Nearly all of the events in this first 202One trials have a small batch of contenders if certainly not clear favorites, which led today to pretty dominant performances in most of the semis today. The week's progression also resulted in pretty balanced semis, always a good thing.
We spoke to several participants about finally getting to finals day, how they approach a semi that doesn't demand a full pull but perhaps in which the only thing you can do is make a mistake, and more.
Women's Single - A Classic 1x Rivalry
Rio silver medalist Gevvie Stone and London 4x bronze medalist and 2019 Worlds 1x bronze medalist Kohler are arguably part of a classic rowing single sculler rivalry, a phenomenon that has certainly been a compelling part of rowing history, but that we haven't seen in the US for a little while. While Stone and Kohler shared their thoughts on the event after the semis today.
"Kara sets the bar high; she won a bronze medal in 2019, and it's always good to have someone fast to compete against, because it forces me to raise my own standard," Stone said. "But remember she won by a very secure margin in 2019, so it wasn't much of a rivalry. We've been training two years since then - didn't expect it to be two years! (laughs) - and I know I am faster than in 2019, but my goal is just to go out and have my best race tomorrow. Whether I win or lose I want to be able to walk away knowing that I had a great race and left it on the course."
"It is a pretty special thing to be a part of, to have a level of competition where there are two, three, four boats that are very competitive, and I am aware that I am a part of that," Kohler said.
"I like to think that it is only going to prepare me better in the case that I make the Olympic team. This type of racing is sure to be found at the Olympics, so if I can handle this kind of pressure - being pushed by someone who is so experienced like Gevvie, who has an Olympic medal and knows the ins and outs of racing and has all the accolades in the single - if I can handle that kind of pressure, then I am meant to race the boat at the Olympics."
Both reflected on the long road to tomorrow's final.
"There was definitely a sense of relief when we started the time trial - this is happening, this regatta has started, and we get to race," Stone said. "The bar I set for myself was to make the final to have a race against Kara, so then it is a matter of taking it day by day through the heats and semis. Those things are done and now I am able to focus on having my best race tomorrow. "
"It's hard not to think that there's a lot riding on seven to eight minutes of rowing, and I have definitely thought about it," Kohler said. "I just remind myself throughout the day when the nerves hit that I'm prepared, and I've raced hard races and know how to race and how to win, and to trust all that preparation."
Women's Single - Semis
Kohler controlled her race convincingly throughout, but the race for the second available spot in the A Final played out in dramatic fashion, however. Kristi Wagner of ARION definitely staged the comeback sprint of the day, crossing 500 to go fully six seconds out of qualification position, and barreling through to place second to advance into the A Final.
As Kohler notes above, a lot is on the line, and getting to the final is, well, a crucial step that requires patience.
"When you are within reach of winning in a semi, or any other race, I remind myself that you have to get to the finish line before you start thinking happy thoughts," Kohler said, laughing. "It is pretty natural to get excited when you are leading, but you have to keep in mind that there are still however many strokes to the finish line and anything can happen, so it is critical to stay focused on your stroke and what you are doing in your boat."
Kristi Wagner was on the positive end of such an outcome; Wagner shared a bit of how her final 500 came together.
"I just tried to keep my head down and focus internally, in the second thousand I could feel myself moving up in the field and knew I had to start my sprint early," she said. " I have been in some exciting races before as well, but I don't think there is a secret; I wish I was not so far behind and needing such a big sprint! In the last 500 I just try to turn off my brain and trust my body. Since I was in high school my favorite race to watch has been the 2000 Olympic men's pair final. The French pair sprinted super early and just held on to win the gold medal. It was so fearless and an awesome example of the kind of racer I strive to be.
"I'm excited it was enough to move on to tomorrow. There are a lot of very quick women racing here and I feel lucky to have earned the opportunity to keep racing."
In the second semi, Stone controlled her own race from the front as well, cruising down into the low 30 stroke/minute range by the finish. She sets some benchmarks before she is willing to go into a defensive cruise mode in any race.
"If you're out front in a final, go have your best race, go for it!" she said "But in the preliminary rounds, I like to get out to a point where I can see the whole field and am able to have an awareness of what is happening behind me, because the worst thing to happen is to be surprised and get passed by a duel behind you.
