The 2015 Junior World Rowing Championships came to a close about 26 hours early today, and when it was over, a bunch of squads had put in all-time performances.
Having qualified for the A finals in all 13 boat classes, Germany won five gold medals, four silver, and two bronze for 11 medals overall, with no one else really even close. They did not win the last race of the day, the men's eight in which they placed third behind the Netherlands and the US, so their overall celebration was a bit muted, but the team has to be pretty pleased with all but dominating the event.
Going into the finals today, the US juniors had qualified for a best-ever seven A finals at a Junior World Championships, and by day's end they had won a best-ever five medals, highlighted by a gold in the junior women's four, a silver in the men's eight, and bronze in the women's eight, women's pair and women's quad.
The five medals matched Italy's five medals with a slightly better color tint of two gold, two silver, one bronze)' Great Britain and Romania followed with three each (both with one gold and two silver), then Greece (a silver and a bronze) and the Netherlands (two golds) two each, and eight more countries won one each.
Additionally, the Romanian men's four has now won their event three years in a row, a really hard thing to do with junior rowers given the turnover inherent in age-group rowing.
The first US medal of the day came from the women's pair of Ashlyn Dawson and Arianna Lee, who led the race for the first 500 meters or so before the Russian and Chinese pairs pushed into to the lead. Approaching the finish, Germany made a scary bid to take the bronze position, but the US crew responded impressively and nabbed the medal by 0.6 seconds.
The US women's pair felt like they only found their sea legs when they got to Rio after really only about five or six weeks in the boat together.
"When we were traveling, and we were training in Princeton, we were both thinking 'this is not good,'" Dawson said. "But honestly once we got here…"
Lee finished the thought. "The moment we put our boat in this water and just got down the course we were like okay, we’re ready for this, all that training got us ready."
In the final, the crew wanted to run with Russia, having seen them in the heats.
"After the heats we got a good understanding of what Russia is like," Dawson said. "We could tell they have a similar start sequence and middle as us, so we knew we had to hold onto them as long as we could."
During the middle of the course, the crew opted for a conservative approach.
"We dropped the rating it down a little bit during the middle because we knew the wakes were coming in, and we went for power instead of trying to pick up the rate," Lee said. "Coming into this last hundred, we saw Germany moving and we just went for it, we weren’t going to just hand it to them when we had been beating them the entire race."
With two returnees from last year's silver medalist crew, and the stroke of last year's eight in bow, hopes were high for the women's four. They had led their heat the whole way down the course until faltering in the last 500 to place second – which had also happened in the final last year. So when the crew led the race the whole way today, they had a lot of fans cheering them to try to give a little help in those final strokes.
But there were no signs of weakness coming to the line (though there was a long look for the finish line post with about five strokes to go), and the crew stayed of Germany by about a half length, with the rest of the field a huge patch of open water (over 11 seconds) behind.
After the heats, the crew of Kaitlyn Kynast, Dana Moffat, Marlee Blue, and Katy Gillinghamknew they had to stop talking about finishing well, and make it happen.
"Last year Dana and I we were so disappointed because we led the first 1400 meters, and China walked through us in the end, and we felt kind of hopeless, honestly, in the final last year," Blue said. "They just walked through, and we felt we couldn’t do anything to stop them. This year, we knew that above all, we could not let that happen again.
"This entire year at Princeton, every single time we were in the red buoys, that last 250, we made a call for it. Every single stroke, we thought we’re going to be this closing crew, like we are going to have closing speed, that’s the most important thing. In our heat it didn’t happen, we got walked away. We lost four seconds in our last 500 in our heat. I think that really told us you can’t talk about it.
You have to make it happen. So this year at 750 we made a call, and brought it in from 750 to go. That was the way we wanted to race our race this year, and we did it."
Junior Womens' Quad
The US quad of Emily Kallfelz, Elizabeth Sharis, Emily Delleman, and Meghan Gutknecht is an experienced crew – Kallfelz and Delleman were in last year's quad, Gutknecht almost made last year's team, and Sharis has now been on four junior teams going back to when she was 15 years old.
The crew had to lean on that experience when the stomach bug that hit a lot of teams at the championships threatened to topple their medal hopes. By finals time, they felt they were getting back on track.
"We have been improving every race," Sharis said. "We wanted to make sure that we do as planned, having a really tough week, just seeing what we can do."
They relied on that experience – nay, even that muscle memory – to get through.
"This medal means a lot," Delleman said. "Last year we were in the B-final, so it is a lot of progress. For me, it's my muscles saying to go into it the same way I did last year, but the difference this year is that we had a lot more race experience before coming here."
"Each year you may have to find a different challenge to overcome," Kallfelz said. "This time we were overcoming illness a little bit. Last year, we had a mentally difficult race for sure, and we learned from that."
I asked how different it was to have a few championships behind them.
