Friday's racing in Linz provided, thrills, chills, and more close calls than all of the other days combined, as 24 A/B semi finals and 16 C/D semi finals were contested on the Danube today. The German juggernaut started to kick into gear but several other countries thrilled the crowd with some surprise qualifications for the A final, including several US crews. Racing conditions remained the same-mostly cloudy, very light winds, with temps in the low 60s-which would be perfect for racing were it not for the persistent cold rain that fell on the racecourse for most of the day. You couldn't see it on the water, but there must have been a puff of a headwind too, as most of the races were running about 10 seconds slower than yesterday across the board. I am not going to get into a story about the list of quirky things that an American has to deal with over here, but you can add "very inaccurate weather forecasts" to the list. I always thought pictograms had universal meanings, but I am starting to think that a picture of a sun with a small cloud next to it, and 27 degrees Celsius, translates to rainy and 62 fahrenheit in English. The Austrian weathermen are 0 for 4 on this visit.
Any keen observer today could see that the back-to-back-to-back racing progression is starting to take its toll on the rowers. You start to realize that winning on Saturday or Sunday is more about how you were able to manage your energy across all of your races, rather than having to bury yourself every day. Chances are that if you had to go to the well early in the week, a hot shower and a good night of sleep ain't gonna cut it. It takes a bit longer to refill the tank. Today the Ottensheim Feuerwehr was extremely busy, plucking exhausted rowers from their boats after almost every race. You gotta hand it to the crews for giving it everything they had, as it made for some incredibly exciting racing. The capacity crowd was treated to forty great races, each with its own drama. Some of the racing was for the top spots, but the most thrilling stuff was when four or five crews battled it out for second or third and a place in the A final. And yes, a fair share of these races included US crews. Let's get on to that...
Seven US crews took part in A/B semi finals, which means that they were still racing for the right to advance to the A final. The junior crews involved, the JW1x, JM2-, JW2x, and JM2x faced the tough task of rowing on only 22 hours rest. If you remember any of yesterday's reporting, this promised to make things very difficult for some of our crews who already kitchen-sinked it in their quarterfinals. The senior crews rowing in their respective A/B semis included the M2+, LW1x, and the LM2-. No excuses for these crews, as they have all had at least one day off since their last race. Three other US crews, the JM4x, JW4x, and LM1x raced in the C/D semi finals for their events.
The day started off very well for the growing American fan base with the A/B semi in the JW1x. If the US fans could find a place to sit (the grandstand at this place is paaacked!), Cara Linnenkohl treated them to a great performance as she punched her ticket to the A final by finishing in third place. For 1500m Cara battled with Romania for second place before taking a look at things and realizing that she had 8 seconds on fourth place. Rare as it is in a semi, Cara was able to cruise home without pressing at all, actually stopping several lengths before the line and coasting across in a time of 8:17.1. Cara's progression is very similar to Lindsay Meyer's (2006 JW1x bronze, 2007 U23 BW4x gold, 2008 US Olympic team) not too long ago. Her rowing is very solid as she gets very nice length forward, finds a ton of water with a sharp catch and is not afraid to move the handles past her pins with authority. It will be very difficult for Cara to crack the top two spots this year with Germany and Norway showing impressive form, but a spot on the podium is not out of the question. She is from the same city as Lindsay (Seattle), has the same coach as Lindsay once did (Conal Groom), and maybe because she didn't have to empty the tank today, she can match Lindsay's bronze medal performance.
The American fans had just enough time for a kaffe before getting back to their seats for the semi final of the JM2-. AJ Brooks and JP Hogan from Newport AC (CA), were trying to do something that no other US JM2- has done before- make the A final. In the old days, the US juniors would carry their spares in a coxed pair but that event has been discontinued on the junior level. As an aside, nobody will ever forget how the 2+ of Garrett Miller (Lasalle) and Alex Woodward (Capital) dazzled the crowds in Munich by sprinting through the field to capture a bronze medal in Munich '94. Back to present day, AJ and JP are by no means spares, and this event is MUCH more competitive than the JM2+ ever was.
As I said before, with such demanding progression in these events, it matters less about how good you really are, than how much you had to give the day before. Without knowing where JP and AJ fell on that scale, the crowd was a bit worried when they broke off the line fifth in a tough field. At the 1000m the US pair had narrowed the gap but still had some work to do to get into qualifying position. They used the third 500 to do just that by passing a crew from Georgia (former Soviet Union, Georgia) and holding off a Lithuanian crew. As they did yesterday, they posted the fastest finishing 500 of any pair in the semis, as they maintained their lead over fourth place and climbed ever closer to AUS, finishing in third with a time of 7:04.93.
I have to insert story about how awesome the Greek Rowing Federation is doing in this regatta. Greece, the winners of AJ and JP's JM2- heat, have been dazzling the crowds in Linz. They have qualified several crews for A finals in the JM2-, JM4-, JW4x, and LM2- and narrowly missed qualifying in the JM2x. The way they are doing it, with smaller, underweight crews, who row in such a dynamic manner brings to mind the Italian crews of old. Whatever template they are using, it is working and it inspires. Each day you say to yourself, "no way can that Greek crew do that again tomorrow, they're rowing too high, or they had to give too much." But they keep coming at you and have zero quit in them. Even more fun is had by observing their fan base and their post race celebrations. This is pure, unbridled, genuine enthusiasm folks. I'd like to party with these guys tomorrow night. How do you spell fun? H-E-L-L-A-S.
