A weird, wild, emotional week (take or leave a few unplanned days off in the middle) of Olympic rowing concluded in Tokyo today with the Men's & Women's Singles and Eights, a bevy of crushing upsets, and a raft of new Olympic champions.
At the top of the podiums, both eights gold medalists (Canada for the women and New Zealand for the eights) came through the reps; Emma Twigg finally won the gold medal that once seemed inevitable; and Greek sculler Stefanos Ntouskos pulled off one of the most unexpected and stunning upsets in the history of the event - and set a new Olympic record in the offing.
The US failed to win a medal in rowing at an an Olympics they attended for the first time in history.
New Zealand sculler Emma Twigg finally broke through today after two consecutive Olympic Games of finishing in fourth, powering to the front and staying there.
Twigg said she was a little surprised, looking over her shoulder as she crossed the line. "I didn't hear the buzzer. I thought I may have stopped too early."
After she realized she had won, the celebration began. row2k spoke with Twigg after she did a few rounds of fist bumps, TV interviews, victory laps, and other golden moments.
NZ's Emma Twigg
Interviewer: The last push over the last 500 meters, where did that come from?
Emma Twigg: I guess it was all part of the plan. It was just a light tailwind in the first part of the race, and I wanted to be in a position of power in the last 500, knowing that it was a stronger tailwind and that anyone that was going to come at me was going to have to do a lot in that last 500.
Interviewer: It worked out for you.
Twigg: It did. Yes, it sure did.
Interviewer: After the race, you looked behind your shoulder. Were you looking at someone? A coach or something?
Twigg: To be honest, I didn't hear the buzzer, so I crossed the line and thought, "Have I stopped too early?" But then I saw the bubbles and it all kind of sunk in.
row2k: You had anything but a direct route to get here - you were in the single, and then not in the single, then you were in school - how how do you reflect back on that, and do you feel you have wrapped that up for yourself now?
Twigg: Yeah, it's just all been part of the journey and the story, really. I guess my message to people that don't necessarily have the results that they want is that, if you believe in yourself and you keep going and dreaming, then this can be the result.
row2k: In Paris, will we see you in the single or cricket?
Twigg: Ha! Who have you been talking to? Maybe a double.
(On that last question, we heard that Twigg may be trying her hand at cricket in the next couple weeks.)
Hanna Prakatsen, the ROC (Russian Olympic Committee) sculler, could not match Twigg's speed and finished second. Magdalena Lobnig of Austria, who has been knocking on the door of the podium for a long time, kept her cool as the field surged back on her to hang on to bronze.
"I fight so well during the race and just tried to keep fluid in the middle of the race and to go for it in the last 500. I heard Kurt [Traer, her coach] screaming, he just said 'aaaarrgh' and I knew that's the sign. He knew, I think, I looked still okay and for the last 500 I could sprint."
For the US single Kara Kohler, who finished 9th today, racing the single in Tokyo was a long journey from her first Olympics in the women's quad nine years ago in London.
USA Kara's Kohler
"In London, I raced the quad. And then, I raced eights at Cal. So yeah, it's a very different challenge," she said. "It's just you and your own demons out there, so you have to know how to handle yourself. You don't really have anyone to lean on out there when it gets tough, but I do have people to lean on the shoreline, and they help me get through. It's good to have a strong support system, especially when you're in the single because, when it's challenging, it can be pretty hard."
Kohler credited her support system with getting her across the line. "First, my family. They're the ones who got me here and set me on this Olympic path and inspired me. Also, the training center women in Princeton. They're a huge part of my success in the single for the past couple of years - having them to lean on and gain inspiration from. And then, the coaches there - Laurel [Korholz] and Tom [Terhaar]. I owe a lot to them for getting me back here."
With the favorite Olli Zeidler of Germany knocked out in the semifinal, the field seemed open for the likes of Norway's Kjetil Borch or Denmark's Sverri Nielsen to take the win. But in the second 1000m of today's race, Greek sculler Stefanos Ntouskos pulled away and snatched the win, for Greece's first ever Olympic Gold in rowing, in a new Olympic best time to boot.
