Olympic Trials I - Finals: Seats Gained, Paths to Tokyo Charted
February 26, 2021 Oli Rosenbladt, row2k.com
Kara Kohler crosses the line in the W1x
Was anyone else beyond excited to watch the finals at the Olympic Trials today? Besides the fact that these five races capped off the first truly meaningful regatta in almost a year, the racing for these Olympic berths were super high caliber, exciting, inspiring, and heartbreaking, and probably the most potent reminder of the things we both love and fear about our sport.
For the five crews that won trials today, only Kara Kohler has the leeway to look directly ahead to racing at the Olympics; John Graves in the Men's Single, JP Kirkegaard and Kevin Cardno in the Men's Double, Michelle Sechser and Molly Reckford in the Lightweight Women's Double, and Zachary Heese and Jasper Liu in the Lightweight Men's Double will all have to compete and place in the top two at the Final Olympic Qualifying Regatta in Lucerne on May 15-17 to complete the journey to the Olympics.
Trials winner Kara Kohler is known, as an athlete at least, for being a really cool customer. Today, after crossing the line, Kohler was visibly emotional, and after the racing, she reflected on what claiming the first US Olympic Rowing team spot today meant to her.
"There were a lot of emotions out there, even leading up to the race," said Kohler. "The past four years have been running through my mind, and all the work I've put in to get to this point."
Kohler freely acknowledged that missing out on the Rio Olympics in 2016, four years after winning a bronze medal in the W4x in London, still strongly motivated her.
"Missing out on Rio has definitely been my primary fuel for the last four years," she said. "Just knowing that I am a better athlete than I was showing at that point, and that I had a lot of room to grow and be better in many aspects of the sport. It was me not wanting to let myself down, and show up more fully for each practice, and see how good I could become. I knew I could be better than I was in 2016. I wanted to learn from both my Olympic successes and Olympic failures for this year."
Kohler's last few strokes to the line
With the Women's Single already qualified for Tokyo, Kohler is now officially named to the US Olympic team, and can set her sights on July.
"It's a relief to make the team, but nothing will really change," she said. "I'm going to go back to training with my sights set on the podium in Tokyo. That has been my goal all along, but obviously you have to take it one step at a time. I know that I am an athlete that has the potential to be on the podium, but I need to make the most of each practice. I'm looking forward to getting back to training with my teammates, to push them, and to allow them to push me."
Runner-up Gevvie Stone, who represented the US in the event at the Olympics in 2012 and 2016, was philosophical at coming up short today.
"I've been training hard, and going fast, but Kara has obviously also been training hard and going fast," said Stone after the race. "I had a good race today. As Larry Gluckman said, you can have a good race and it doesn't guarantee you the result you want."
That said, Stone made clear that she would not easily give up her Olympic goals, especially not after how unusual the last 24 months have played out.
"Doubles trials, probably." Stone replied, when asked about her next steps. "I still want to be racing for a medal in Tokyo. There are five other women's boats that are going to the Olympics, so there are a still lot of seats undecided."
Stone also acknowledged the gamble in coming back.
"With the cancellation last year, I strongly considered stopping and going back to work as a doctor," she said. "Going for the Olympics really takes it out of anyone, and I had to make sure I had it in me, physically, mentally and emotionally. I had to want it."
Stone credited her Boston training group, three of whom (Maggie Fellows, Alie Rusher and Cicely Madden) made the A and B-Finals here this week, with giving her the necessary push to continue and perform.
"It's been really great to have a fast group of girls to train with. Because they are relatively new to it, they are all in their first cycle, they helped me by keeping their enthusiasm really, really high. I wouldn't have made it through this year without them."
Stone won her first trials for the US Women's Single on April 4, 2011.