"I'm not great at kicking it along at a high rate - I would rather bring the rate down a bit and continue to row hard - and I find that happens naturally if I have a margin as the race progresses and I am able to see things."
In a semi that hosted three Green Racing scullers of the four entrants, John Graves showed he is on form heading into the final, as he nearly paddled over the line. The other semi was a bit more of a brawl, with Lenny Futterman putting himself at the front of a pack that had less than four seconds from first to fourth.
We asked Lenny Futterman of Malta his thoughts on finally getting to this point in the process; he talked about perhaps what might be gained from what could have been a lost year.
"This has been a pretty crazy year for everyone, whether you're rowing or not," Futterman said. "I got the cancelation email for the trials last year as I was putting my boat on top of my rental car. I am glad to have the extra year, obviously to gain more fitness but also, understanding what this sport means to me in the broad sense. I've done a lot of work this year and I am glad that it has been showing on the race course. Tomorrow is just one more down the track."
Futterman leading his race
As much as anyone I have spoken to, Futterman appears truly to enjoy the process and all the intensity that comes with a week of racing.
"I find that the pressure actually lessens throughout the week to an extent," he said. "You worry about letting yourself down, letting down those who support you, etc. My thought just to appreciate the sport and competition. I love racing and I love getting my bowball ahead, but compared to so many sports, to fail doesn't have that hard of a bottom (monetarily speaking), so just race and attack it. Just be stubborn and know that more is more."
In the men's double, in the first semi Charles Anderson and Eliot Putnam of PennAC rowed stroke for stroke for what seemed like forever alongside Craftsbury's Jacob Plihal and Mark Couwenhoven; the two doubles finished 0.6 seconds apart.
They were also paced almost exactly by a local firetruck for the entire race as well.
In the second semi Kevin Cardno and JP Kirkegaard stepped on it at about 800 meters down and never stopped moving to win by five seconds over Justin Keen and Sorin Koszyk.
"It takes confidence in the plan to execute it on race day," Kirkegaard said of his crew's big push mid-race. Of the fact that they are racing against teammates as well as guys from the boathouse next door on Boathouse Row, he added "You know them and they know you. All you can control is how fast you can make your boat go."
Kirkegaard and Cardno
All four of those crews race in the A final tomorrow.
Light Women's Double
The light women's double may be the deepest field in the event, or at least the event with the highest number of folks with USA unis; so far the doubles of Michelle Sechser and Molly Reckford and Mary Nabel and Emily Schmieg have been able to put their shell in the top positions daily, with Grace Joyce and and Christine Cavallo in close pursuit.
Sechser and Reckford have posted the fastest times daily - the 6:30 for 1900 meters in the time trial had folks checking the backup timing, and both rowed commanding races today.
Reckford is very careful not to get ahead of herself during a strong race - not even a little bit.
"I try to focus on each stroke by itself," she said after the race. "I get into a really bad rhythm if I don't complete each finish and send it off, and that is exactly how I have been thinking about this regatta: I need to complete the stroke I'm on - finish the race I'm in - before I can move on to the next. It's like climbing a mountain, you just take one step at a time. If you think about how high the mountain is too soon, you'll be overwhelmed. Just focus on getting this step done."
Molly Reckford and Michelle Sechser
As for recalibrating once a lead is established, Reckford is cautious.
"I try to stick to the race plan because I wouldn't be comfortable switching things up mid-race. We came up with a plan we like, and I don't want to throw that away just because we're up or down. My goal is to keep my mind between the gunnels and race my best race, no matter what is going on outside the boat.
Emily Schmieg, who sits in the bow seat of the double with Mary jones-Nabel, focused on execution today.
"We keep a very internal focus, dial into our race plan and execute a clean race," Schmeig said. "Nothing is certain in racing but we have confidence in our preparation to step through a race like this."
Emily Schmieg and Mary Jones-Nabel
"With a lead it's about staying clean and rowing good strokes," Schmieg said. "We still work through our race plan, but stepped down the pressure."
Schmieg summed up thusly, something for us all to remember: "It was fun - racing is always fun! We're very excited to race the final tomorrow."
NBC Sports, the Olympic broadcast rights holders in the US, are livestreaming the semifinals and finals, links are below.