"I agree there’s a big difference for me," Sharis said. "I was 15 the first time I was here. I think every time I draw on that experience; this is my fourth year, and my final year."
The crew came to Rio with some confidence after their yearly scrimmage with the US junior sweep team in the final days before heading to Rio.
"It was recently in Princeton racing against the sweep team, that was a race where we thought , wow that felt pretty solid!" Kallfelz said "We had things to work on, but it was fast and we felt good about it. That to me was like a okay, here go, this is going to be fun. Worlds is going to be interesting."
For the newcomer among the returnees in the ranks, the summer was challenging and fortifying alike.
"It was a little hard at times, but all the girls were really nice," Gutknecht said. "I just had to stay really focused, and really hard on myself to make sure I was making all the changes I needed to."
After not making the team last year, and winning a medal this year, I asked Gutknecht if she would offer advice to next year's potential rookies. "Definitely don’t get yourself down," she said. "I went to camp last year and I didn’t make the team. But I trained really hard the rest of the whole next year and I came back really determined to make it. Never get yourself down."
Back in Princeton, the US women's eight of Hannah Malzahn, Shayla Lamb, Lindsay Noah, Julia Cornacchia, India Robinson, Kailani Marchak, Abigail Tarquinio, Mariko Kelly, and Sarah Ondak came together only after all the other US boats were selected, so it has been a bit of a project for everyone involved, and one that really came together here in Rio. The crew provided an early highlight of the week by winning their heat, and then today rowed from fourth up into the medals to put a point on the year.
After placing sixth last year, US stroke Shayla Lamb looked back over the summer on her way up to the podium.
"When we were practicing in Princeton, and again as soon as we got here, we broke down each part of the stroke to get it together, because initially we all rowed very differently," she said. "And as we did that, I think we definitely started to build a really great trust in each other. It was just a really great dynamic with all of the girls. There is no one else I would have rather raced with.
"Between the dynamic of the girls in the boat and the way Susan (coach Francia) really brought us together, it was really amazing for us. I am just really excited to be part of this."
On what being coached by a double Olympic gold medalist was for junior rowers, Lamb said that an important factor was feeling like being part of something bigger than just their boat or junior team.
"A big difference for me was learning how important it is for her, being on the senior team and the Olympic team, how important it is to those women what we are doing at this level," Lamb said. "The talk she gave us before we went out, it just really showed us that she really cared."
The crew came through from fourth to take the third position only in the final strokes of the race.
"It was a real fight," five-seat India Robinson said. "Right off the start, we were a little bit down, but we were in the pack. Every single stroke, we were walking and trying to push ourselves into a medal position. It was the hardest race of my life, just because everyone is so good and it’s such a high standard. It was amazing to medal, especially after last year. I can’t even explain how much better it feels. Our goal was to medal, and even though we would have liked to get first or second, I can’t even comprehend that we got bronze. Through the middle of the race, I had no idea where we were, so to cross and to have Hannah say that we got a medal – it was just the most incredible feeling."
The US men's eight of Ethan Ruiz, Mark Levinson, Hunter Johnson, Cameron Chater, Ethan Seder, Charles Watt, Andrew Gaard, Justin Best, and James Palmer had to take a trip through the reps to get to the final, but nonetheless set sights on the medals, with a wary eye on the favorite, Germany.
It turned out they could see Germany the whole way down the course (it is worth noting that Germany had a sub in the crew for the final), as the US crew led to the 1500, ahead of Germany and Great Britain. But it was the Netherlands, who were lurking in sixth at 500 gone and fourth crossing the 1000, who gunned all the way up through the field to win the gold by several seats. Germany, GB, and Italy threw everything they had at the US crew, and it was a blur of bodies crossing the line, but the US held on for silver, with Germany 0.4 behind for bronze, Italy 0.4 behind them for fourth, and the GB another second off Italy.
"We thought that second was a place that we could attain, so we went out with that plan," coach Casey Galvanek said. "We thought it would be against Germany, which was not the case. The Netherlands had a very well executed race. They are an exceptional crew, and it’s nice to be able to compete with them. We went out and executed the start. We’d been working on those because when we first got together, they were terrible. It’s been putting them out in the lead all week, which has been spectacular and given them a little bit of an edge. Today, we were hoping to hold back a little bit, but that clearly wasn’t the case. We led to the 1,500-meter mark, which was a little bit unexpected. I couldn’t be prouder. It’s exciting to see kids race as maturely as they did.”
More Racing and Notes
For the US, Andrew Morley started off the day with a win in the B final in which he led almost the whole way, fell behind with 500 to go, then came back again for the win.
The US JW2x won their B final by a huge margin that made it hard not to wonder what they might have done in an A final; if they went out to race feeling like they had something to prove in the B final, they were successful.
The Dutch women's sculler Marieke Keijser, who races lightweight the rest of the year, won her race by nine seconds over Sofia Asoumanaki of Greece (who is also the WR holder on the erg), and had this to say about racing much taller heavyweights: "It was a bit strange to compete against tall girls."