Today's win has been a long time coming for John Graves. After the 2019 worlds, when Graves and Ben Davison parted ways after racing the Men's Double at Worlds, Graves has been dialed into the single. One of the clear US favorites for the event in 2020, even with the prospect of the FOQR looming, Graves felt the cancellation of the FOQR and postponement of the Olympics acutely last year, and seemed to channel all of his emotions as he crossed the line as the winner of the final.
"It was a big sense of relief, after an extra year, to cross that line and set my sights on Lucerne," he said after the racing. "In any trials final, it's stressful and there are a lot of nerves, so in that last 500 I was thinking of staying clean, staying in my rhythm and getting the job done. My goal has always been to qualify the boat."
John Graves took the M1x
Graves has been down this road before. In 2016 Graves, along with Davsion, his older brother Peter, and Ben Dann won the US Olympic trials in the men's quad, and then came up heartbreakingly short at the FOQR and failed to qualify for Rio. As Graves tells it, this year, the focus and the timeline are a little different.
"In 2016, we had a very short lead up after Quad trials into Lucerne. One of the things that drew me to the single was the ability to race trials and then have a solid training block leading into the qualifier. I'm excited to get back to work and be able to peak well in Lucerne."
A few rowing observers who have been watching closely noticed that Graves has been rowing very efficiently this week; at a few points in the final, Graves was leading the race and understroking his competitors by a couple of beats, at least. Graves was quick to credit his training environment for his--very visible--progress.
"I've been incredibly fortunate over the last couple years to be influenced by some amazing people who have really pushed me to another level," he said. "I joined up with Gevvie and Gregg Stone's training group in 2019 and that has had the biggest impact on both fitness and technique. Gevvie's standard has brought the best out of all of us and her example has truly been a guide for me."
Like Stone, Graves believes the power of the single comes from the group.
"Something Alan Campbell (former GB Single sculler, -eds) told me a few years ago was that the trick to the single was to have more people in the boat with you than your competition, and that's how I have felt this year. An amazing training group and group of coaches lifted me up and believed in me. I couldn't be more thankful for that group, and they know who they are. It really takes a village."
One of the most energetic "villagers" for sure was John's older brother Peter, who could be seen on the NBC livestream running alongside the course during John's final, in flip-flops and wearing a backpack, cheering him on.
Peter still trying to beat his little brother no mater what ...wink
The sheer dominance of the combination of Michelle Sechser and Molly Reckford at the trials this week would be hard to overstate; in a field pretty deep with women who have raced the event and have shown a pretty high level of achievement overall, you could estimate that Sechser and Reckford have been behind in a race for only about 30 strokes this whole week. They won the trials by the widest margin of any event, and can now set their sights on qualifying the event at Lucerne.
Michelle Sechser and Molly Reckford dominated the LW2x in Sarasota
"We are really working one step at a time and taking nothing for granted," said Reckford. "I think we will train for FOQR the same way we trained for trials. We made a lot of progress in the last two months, and I think if we stay the course and keep ourselves accountable we can find even more."
"Casey [Galvanek] wrote an amazing training program for us," said Reckford about the crew's preparation for trials. "We have a great training space in Sarasota with all the resources we need — including many opportunities to practice in challenging conditions. We stuck to the plan, we held ourselves accountable to hitting our goal splits in workouts, and we put up blinders to outside distractions as best we could."
Today, the NBC cameras captured Sechser & Reckford experiencing what for some crews could have been a disastrous mishap early in the race, but the crew regrouped almost without breaking stride, was first to the 500 meter mark, and ended up winning the race with a time that was closest to the posted Gold Medal Standard of any event today. Impressive and remarkable.
"We had a plan: no race is perfect, and we discussed before the race how we would recover if the worst should happen," said Reckford. "No one wants that type of error, but you need to be prepared."
Even though the FOQR is known by the unofficial moniker of "The Regatta of Death," Sechser and Reckford are likely keeping in mind that the Dutch LW2x, gold medalists in Rio in 2016, only qualified for Rio via the FOQR.