Norway's Borch took second, and Croatia's Damir Martin, runner-up in this event in Rio, took bronze.
"I did not think I could win," said Ntouskos. "I was in third place at 750 metres. There was one possibility, to go up with strokerate. I changed my rhythm and power, and then I was in front."
Greece's M1x Stefanos Ntouskos
Borch offered his assessment of the race after the event.
"It was an honest and good race, I'm happy for all the medallists," he said. "I think we put on quite a show for the audience and the men's single sculls has just been a firework since I started. It's been tight racing, we've seen legends retire, new stars rise, it's just been super exciting to be a part of this revolution of new scullers entering the world scene."
Borch, Ntouskos and Martin
Borch was not certain he would continue. "2024 is three years from now. It's close but also I need to take some time off and see what my own brain says, or if there's still something left. And of course there's a gold medal - I've got the progression now [Borch won bronze in Rio], it would be nice to have a gold in Paris. We'll see."
Borch was asked if he would receive a cash prize from Norway, and if so what he would do with it.
"Maybe we get a letter from the king and the prime minister - and I'm pretty sure that Croatia and Greece don't get a letter from the king, because they haven't got one.
"But no, we don't get any prizes."
Told that Singapore gives $1 million to gold medalists, Borch laughed and asked "How long does it take to apply for citizenship?"
Perhaps no one except the crew saw this coming, but deep into the race, it was clear that Canada's W8+ had a shot at the gold; they had scorched the first 1000m and built a solid cushion over second place New Zealand, and when the Kiwis started to press, the Canadians held off the charge and crossed the line in front, sending off an exuberant celebration from coxswain Kristen Kit and her crew. New Zealand was second, and China was third.
This race was the first win for the Canadian crew at the regatta; they lost to NZ in the heat, and finished second to Romania in the rep later in the week.
Canada edges NZ for the gold
The USA crew, three time defending Olympic champs in this boat class, ran fifth early and clawed their way into fourth place late in the race, but could not impact the race for medals.
After the race, the crew paid tribute to their coach, Michelle Darvill, and the late Kathleen Heddle, Olympic gold medalist for Canada in the women's eight at Barcelona in 1992. "When we heard thunder, when we were sitting on the starting line, we knew: 'That's Kathleen,'" said coxswain Kirsten Kit.
Read our full interview with the Canadian eight here.
New Zealand came in with high hopes for Gold, but acknowledged the Canadian achievement without regrets.
"It's amazing to be a part of this," said NZ's Kelsey Bevan. "I have been in the women's eight since 2013 and in Rio we just missed out on a medal. We've been building this women's eight programme for so long and it means so much to be on the podium with these girls.
"We've definitely got a strong history in the smaller boats. In the past couple of years they've really given us a chance in the women's eight and the men's eight to push for medals. The young group of girls who have been coming through has just added so much new life to our boat. This is only the start of the programme."
China were the surprise bronze medalists. A strong showing in the heat showed that the crew might be dangerous, but few people would have predicted the Chinese to prevail over crews like the US or Romania.
"This team actually was just put together 100 days out before the Olympic Games in Tokyo, so this medal is really great recognition of our work," said Guo Linlin of the Chinese crew.
GB rowing legend, and five-time Olympic champion Sir Steve Redgrave is the head coach of the Chinese national team; read our interview with Redgrave here.
For the US women, fourth place was a disappointing result; read our full interview with the crew here.
The NZ men's eight started out running with a tight pack in the final, then absolutely blew it open, while behind them, the GB, the Germans and the USA traded blows. The Germans, world champs in 2019, mounted the last serious charge of the race, which took them past the GB and within one second of the Kiwis at the line, but could not catch them, as NZ celebrated their first gold medal in the M8+ since 1972.
The GB finished third, 13/100s behind the Germans, while the USA was another 5 seats back in fourth place.
