A number of monkeys will have to find new backs to live on after today, as Kat Grainger, a three-time Olympic silver medalist, finally won her gold medal, and on home waters to boot; Mahe Drysdale finally upgraded his multiple world champ status to Olympic champ; and Alan Campbell won a bronze to end a GB drought in the men's single dating back to 1928.
Thinking about Grainger's very public, heart-on-the-sleeve quest for gold, I have to apologize, but I do have some trouble with the idea of feeling sorry for a three-time Olympic silver medalist. Nonetheless I was extremely touched to witness Grainger finally win the gold medal that has eluded her, as she has served as a bit of a Redgrave for British women's rowing, serving as the personality who carried it along during some very lean years, and when the country had never won gold in rowing.
Perhaps it was her great luck to have to wait until an Olympics in her home country to get her gold; it certainly made a whole lot of people, arguably a whole nation, hold her close to their hearts. And a whole lot of them came out to see her today; even the volunteers seemed to have been relieved of their posts to come down and crowd the waterside to see it all happen.
Heaps of media came out to Dorney just to see her today: they were all just sitting on their hands and shouting at TVs until her race came down the course. It is just odd how the media chases certain things in certain Olympic sports, and then goes back to ignoring them almost pointedly--but it also highlights how a popular and at least moderately accessible athlete can drive things.
She did miss out on the honor of winning the first women's gold for her country--the new schedule gave that honor to the pair on Wednesday--but Grainger has some hand in that as well, as the new generation gets to win some stuff as well.
The other monkey sent packing today has haunted Mahe Drysdale's quest to augment his collection of world championship golds with an Olympic gold; he (Drysdale) earned it with a massive push in the third 500 that he said later was either going to win him the race, or cause him to lose it utterly.
If you recall, Drysdale took ill on the day of the Olympic final four years ago, and after the race today he admitted to feeling awful, and attributed it wholly to a case of nerves. He said he tried to walk around the compound almost faking confidence, but the clincher was when he walked past Ondrej Synek's room, and the door was open, and he saw Synek sitting staring at the floor, and realized that he wasn't the only one suffering from nerves.
Now with two silvers, Ondrej Synek is such a good and funny guy (he was a crackup in the press conference, who knew), that you hate to have the monkeys go roost on his shoulders, and to see him become yet another Czech sculler never to win the Olympics, following in the steps of Vaclav Chalupa. Synek laughed edgily when asked about this, but he did say in his serviceable English that, "at least I have a funny story for you. My friend said that I am lucky to have two silvers, because this way my children will not fight over which gets to wear a gold, and which a silver." Ha!(and an impressive bit of perspective)
The monkeys probably gave up on the Kiwi pair after they broke the world record by six seconds earlier this week, but they still had to go out and race to keep it that way. There's not much I can tell you about these guys given the fact that they have never lost a race since they got in the pair together, won the past three world championships, set a world record, and then ran the table with a big win today. I know a very small group of people who have had a perfect four years in college, but on the world stage? Unreal.
They are beloved figures and great guys all around--even the mayor of their town of Cambridge in NZ came to the races today. Just across the line, the Kiwis actually waved the GBR boat over and, with Murray catching the bowman's oar, the two pairs pulled together for a very sporting set of handshakes and back-slaps. Not the kind of thing you see everyday at a regatta--even on the men's side in college, the days of pulling them together to collect shirts from the loser has faded in favor of the get-your-boat-derigged-then-do-shirts-in-parking-lot method--and it was a neat reminder that many of these Olympic finals feature folks who have been at it, and at each other, for years, and that it there are a lot of familiar faces and foes in these finals for these Olympians.
The same was true, of course, in the men's singles: the big names in the field are intimately acquainted with each other--strengths, weaknesses, race plans, everything. On the medals dock, you could see the tremendous respect for each other that these Drysdale, Synek, and Campbell have for each other: just minutes after spending four years dreaming about and training for the chance to crush each other, they hugged and quite literally shared what amounts to a joint achievement. There is no champion without contenders, of course, and the better the contenders, the greater the victory. The tradition at international singles races of hoisting the winner is a nice tribute to that idea.
In US racing, Ken Jurkowski withdrew from his Final D for medical reasons; his rowing hasn't looked quite right since I first saw him here, and this makes a lot of sense.