The Men's Double is clearly the event with the longest odds, with the USA not having qualified for this event at the Olympics since 2008. Today's final played out accordingly, with four combinations of raw, hungry athletes racing bowball to bowball for almost the entire race, before the OKC/Vesper combination of Kevin Cardno and JP Kirkegaard put their nose ahead to win by just under a second.
Like Sechser and Reckford, Cardno and Kirkegaard had a bad stroke approaching the line, but were able to right the ship in time to seal the win.
"We were coming into the last 300, 250, and we were going up (in rate) and the wind was straight cross, so you're going to drift," Kirkegaard told USRowing. "I was trying to add some watts, keep the rate up, and I noticed we drifted into the buoys ... I was like, 'Oh no, oh no." I gave it a little too much ... he caught a buoy and lost his oar, grabbed it ... We ended up doing a mini start, and we crossed the line first."
"I definitely kept it interesting there at the end," Cardno added. "I did not intend for that to happen. This was my first trials final ever, so it feels good that we did execute kind of what we wanted to do, and it worked today."
Kevin Cardno and JP Kirkegaard pulled out the win in the M2x
Lightweight Men's Double
Almost as dominant, if not quite, as their female counterparts, Zach Heese and Jasper Liu claimed their berth in the Lighweight Men's Double with a six-second win today. Even with final qualification still in question, Heese and Liu freely admitted that they had not thought beyond taking care of business at trials.
"My plan was just to get through to where we are today," said Heese. "It's going to take a few days really start to envision what we're going to do and what we want to achieve. Obviously we want to qualify, but how we get there is going to take a while to process because, at least for me, my whole thought process was just to get through today.
"We had a really good regatta here, but what we're going to carry forward is that we've had some experience racing the people that we will see at FOQR already. Jasper and I were both in the lightweight quad together, and I've had a year of racing the lightweight single at U23, so it's heartening to know that a lot of the people we will see there are people we have raced against."
Zach Heese and Jasper Liu took the LM2x
"My goal in coming out of college was winning this event, and being the boat that went to Lucerne, so everything on top of this is bonus," added Liu. "We had high expectations of ourselves coming into this, we knew we had the potential to win this event, and we know that Lucerne is going to be on another level."
Liu sees the crew as having plenty of room to grow before travelling to Lucerne.
"We were only selected out of our Vesper group as the top lineup in late January, so we still have plenty of room to mesh together. We think there's still speed to be gained in a lot of different areas."
Like the other winners here in Sarasota this week, Liu and Heese paid respects to their training environment for their results.
"It was really fun coming into the race with the two other Vesper boats in there," said Liu. "They've pushed us through training the past year, today felt like another practice where we were going out and battling against them. We have most of the top lightweight scullers right now, and the competitive and supportive environment has helped us tremendously."
"I like to think of racing as a showcase of all of the training that we've put in," Heese concluded. "When we get down the road to FOQR, I think back on all of the training we've done, and all of the weights we've lifted in the last three years, and really thinking, this is the final presentation. The work has been done. I just need to execute as best I can, and that's really all that I can control."
Added Liu, "there's really nothing to lose out there."
Notes from the Course
It's been so long since there was any real racing that we heard from one wag who missed part of the W1x final while looking for his strokewatch in the attic.
It's tricky to calculate the gold medal standards for the five events today, especially with conditions shifting slightly during the course of the racing, but a quickie rundown would go like this:
LW2x - Sechser/Reckford, 6:59.32, 97.5% of GMS
W1x, Kohler, 7:23.37, 96.3%
M2x, Cardno/Kirkegaard, 6:22.07v 94.2%
LM2x, Heese/Liu, 6:29.79, 93.6%
M1x, Graves, 6:59.08, 93.3%
Per the "1% of winning time to receive a automatic quad selection camp invite" threshold in the women's single we posted a few days back, only Gevvie Stone made that cut.
It's not really correct to call losing an oar and full jacknife "a bobble" as we heard in a few places, whew.