Kristi Wagner and Dr. Gevvie Stone celebrate their Olympic berth
Of the three winners in the Olympic Trials finals today, Dr. Gevvie Stone and Kristi Wagner in the Women's Double can look directly towards Tokyo, while the Men's Quad of Charles Anderson, Justin Keen, Eliot Putnam and Sorin Koszyk, and the Men's Pair of Tom Peszek and Mike DiSanto still face final qualification at the Final Oympic Qualifier "Regatta of Death" in Lucerne next month.
Save for US Women's Single Kara Kohler, who won the Olympic Trials I in February to book her ticket to Tokyo, you have to believe that a sizeable proportion of the top US women's sculling athletes were in Mercer this week, and the racing reflected it. While Meghan O'Leary and Ellen Tomek, who represented the US in Rio in this event, led a close field to the 1000m mark, Stone and Wagner shifted gears and pushed through and away in the third 500, ultimately putting almost 4 seconds between themselves and the trailing pack.
As they have all week, the US Lightweight Double of Michelle Sechser and Molly Reckford turned on the jets late after trailing to the halfway point, and finished second after another big sprint, edging out Tomek and O'Leary in a photo finish. Sophia Vitas and Jen Forbes were a narrow fourth, less than one second behind.
For now three-time Olympian Dr. Gevvie Stone, making the team is not old hat.
"Earning the chance to race at the Olympics doesn't get less thrilling with time," she said. "I'm excited! I was excited before the race to go out and to go hard, and I'm even more excited now to get to continue pursuing this dream!"
Wagner and Stone after crossing the line
With the US women's double already qualified for Tokyo on the basis of Stone & Cicely Madden finishing 5th at the World Championships in 2019, the crew can now focus on simply building speed.
"We're going to be looking inwards," said Stone. "Doing whatever we can to improve and to get faster! We got to show another gear today, including our sprint, which was fun. Kristi also has a good base pace as shown at singles trials. It's a good combination! When we race again, we hope to have another gear and be even faster."
"Winning trials is just the beginning," added Wagner. "I think we are both looking forward to getting back to Boston and hopefully training against some other fast people to keep improving in our own boat. I'm so fortunate to have Gevvie as a partner, she's obviously been down this road before and being able to learn from her past experiences has been invaluable."
"Tokyo has been a broad goal for a long time, but going into this winter I first set my sights on singles trials. I knew if I finished in the top four there I would be able to work my way into a fast double. I've been training in Saratoga with ARION for a few years now and we were lucky to have a great group of both senior and U23 athletes this year who really pushed me in practices."
"It definitely has not fully sunk in but I am so excited to keep working with Gevvie and Gregg and continuing to get faster."
The US lightweight double performed well again, finishing 2nd
The lightweight double of Molly Reckford and Michelle Sechser set out to get as much high-octane racing as possible before the FOQR, and by their reckoning, they achieved that.
"That was absolutely the purpose of coming up for trials," said Reckford. "We learned a ton of extremely valuable lessons each time we raced, and it was the best environment to learn our weaknesses. Our goal was to build a solid regatta performance and create positive momentum to send us into the next four weeks of intense training and I think we achieved that.
"I think the confidence of knowing we can put together 5 2k's in 4 days and build and learn during the process is a real confidence boost. We had the chance to go against some very fast crews here, but racing internationally with travel and more pressure will be a different ball game."
"I think I need a book to write everything I learned this week!"
For Tomek and O'Leary, who raced the Olympic final in Rio five years ago, and made the podium at the World Championships twice after that, today's result was tough to take, but as O'Leary reflected on the role she and Tomek have played in helping to grow US women's sculling, and showing their ability to succeed at the highest levels of the sport somewhat outside the mainstream of the USRowing camp system, her disappointment was also tinged with pride.
"You come into trials, and you want to win," said O'Leary. "Our goal, beyond our own personal success, has always been about making the double go fast, and that's more than just making it fast for Ellen and me in the boat. We crossed the finish line, obviously disappointed and gutted, but we kind of laughed; in every single boat in that final, we've had a personal impact on athletes in those boats.
"Whether it was me mentoring Kristi over the last few years, or Ellen helping Molly through injuries or getting up to speed with training, or our old boat, which was what Sophia and Jen raced in today, that's about creating a fast community. Ellen and I have always believed that it's bigger than ourselves, and that's what we think our legacy and impact will ultimately be."
