As rowing emerges from the "lost" year of 2020 in fits and starts, it's oddly appropriate that the first big US regatta is the first Olympics trials, in Sarasota, FL from February 22-25. The trials -- deciding the berths in the men's and women's singles, men's and women's lightweight doubles, and men's double -- are the first opportunity for US's best rowers to take their first steps towards competing at the Olympics in Tokyo later this summer, with the Games still on track to happen, albeit nervously so.
The trials are a complicated regatta in an already complicated year. Due to the performance of US crews at the 2019 World Championships, only one of the five events being contested this week (the women's single) will see the trials winner claim a bonafide berth on the US Olympic team. The other four events will be required to finish in the top two places at the Final Olympic Qualification Regatta (affectionately (or not) known as the FOQR) in Lucerne in May, a tall order in any year. Additionally adding pressure for the non-qualified boats is the prospect that FISA might need to postpone, or even cancel, the FOQR due to ongoing COVID-19 concerns in Europe.
For the US crews that still need to qualify, possible scenarios range from a rescheduled FOQR, to FISA using the final finishing order from the 2019 World Championships as the end-all Olympic qualification standards, which would likely leave a few US crews out of the Games without a chance to qualify. USRowing has plans in place for each scenario, according to USRowing Chief High Performance Officer. Matt Imes.
The challenges of running a fair Olympic trials under COVID conditions are enormous.
"It's hard. It's really hard," Imes said on Friday afternoon. "There are things that people have to just go with. Our easiest part of trials is being on the water. It's a great outdoor sport because it's socially distant. The hard part is that you could be contact-traced because the person you're riding to and from the course with, that's 15 minutes in close contact. You could be contact-traced because you're in an Airbnb with four other people.
122 athletes are scheduled to race at the trials
"From a logistical standpoint, we just can't do things that we've been used to doing. We can't put referees two to a hotel room, things like that. At the end of the day, the racing should look the same, even though nothing was the same in putting the event together as anything we've done before."
Even with all the advance preparation, the best-laid plans are subject to the usual regatta hazards. The week leading up to the trials saw practice cancelled due to high winds, and then, as winter weather ravaged the southern US, athletes were again prevented from practicing when USRowing determined that, with some athletes still waiting on the results of their required COVID test results, with results delayed due to mail slowdowns and other weather-related factors, it would not be fair for some athletes to practice while others could not, so practice was briefly cancelled for all rowers at the trials. USRowing communicated this to the athletes on Friday.
(Then on Sunday morning, two non-athletes in the on-site testing protocol tested positive. USRowing issued the following statement today:
"As part of the pre-competition COVID-19 testing at the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team Trials 1 Rowing, two individuals have tested positive for the COVID-19 infection. USRowing is following our COVID-19 Risk Mitigation Plan and our COVID-19 Response & Review Process, which is intended to protect the health and safety of all participants. USRowing will continue to monitor and test as protocols dictate in an effort to provide a safe environment for all those involved with the Trials. USRowing is committed to offering resources and support to help individuals affected through this process.")
"I give a ton of credit to the athletes for being resilient," said Imes. "Things continually change, our medical committee has put in a massive amount of time and effort into it and looking at policy in the best way of doing it. We've tried to give out as much information as we could as early as we could so that athletes could prepare and know what to expect. My staff has been obsessed with this for eight weeks, trying to stay on top of it. And there's a lot of compliance, a lot of things to collect, a lot of things to stay on top of, a lot of questions to answer. As everybody knows, what was considered a best practice eight weeks ago can change two weeks later."
"Having to have those conversations with the athlete pool and needing to change things can be incredibly frustrating for the athletes. And we totally understand that. They've been, again, just amazing in their ability to roll with it. We understand that everybody is trying to do the right thing. USRowing is trying to do the right thing, we're all trying to get there safe and not put anybody at risk in doing it, and yet give a proper opportunity for the fastest people to have a fair opportunity to advance."
From 2020 to 2021
For the US elite rowing community, these trials have been a long time coming, and the past 12 months have been an exercise in patience.
"If you were to go back almost a year ago, to March 2020, when things really started to kick off with COVID and the cancellations and everything, we went from trying to race to managing a really tense time for the athletes," said Imes. "Every day you're hearing something new and different. And the Games were still on the table. The question at the time was, 'How do we try to manage and prepare for this?' So when the Games all of a sudden got postponed, we just wanted to be safe and to just give everybody a mental break.
