win in the pairing went to Hall, the British sculler.
Interview with Christopher Bak on Gold Medal
Congratulations; this is the first gold medal for the US in World Beach Sprints, and you got to be the guy who won it. How does that feel?
Honestly, it wasn't me that won it. It was a whole team. There's so many people that were involved: my coach, my teammates, my family. Without them, it would have been impossible. It was amazing being the one to bring it in, but without them it would have been nothing.
Seemed like today really came down to a test of coastal skills. We watched you sculling with one arm and then the other--how did those skills play into being able to win today, or even to be able to come through all three rounds of the Finals?
It was it was a matter of skill, not power, today, which is really interesting, right? It puts everybody on a level playing field to see where are you where you're at in the coastal rowing realm.
I go back to a quote that Kayla French texted me one night before trials this year: 'Don't let your mind get in the way--let your body do the work.'
Before every race, I just thought, 'Let the body do the work. Don't get confused. Just touch the oars as you need to.'
So that was your mindset out there, in the surf to row skillfully rather than to redline it at a key moment to win the round??
I don't know if there was really any key moment because every stroke I took I thought, don't turn the boat, don't turn the boat.
Before every race, as I was getting into the boat, my coach Marc [Oria] just told me 'Stay relaxed, stay relaxed.' I think that was really what it was.
As far as red lining, I don't think we really redline: it is more just let the wave take you and stay straight.
You mentioned the team you have behind you, Coach Marc, the other athletes, your family?
Yes. I want to give a huge shout out to Ben Booth, as well, for the tips and pointers that he's given over over the past two years--especially this year with the work we did in Ireland this year. He's been awesome.
As a goal you have had for yourself, did you feel okay, now I can do this, I can win, if it's my day?
With the conditions, I think it was anybody's day, but given last year [when Bak went out early], I tried to focus just race by race.
I think a lot of times people talk about being in the zone, and I don't think I really knew what that was until today. It was just this interesting feeling that when you get out there, you are so focused on the task at hand that you don't think about anything else.
And having to rest, to go out there--in those conditions--over and over again?
I come from a tennis background; I played tennis my whole life and it was always one more match, one more match. For some reason I made the relation of that to today: it's just one more row, one more row. And again, my coach, Mark, just prepared me so much for it--big, big props to him.
CJM2x: Silver for Anderson and Rought in Beach Debut
Malachi Anderson and Gary Rought may be new to Coastal, but they put the work in this year, joining the senior team members on the prolonged training trip to coach Marc Oria's hometown of Barcelona--with a week in Ireland at the end for some cold wave practice--to focus on rowing in coastal conditions.
Anderson and Rought
It paid off handsomely today: apart from Bak, Anderson and Rought were the only Americans to make an A Final. They got there by taking advantage after of some trouble the Brits ran into with a buoy, in the semi, after having some seat issues of their own--it is pretty easy to come off your seat when crashing down on the backside of a breaking swell.
In their final, the Spanish had a cleaner run--part of that Mediterranean wave that won 7 of 9 golds this weekend, four by Spain alone--while the Americans got turned sideways just before the beach.
Interview with Anderson and Rought, Silver Medallists
Great effort from you guys: talk us through the Final. What was it like?
[laughs] Waves constantly knocking me off my seat. It's just hectic out there. The wind felt like it picked up a little bit out there, so you just have to stay on your toes. The water got the best of us in the final race.
In that earlier round, against the Brits, you guys profited a bit from the water and conditions. Is it a bit of give and take out there?
The ocean is against you, and that race just proved that. You can only go so long before you're sideways. It's just part of the sport.
How did you guys approach this Finals round, the three races right in a row? It's a lot.
We just went out there. We did what we could do, and then the immediate thought when you get back in is, 'Recover, Recover, Recover--and get warm, stay warm.'
Did you have a moment out there in the semi, once the Brits were behind you, where you thought, okay, we can keep some powder dry here?
Yep; I told Malachi, let's bring it down, you know, save it for the next race, and we cruised on in. Keep it fresh.
What was the biggest thing you guys have learned so far about coastal racing?
We're both from Ohio, where you don't really get to practice in conditions like this. For the past month, we've been in Spain and Ireland, and it helped prepare us for the conditions. When we're going against waves like this, you have to remember your fundamentals.
What was the best part about that training camp? How did prepare you to win a medal here today?
Learning to deal with the choppiness of the water in Barcelona. There was a large wall we would row next to, so the reverb from the swell would chop the whole ocean up for us. So we learned we could train through that. That training trip was key for us.
CJW2x: Duncomb and Hahl Best Home Squad for Bronze
Annalie Duncomb and Annalise Hahl saw off Japan in their Quarterfinal, and faced the German's who would go on to the silver medal in the next round.
That semi included this deft catch (of a loose starboard handle) by Duncomb, but the Germans proved tougher to grab. The American duo returned undaunted just minutes after that race--with a quick World Rowing media interview for Duncomb squeezed in for good measure--and were overjoyed to get the better of both Great Britain and the waves down the return stretch to win their bronze--the first international medal for them both.
Duncomb and Hahl
Interview with Duncomb and Hahl, Bronze Medallists
Tell us what it was like out there:
So stressful! I was very panicked on the first one because we were just being rushed to the start. I was not prepared for the waves and the conditions today but it was really good race.