Asoumanaki was content with her race overall: "Of course I would have like to get the gold medal, but I am quite happy with the silver. The level was really hight. I would like to dedicate this to the people off Greece, who are facing a rough time."
After flipping the day before, US single sculler came back to place a fairly close 10th overall in the B final, having been allowed to race thanks to a successful petition yesterday.
Giving a go by posting the fastest third 500 in the field, the junior men's pair also finished 10th in a pretty tight race with France, GB, Chile, Italy and China.
The US men's coxed four finished just out of the medals in fourth, the toughest placement possible; the straight four placed fifth
One more quick note: kudos to the GB men's four who, after winning the two-boat B final against the Ukraine, gave the Ukrainians a full "three cheers" cheer. Seemed like a good time to stand on tradition.
Lagoa de Rodrigo de Freitas as an Olympic Racecourse
I have already reported a fair amount on the issue of most concern, the water quality; most of the reported illnesses were short-term and early in the trips, so most athletes and teams adjusted successfully. A number of theories on the cause of the illnesses are rattling around, including the problem coming from water bottles sitting in the bottom of hulls during practice on rougher days, but I don't think a definitive answer has emerged. Folks who travel a lot in central and South America seem to think it is somewhat routine – but they're also not out on a suspect lake. Athletes in 2016 will need to be very careful, and as before, hopefully the Rio2016 folks can make good on promises to clean up the lake, even if it is on a short-term basis if it has to come to that.
In the afternoon after the close of racing, the predicted winds did arrive, and there was whitecapping on the lake for sure; it wasn't unrowable by any means, but I thought it was rough enough to present the potential of affecting race outcomes, perhaps especially in smaller boats where "good at rowing in rough water" doesn't always equate to true speed. But we have all seen worse for trials, and Worlds, and the Olympics, so it wasn't off the charts by any means. Mostly your typical "it's an outdoor water sport" stuff.
Speaking to rowing folks who were out on the water doing various jobs, most felt that the overall venue held up really well for a junior world championships – conditions happily seem always fair even when things got bumpy (several athletes mentioned this even while fretting about the crosswind); the on-water infrastructure such as launch rotations and the like was good (even without the starting boots, which one official actually said he prefers not to have, as they often introduce their own problems); in general their work was very doable. As one on-water person said, "for an event like the junior Worlds, I think it went really well." This was without TV camera boats, it is worth noting, so that would need to be added to the overall mix.
On land, space is at short shrift, so a big senior Worlds with the full Olympic and non-Olympic events might have been too tight – but the same person noted that the overall boat and athlete count here (13 boat classes) is not that different from the Olympics (14 boat classes, with limited entries in each), so minus the Olympic trappings, it would be very easy to do a good regatta here. It will be all the trappings of an Olympic event, particularly security and the massive media presence – that will stress the overall venue and need a lot of work.
The issues with the starting line being too shallow to accommodate a start line system, and the image of a single, small dredging boat with a handful or so of divers trying to make it happen on the first morning of racing is a microcosm of the larger fact that Rio is behind on most of the infrastructure that will be needed at this time next year.
I spoke to a person who was one of the top media dogs in London for 2012, and who is now consulting for Rio2016, and his assessment of the situation was straightforward: "They're doing a good job, but they're late." As we discussed it more, his best guess was that the Rio Olympics will be a bit like the Athens Olympics; everything will be "done," but a bunch of stuff will be fudged somewhat and everyone will have to deal with it.
It won't help that the country is hitting a pretty serious economic bad patch, that there is a corruption scandal that has put five of Brazil's biggest construction bosses in jail, and that the president is so unpopular that there are discussions of impeachment (but where isn't that the case, ha).
For rowers, there are some things that they will miss from not having bespoke Olympic course – for example, the C-shaped lake has no way to follow the race on a bike or in a truck, so coaches aren't able to follow practices and races or see anything up very close other than at the start and finish. Given the fact that the Olympic bidding process is leaning toward using existing structures and resources instead of building them with the risk of creating white elephants, this may simply be a harbinger of the future for rowing, which as Matt Smith of FISA notes presents "one of the most complicated venues for organizers." That doesn't mean it won't be challenging, but some of these issues may be the "new normal" going forward.
All of that said, if as we noted in our preview rowing ends up being the face of the Games for that first week next August, with aerial shots of rowing boats racing below Corcovado and Cristo Redentor, it would give Olympic rowing a profile it has not enjoyed in a long, long time. Is it worth the trade-offs?
As women's single bronze medalist Desislava Georgieva of Bulgaria said when asked if she thought she could win a medal here: "The first 1000 meters I started slowly, the I started catching up. There is always hope. When you start, you always hope to be a winner." Hopefully Rio2016 has Georgieva's spirit.
We're going to find out, one year from now.