"So first and foremost with these athletes, we said 'let's take the time that people need to be healthy and to figure out and process what's happening.' I don't think an athlete could have told themselves right off the bat, whether you've been there for eight or nine or ten years, or if this is your first go at it, 'I'm prepared to go through this for another year.'
"It's just a lot to try to comprehend. We wanted to give the athletes the time in a non-pressured area to figure those things out. And that meant for some people training in the training center location was the best fit for them. Not a 'training 10 to 14 times a week' kind of thing, it was more 'we'll give you the space, we'll provide the opportunity, we'll provide the workout plans, but we just want people to stay in touch with the work.' And if people were sick, or people needed to go someplace, or if people need to train in a different location where they felt more comfortable, or if they want to quarantine in terms of locking down with their family or something, that's absolutely fine. We let people do that.
"We really went, in April, May, June, July, in that mode on both the men's and women's teams in the training center. For a lot of athletes training outside the training center, and on the sculling side or the lightweight side, wherever the location was where those people could stay safe in a healthy way and continue, we supported it."
Nathan Benderson Park, in Sarasota
"We didn't ask people really until August or September to start to take the intensity up. Then we really looked at September, October, November, to start bringing the groups back together.
"We have to follow state and local guidelines. We were not rowing eights, but still rowing in small pods. Depending on what's available, sometimes in household training groups, or singles, pairs, doubles. We looked at hitting what we could control, which was fitness and starting to ramp that up."
Still, from Imes' perspective, it hasn't been all negative. "I think the one thing that we saw, in November and December, was the athletes are getting really fit, which is a credit to them and a credit to the coaches. Through the whole period from March until now, our athletes have been phenomenal in their ability to adapt and roll with things in just ways that we couldn't imagine. Because things literally changed all the time.
"The coaching staff has been really good at being able to adjust and keep the bigger picture in focus. This process is now to the point to where the athletes are really starting to run downhill towards the Games, knowing that the selection process is beginning now, we're starting to train in bigger boats and getting to this point to where it's starting to feel somewhat normal.
"We're no different than any other sport in the world or in America. We've had multiple athletes be quarantined, we've had multiple athletes contract the COVID virus, and it's really disruptive, right? Whether it's from something outside of the training center or from somebody inside the training center, we've got to pause, not to do anything for the next 48 hours. People have to go get tested. These people have to separate and can't come out. And we've had that happen two, three, or four times over the last nine months. Again, the athletes have been phenomenal in following the advice and doing the proper things. And we've been lucky that everybody has recovered.
"All that said, we're super pleased with what they've been able to produce on the ergs and the times on the water. In a normal year, we'd say, 'we're doing really well.' And to be able to do that and look at what we've gone through to get there, that's like real grit.
"Everybody knows the Olympics are likely to be different, but everybody involved is committed to make this happen as long as it can happen. Because of that we've got to be completely prepared for it and we're getting close to it. With the trials starting this week, everybody knows the ball's rolling now. Selection camps are going to start shortly, automatic invites are going out, the timeline is really being condensed. Athletes starting to really feel like that their performances are going to start to matter on a daily basis."
Looking for the Best Possible Outcome
For Imes and the USRowing coaches, the primary focus next week and in the coming months is to maximize the possibilities for as many athletes as possible. "We had 122 people sign up for these five events. We also have twenty men in Chula Vista right now. And there are probably another four to eight athletes outside of Chula Vista that are training. There are 26 women in Chula Vista, and a few scullers. Outside of that I'd say there's another group of 8 to 12 competent female scullers in different locations like Boston, in DC, down in the Bay Area, that are all serious contenders for spots on the team in the single, double, quad.
"All told, there are probably 50 to 60 athletes overall that are going to have some realistic look at going to the Games. I'd say depth-wise we're in good shape, it's no different than any other year in that."
Given the mountainous tasks ahead, for both the athletes and staff, Imes was eager to keep the outlook for trials as straightforward as possible.
"Our goal is to give the opportunity for the athletes to have their best opportunity for their fastest performance. We'll call it a success if the athletes can walk off at the end and say, 'I had a fair chance at this. My speed determined where I finished, and nothing else. Not the COVID mitigations, not the weather, not any of that. What this result came down to is how fast I was and how prepared I was.' And that would be a successful trials."