Michelle Sechser and Molly Reckford took their time trial by the biggest margin of the day
The first set of US Olympic Trials in Rowing got underway in Sarasota this morning, with time trials across the five events (Men's & Women's Singles, Men's Double, Men's & Women's Lightweight Doubles) determining those crews who would advance to tomorrow's heats. The fields in all events had a mix of seasoned veterans, strong newcomers, and just plain Olympic hopefuls, and, with one big exception in the Women's Lightweight Double, went mostly according to the informal pre-race handicapping.
Given the almost 12-month layoff from competitions, this week of practices and racing marks the first time since the beginning of the pandemic that most of these athletes will have seen buoys, whew.
The only two US Olympic medalists racing at these trials, Kara Kohler (Bronze, W4x, 2012) and Gevvie Stone (Silver, W1x, 2016) paced the field in this event, with Kohler finishing just under three seconds ahead of Stone in the time trial. With both women's deep experience in this event, it probably would take more than a hiccup to derail either of them, at least this early in the regatta.
Kara Kohler was at the front of the pack, three seconds ahead of...
Both Kohler and Stone seemed most concerned with getting the regatta underway cleanly. "It had a solid piece with room to improve," said Kohler.
"I'm here to see how fast I can go so I like to use the time trial to practice that," she said. "It's a great time to practice my visualization skills by putting myself through the emotions of a side by side race while actually being at race pace and feeling the physical side effects of that. I am looking forward to side by side racing tomorrow!"
2016 Olympic silver medalist Gevvie Stone
Stone, whose race-by-race approach to regattas, and her resulting success with that approach were a hallmark of her Olympic Silver medal campaign in 2016, had a similar view.
"It's always exciting to get a regatta started, and even more exciting this year after the COVID hiatus. The time trial is a good way to dust off the cobwebs-pre-race routines, and a bonus today was the clean conditions after a couple of rough water practice days."
Finishing behind Kohler and Stone were Kristina Wagner and Sophie Vitas, both of whom put in some meters in USA Women's Quads in 2019, Cicely Madden, who partnered Stone to a 5th place finish at the World Championships in 2019, and Jenifer Forbes.
Women's Lightweight Double
Perhaps the most head-turning result from this first day of trials was that of Michelle Sechser and Molly Reckford more or less running away with the time trial in their event; the field is relatively small, but Sechser & Reckford's 17-second margin ahead of second place Mary Nabel and Emily Schmieg sets a pretty good marker going into the business end of racing later this week.
"Being back out there on the start line was amazing, it felt like coming home," said Sechser after the race. "We have a long week of racing ahead, but it felt great to at least get our first trip down the course as a 2x combination. Molly and I each had individual goals we have been working on; but as a crew, our goal was to have a clean, strong run down the track."
Sechser has a history in this event dating back to 2013, and all three of the top finishers have good quality international experience in the lightweight double. Schmieg and Nabel, who finished 2nd behind Sechser and Reckford today, won a silver medal in this event at the 2018 World Championships, while Christine Cavallo, who along with Grace Joyce finished third in the time trial just a wink behind Schmieg and Nabel, was Sechser's partner when the duo finished 10th at the World Championships in 2019.
Regardless of who wins at these trials, the winners will still need to qualify for Tokyo at the Final Olympic Qualification Regatta in May.
With this much depth in the field, the racing through the finals here at trials is expected to be fierce. Or, as Sechser put it, "now for the real fun!"
(A few folks asked whether the time and margin were in fact accurate; a check with USRowing indicated that, yes, both time and margin in the time trial are legit).
In contrast to the Women's Single, the US men have had a tougher time of it in this event; the last US Men's Single sculler at the Olympics was Ken Jurkowski in 2012. Some athletes are embracing the wide-openness of the event nonetheless, probably none more so than today's time trial winner, John Graves. Graves is no slouch internationally, competing at the worlds most recently in the Men's Double in 2019, alongside Ben Davison. With Davison opting to focus on sweep selection for Tokyo, Graves has been solidly focused on the single for the last 18 months.
John Graves, M1x
Graves opened the trials regatta with a two-second win over Malta's Lenny Futterman and Penn AC's Thomas Phifer. "I had a solid piece today," said Graves after the racing. "My strategy for a regatta like this is to find my rhythm and set myself up well for the rest of the week. You can't win a regatta in the time trial, so my mindset is to advance and lay a foundation for the week."
Graves' first big test will be in tomorrow's heat, where he is presently drawn against Riverside's Kevin Meador, who represented the US at the 2019 World Championships in this event.
The Men's Single is another event that the US still needs to qualify at the FOQR; Graves is no stranger to racing at the FOQR, having fallen just short of qualifying there for Rio in the Men's Quad in 2016.
Men's Lightweight Double
Just seven crews contested the opening time trial of the Men's Lightweight Double, but winners Jasper Liu and Zachary Heese, representing Philadelphia's Vesper Boat Club, were not letting the field dictate their focus, and won handily, putting 7 seconds on their closest competitors (and Vesper club mates) James McCullough and Josh Remland.
Zach Heese and Jasper Liu race in the LM2x
Heese and Liu also claimed bragging rights for being the fastest boat on the water on the day, posting a quick 6:06.92 for the win.
"Our piece went well," said Liu after the racing. "It was a little windy and bumpy out there, but we were expecting that and prepared for it. We wanted to put down a fast time that guaranteed us a good seed moving forward through the regatta - while still being prepared to race again multiple times this week. And we're satisfied with the result."
The Green Racing Project combo of Jacob Plihal and Mark Couwenhoven beat Penn AC's Charles Anderson and Eliot Putnam in the day's tightest margin, just over half a second, to take the pole in the event.
"I was really excited to race, and it is one of my favorite things about the sport, so I wanted to channel that energy into solid focus for the race," said Couwenhoven.
"Our goal for today's race was to execute a race rehearsal at a competitive, and sub-maximal pace," added Plihal. "We had a decent trip down the course, but left a few things to be desired. We worked on sharpening up some technical shortcomings at practice this afternoon and will bring the changes to the race tomorrow. Since we are newer to the elite scene, it means that we have to be just that much more focused on how we carry ourselves in and out practice as well as on the racecourse so that we can take our best strokes here at the regatta."
All 10 crews racing in the event will move on to tomorrow's heats, so the time trial results are unlikely to represent all crew's true speeds.
GRP's Jacob Plihal and Mark Couwenhoven in the M2x