Men's 8+ final
"With the guys here, it has been a long campaign with an extra 12 months," said NZ two-seat Hamish Bond, who won his third straight Olympic gold after winning in the pair in 2012 and 2016. "But we needed the extra 12 months. We had guys that were 21, 22 years old. If this regatta was held last year, we wouldn't be sitting here."
"The way the young guys elevated in the last 12 months kept me going."
Read our full interview with Hamish Bond, Tom Murray, and Sam Bosworth here.
The German men, who came into Tokyo as the three-time world champs leading up to the Olympics, would have been forgiven for being disappointed, but pride at winning silver in the sprint outweighed any sadness about losing gold.
"We tried to push hard from the first hundred metres, we went out hard and it was pretty good, but then the Kiwis started to find a flow and went ahead of us," said Jakob Schneider of the GER M8+. "We fought against them but in the end we had a great race, we put in everything we had and we are proud with the result.
"Today we are happy that we won a medal, but a little bit we shed a tear because we hoped it would be gold but as I said congrats to the Kiwis it was an amazing performance and today they were by far the fastest crew."
"To be part of this crew has always been a dream, since I started rowing. My favourite people were the German men's eight. So I knew what privilege it was to be successful in it. If I had told the 12-year-old Jakob that in 15 years he would have a silver medal at the Olympics with the German eight - that's bonkers."
The GB's Moe Sbihi also gave credit to the NZ crew. "This week we raced them three times and they beat us three times. They had the measure of us. We hadn't raced the Germans until today."
"We always knew it was going to be a battle among the three of us."
A young US crew looked like it was ready to scrap in their racing earlier in the week, leading the favored Germans during the heat, and taking care of business during the rep to qualify for the final. Two seconds to gold isn't a huge gap to the very top, but, as with the women's eight, you had the sense that the crew wanted more here. Read our conversation with Julian Venonsky of the US crew here.
It's tough to write this, but as best we can tell, this is the first Olympic Games in which US crews competed without winning a single rowing medal for the US. There could have been any number of factors in play, whether it was the US COVID experience, which included isolation, training disruptions, or the inability to keep core groups of athletes training together, or that the extra year was just one year too much for a few team veterans, or whether it was just bad regatta luck that snowballed, but whatever the case, it's an extremely bitter pill.
As has happened before, it fell to the women's and men's eights, whose athletes and coaches have come through in similar circumstances in the past, to try to salvage the regatta. With both crews placing fourth, it was not to be, and the US did not reach the medals table.
USRowing issued a statement from Matt Imes, USRowing High Performance Director, shortly after racing ended.
"With the conclusion of our competition here in Tokyo, I'm devastated for our athletes and staff who have trained and competed so hard for the last 16 months since the postponement of the Olympic Games in 2020," said Matt Imes, USRowing's High Performance Director. "We obviously hoped to achieve better overall results. As an organization, we have already started the process of reviewing our national team programs, which will include feedback and analysis from this Games. USRowing is committed to making the necessary changes to provide our athletes with the best possible structure and environment to achieve success in Paris 2024 and beyond."
Notes from the Course
- For Sunday's finals, the Seaforest Waterway flashed the first really clean conditions of the regatta.
- The 1992 Canadian women's gold medalists in the women's eight and women's four were 'dethroned' today, as it was described to row2k by Kay Worthington, who rowed in both crews in 1992, one of a very few people to have won two golds in one Olympics. Canada had stood as the 'defending' women's four Olympic champion since 1992, the last time the event was contested; and the 1992 eight was Canada's most recent gold medal in the women's eight.
- Avalon Wastenays is the daughter of Canadian Olympic rower Heather Clarke.
- In the Men's Single B-Final, 6'7" Olli Zeidler won just ahead of 6'10" Gennaro DiMauro of Italy, with 6'7" Trevor Jones of Canada just behind. You feel like 6'1" Ryuta Arakawa of Japan, who finished 5th in the race, never had a chance.
- Kuwaiti M1x raced the F-final in a polo shirt.
- '19 World champ Sanita Purspure withdrew prior to racing the B-Final