We had fun, but very, very hectic and stressful.
It's very overwhelming to say the least. You're out there, and the waves just surround you. It's crazy.
Tell me a little about that final: you were really stuck in a trough there for almost a whole run in, but did you feel like you had control, at least of over the British?
In that very last race, I felt like we just kept catching wave after wave. Our bow would go under, but I still felt like we were catching the wave.
It was really nice because it just gave us that extra boost, and I could see us just gaining.
When we came around that spin, we were kind of neck and neck and we just caught this awesome wave and that really got us out ahead.
The Flat Water-to-Coastal Learning Curve
One story of the Beach Sprints in these first two years has been the elite flat water folks "giving it a go." Last year, Norway's Olympian Kjetil Borch jumped in, and this year both the British and New Zealand squads were chockablock with Olympians and World Medalists.
It is likely to be a trend as Beach Sprints moves closer to possibly being an Olympic reality for LA2028--and in fact, there were quite a few IOC members and staffers on hand in Saundersfoot to get an up close look at the sport.
Interview with Jackie Kiddle and Ben Mason, NZL
We caught up with Jackie Kiddle and Ben Mason from the Kiwi squad, just two weeks after we saw them racing in Racice to ask about the learning curve and what they've figured out, starting with asking Kiddle to compare it to her recent doubling up at Worlds.
It's very, very different [laughing]. For me, it's obviously a much shorter race, so learning what that feels like; then adding in the strategies of how to go around the buoys, and the timing of how to go around the buoys, which I sort of stuffed up on the first day and had to learn pretty quickly. Even just how fast the races are, almost continuous [in the Finals].
You do one race and normally you would go away and do your recovery, but for this you have to turn around the race again. There's even the swapping boats, and you have to move your feet and have all your setup done. So yeah, it's been a very steep learning curve.
It's exciting doing something new and, for us [in the Quad], from our first race to our last race we were changing our tactics and everything. Each race we learned so much on how we want to attack the start and the turns.
Here, all the other crews are giving each other tips and it's really cool. It's a really friendly community and I'm excited to see how it's going to grow.
NZ Mixed Quad: Kiddle in 3, Mason in bow
The changes between our semi final and our final were just these little things you pick up and adjust, especially when the conditions change. You plan for everything and obviously sometimes you can't get it all right, and things are going to go wrong which keeps it exciting. Sometimes you just have to accept that: it's Coastal Rowing, right?
Once you're on the start line, either boat can win, no matter what athlete it is. It's cool and that's really exciting.
A lot more can go wrong; it's such a shorter race that it can really affect your result quite quickly. For us, it's really exciting to go back and really think about where we can improve to minimize the errors as well. I think that's really going to be where the sport starts to head in the next few years: who can minimize the errors the most? It's almost more about that skill rather than actually just being the biggest and strongest, right?
Our cox in the quad, Matt Dunham, whose also my partner in the double, was saying: 'This feels a bit more like a street fight.' It's a bit more rough and ready. And you just have to be ready for anything and then just fire straight back. I think that that element has brought quite a cool intensity to it.
Notes From The Beach
Takes a Village - And not just to host an event like this, smack in the heart of town as we noted yesterday--the entire sport runs on community amongst teams, coaches, and nations in a way that is not seen in the more established arms of the sport. Case in point: the Swiss sculler was here on his own, so some members of a local Welsh Coastal Club--Fishguard & Goodwick Jemima Rowing Club--pitched in to be his boat handlers all weekend.
Boots on the Beach - May have noticed that some of the boat handlers in the scene galleries were all camo'ed up: just some cadets from the UK's Army Cadet Force being of service.
That Mediterranean Advantage - We noted the prowess of the countries from the 'Med' here at the Beach Sprints, and according to US coach Mark Oria, a lot of that is down to the inclusion of these events at the Mediterranean Games, dating back to 2015--meaning that the dominance of Spain, Tunisia, and Italy on the podium is as much the result of having been in the game just that crucial bit longer. Interestingly, with four medals and five 'Final Four' crews, the USA is far closer to those nations than most--and, unlike NZL and GBR, did it here with zero flat water Senior teamers or Olympians.
Lifeguards, For the Win - The two professional surf instructors who served all weekend as the lifeguards here in the British off-season were a key cog in the event, especially as things got spicy, surf-wise Sunday afternoon. From sharing their insights with the IOC folks on site to casting a sharp eye when Brian O'Leary dove head first into the shallow water, they were a very photogenic center of the action. They even got tasked, once the capsizings began, with seat recovery duty--when one FISA official bade them to be on the look out for any seats washing up on shore.
The Snowboarding or the NASCAR of Rowing? - Take your pick, we heard both comparisons: that Beach Sprints is to flat water racing what snowboarding was to downhill skiing, and then to the Olympics...but we might go with NASCAR after watching the Filippi techs working pit crew duty like mad all weekend long on the boats as they came in and went out over and over.
Need your Cute Dog Fix? If (somehow) the row2k Scene galleries don't sate any need you might have for dog pics, check out Jackie Kiddle's Instagram--her hobby, between rowing multiple events at Worlds and playing in the surf with the Coastal team: dogs, lots of dogs!
Finland's Joel Naukkarinen with his bronze, and and an oar