The US women's double was in that final with Grainger and Watkins, and while the GB and Aussie crews really ran away from the rest of the field, their sixth place result was tighter to the medals that it sounds, and they were closed water off the bronze. They were out in Lane 1 to boot, which was not the best place to be if you were trying to claw your way up through the placings against the odds.
The USA men's pair gave it a good go in the B final, nipping the Greek crew at the line for eighth overall, but Stafford and Peszek were unable to reel in the Germans in the final 500. I have seen some good sprints from this crew, and from a bunch of crews with Tom Peszek in them, but the Germans had a decent wind as well, and gave no quarter. It would have been interesting to see the US crew in the A final; pretty much all observers agree that their semi draw was less than ideal.
As folks probably saw in the news links this morning, a guy from the Aussie men's eight got tossed in the klink for some drunken shenanigans gone too far; it was probably inevitable with the men's eight taking place on the first Wednesday of the Games. Hopefully the British method of dispensing justice will be upheld here; we see a lot of news links about people "rowing" – sounds like 'bowing' in this case – and see judgments like "for breaking a window at the pet store, you will pay for a new window, and clean the birdcages for one month."
For photographers, Finals Days remind me of my days doing a lot of winter surfing: during the winter months, there is a very small, very cooperative core of folks, and it is great; then comes the first swell on a really nice day in May, it is mayhem, and the guys who were out all winter are gobsmacked. After several days of heats and semis, the finals are a lot like this in the photographer scrum, but we hard-core, all-weekers got some good stuff anyway.
The announcer mentioned that people have asked him why the sculler from Monaco looks like he has no boat--on the overhead camera, his gray Hudson sometimes disappears into the light on the water, and it looks like he is sculling on top of the water like a water spider.
There's been a lot made about London 2012 being the "social olympics" due to the incessant twittering and facebook by athletes, pundits, and even the most casual of fans armed with a hashtag--and row2k is as hip-deep in that as we can be, of course. What was interesting today was to see how quickly the twitterverse picks up the usual sort of "rumours" that swirls around any big regatta on a windy day, like whispers of possible lane changes, or opining about which crews was unfairly advantages or disadvantaged, and then just how public all that stuff becomes. This morning, you could get tweet-casts on the wind from a guy at the starting line, from folks in the stands 1500 meters away, and even from the occasional athlete in the boating area, wondering what time his or her race might, in the end, finally take place.
When FISA did act today, their decision to shift the lanes, add a delay, and and re-draw the finals was--pardon the pun--in the wind via twitter well before the regatta or even media machinery had any updates on their websites, pretty much leaving the Twitter rumor-mill one's best source for knowing what might actually be happening. Folks even took to Twitter to ask for official word: actively tweeting to @WorldRowing rather than waiting passively to be watch it pop-up on the website or broadcast.
Lane shifting is never without controversy, on both sides, and the GB team has even taken to the media to complain about the lack of action on the lanes; as I understand it, the whole thing came down to footdragging caused by the desire to preserve appearances, and to make things easy for television, sponsors, etc. Ugh.
As it went today, almost immediately after the lane change was declared, a very localized rain storm came through, and the winds swung right around to a tailwind literally seconds before the men's quad started. The crosswind eventually came back, but there were a lot of upset people who thought this change should have happened a lot sooner.
One coach wrote me to ask how bad the lane issue is, and I would characterize it thusly: it wasn't making people win who had no business winning, but in close events, it was a factor. The British are upset in particular about the light men's four, which is always ridiculously close, and in which lane/wind issues can really decide the race. They feel a bit robbed by the lack of action yesterday, rightly or wrongly.
After leaving my camera rain cover at the hotel this morning, I learned today that the leg of a pair of rain pants almost perfectly fits a 500mm lens hood. Something tells me that will turn up in a future Rowing Hack column.
Despite some stiff competition--the dude in the GB flag skin suit is up there--the absolutely best parent outfit had to be the Kiwi dad with the army helmet with a Kiwi bird on top; this was were bettered only by his truly epic tattoos; check the Scene gallery for both.
Even as today's medalists were still doing victory laps, tomorrow's finalists hit the course for their last rows--including a lightweight double that was in full sweat gear, including wool hats, ouch.
Finally, on the way out of the venue today, long after all the audience was gone, I was stuck behind a staggering drunk preppy British guy on one of the footbridges. Hopefully he hasn't been hammered since Henley.
One more day--tremendous luck to all the crews tomorrow!