Meghan O'Leary and Ellen Tomek pushed the pace, but could not hold on
With Tomek and O'Leary both invited to Women's quad selection camp (via their win at the National Selection Regatta in early 2020, as well as finishing within 1% of Stone & Wagner here today), the door for Olympic selection remains open for both. "I think that we have really great athletes to make a women's quad go fast, and have a really great showing in Tokyo."
O'Leary acknowledged that there were no guarantees for either her or Tomek going into quad camp, and that the vagaries of selection could mean an end to their 8-year partnership, which, in the era of blink-and-you'll-miss-it international rowing careers, is almost unmatched longevity (and loyalty).
"There's an real advantage to having a senior partnership coming to quad camp, and I think we bring a lot of valuable experience, but yeah, if I have to seat race Ellen, it's not going to be fun."
"We've had to push each other, but in the end, we truly want each other to be successful. On the water, I told her that rowing with her has been such a pleasure, the best eight years of my life, and I will continue to support her in every way."
As in the women's double, the two leading crews from the Penn AC/Schuylkill Navy and the USTC-Oakland were locked in a tight battle until the 1000m mark, bowball to bowball, until the Philadelphia boat took a move that Oakland simply could not match; the final margin was open water.
"I can only surmise that the guys are exactly where they want to be," said coach Sean Hall after the racing, which he had to observe from isolation due to a postive COVID test. "This fits in well with our 'ya gotta earn it' approach, and I think they are excited to do just that.
The Schuylkill Navy quad celebrates their win
"We are going to get back in touch with the power-per-stroke foundation that has propelled this group this far," continued Hall. "We're not the biggest or strongest crew, but we can certainly bring a little more Philly to the fight. That and maybe a little more bladework efficiency."
For Hall, who also qualified the M4x for the Sydney Olympics via the FOQR 21 years ago, going the same route with his crew is a little deja vu, "but with less control," he added. "I am just happy to see the guys continue to step up as the challenges continue to arise. Let's hope this summer continues to follow our 2000 path!"
Hall also credited his group for their poise in his absence. "The guys were basically on their own for this trials. I have been training them to manage such difficulties and I am really proud of the job they performed."
In a promising sign for their qualification prospects, the Schuylkill Navy crew showed good speed against the clock, finishing above 92% of the Gold Medal Time standard for the event, and on par, percentage wise, with the Women's Double.
Given the international standard in men's sculling, the crew will need every ounce of speed they have; their primary competition at Lucerne would appear to be the men's quads from Russia, Estonia, and Ukraine. Estonia finished 3rd at last week's European Championships, while Russia and Ukraine finished 7th and 8th, respectively.
Skip Kielt, coach of the USTC-Oakland crew, explained that the tough lessons from the week were valuable nonetheless.
"The guys performed well," said Kielt. "Going through the selection, preparation, and the competition of an Olympic trial is a valuable experience that is hard to replicate any other year. We hope that learning from this process will continue to develop these athletes for success into the future."
With the Men's Pair having yet to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics, it appeared going into trials that few athletes were willing to risk trialing the as-yet unqualified pair, versus a shot at either the Men's Four or Eight.
For Tom Peszek, who raced this event at the 2012 Olympics, and Mike DiSanto, a veteran of the US's fourth place Men's Eight in Rio, the risk was worth it.
"I definitely don't count this as my '2nd Olympic team', at least not yet," said Peszek. "Probably the biggest thing I've learned over the past years is to not let the highs get too high, or the lows get too low. And that lesson is even more critical in the ever-stressful Olympic year.
"Between now and FOQR, we're just going to keep on training hard, trying to get a bit faster, and maybe have a bit of fun along the way. To qualify the boat is going to take a full regatta of solid execution, but we're no strangers to that. I qualified the pair 2011 and Mike qualified it in 2015, so we're both keenly aware that it's more than just trying to have one perfect 2k race."
Mike DiSanto and Tom Pezsek push to the line
The Men's Pair figures to be one of the deepest events at the FOQR, and with a few of the "big" rowing countries like the GB, Germany and Netherlands all still seeking qualification in the event, it figures to be a brawl all the way down the course.
Notes from the Course