In her A/B semi of the LW1x, Julia Nichols (Vesper) used an impressive finishing burst to finish first and earn a place in Sunday's A final. Julia shadowed perennial lightweight sculling contender, Sinead Jennings of Ireland, for more than 1750m before making her move. As if she was responding to the American fans yells from the grandstand, Julia jacked her rate with about 25 strokes to go, moving from one length down to finish just .17 ahead of Jennings in a time of 7:56.01. Julia will face stiff competition from IRL, CAN, SUI, CRO, and ESP in her final on Sunday, but if she has another gear like she showed today she can definitely find the podium.
In four other events, the JW2x, JM2x, M2+ and the LM2-, the US was unable to qualify for the A final and will live to fight another day in their respective B finals on Saturday and Sunday.
In the JW2x, the US could never match the speed of the two other rows they have had in Linz. The problem is that in order to get into the A final they had to be faster than their heat and quarter. The Austrian double thrilled the hometown fans by storming to the front of the pack and never looking back. The US was sixth off the line and remained there for the length of the course. They will have to collect themselves for tomorrow's B final as it will not get any easier.
In the JM2x, our heroes from Thursday, Meyer and Nesel, were unable to repeat their performance from their quarterfinal. It would be asking a lot of a crew to do that, as they were in the bright red zone for at least 1200m yesterday. Nobody who was here yesterday will ever forget their charge that forced Estonia to self-destruct, but they were never able to make the same impression today. Despite finishing a distant sixth, I suspect the US was already thinking about their B final when they crossed the line. With another day to flush out Thursday's effort, perhaps they could lay down another burner on Saturday and move way up the general classification of the regatta's MOST competitive event.
Unfortunately, in the M2+, the US came out on the wrong end of the closest pack finish of the day, finishing in fourth place in a three-to-go scenario. In an event that has seen quite a revival at this regatta with 14 entries, competition is stiff, with many crews sporting legit rowers who were not selected to their countries' Olympic squads. The US crew of Ben Harrison, Ted Farwell and Vince Puma is no different as they trained with the Olympic squad for all of the 2007-2008 campaign. They found themselves in a real barnburner of a semi final for almost the entire length of the course having to battle it out with AUS and UKR for the better part of 1600m. After establishing a solid second place position and holding that for the middle 1000, AUS made their move with about 600 to go, passing the US and bringing UKR with them. With 200 to go it looked like Harrison's last charge was going to retake third from UKR but the line came too soon and they missed out by a bow ball. .40 seconds separated second thru fourth place, with Canada taking first place. The US will row in a six boat B final on Sunday morning.
In the last A/B semi contested this morning, the US LM2- of John Nichols and Alex Rothmeier finished in sixth place, but will row in a full field B final on Sunday morning. The US pair lagged a tightly packed field from the get go, but with 500 to go had a brief chance to strike as they had gained some momentum in the third 500. With five seconds to make up on third place in order to qualify however, this was too tall of a task, especially when this pair has only been rowing together for a matter of weeks. If the youth of Alex serves him well (after all, he was nearly eligible for U23s this year), he will have plenty of more chances on this stage.
Finishing the order of the day, the JM1x, LM1x, and JM4x competed in their C/D semi finals. In events with so many entries all three of these crews still had some work to do, and a lot to shoot for. In the case of the JM1x and the LM1x a 13th place finish still means you are in the top half of your field- something to hang your hat on before starting a collegiate rowing career or going back to work and coming back bigger, stronger and faster for next year.
Keenan Reelick did qualify for the C final in the JM1x, by finishing third in his semi final. If the M2+ was the closest finish of the day, Keenan's race was not far behind, especially because it was a singles race, not known for extremely close pack finishes. Keenan was all over the map during this one, getting out of the blocks fourth, falling to sixth at the 1000, charging back to fourth at the 1500, and finally making a last push to get him into third place at the line and into the C final. There was too much see sawing amongst all six crews in this race to describe but I'll give it a try. Most devastating award goes to Slovenia, for leading the field for the entire race before catching a pretty major digger and finishing fourth, just .6 out of the C final. Most awesome sprint of the day award goes to Brazil, for finishing first after being in fifth with 500 to go. The Brazilian rowed the fastest last 500 by more than 3 seconds, rowing up the outside like Xeno Mueller. Much like Bills fans asked of Jim Kelly in the late 80s about his extremely successful yet hectic no huddle offense, rowing fans today were wondering of the Brazilian "why doesn't he just do that all the time?" To round out the field of disappointments, Japan and Hungary get coaches awards for effort as they spent large amounts of time in qualifying spots before losing out at the end. Oh, and the Spanish kid, he was probably wondering what the heck was going on all around him as he sat in second place the entire time all of this was happening. If I missed anything let me know, but this was one crazy race for a C/D semi.
In the LM1x, Rob Zechmann failed in his bid to qualify for the C final. He started and finished fifth in his C/D semi final. He will row in full fielded D final on Sunday morning. The JM4x also finished fifth in their C/D final and they will end their regatta tomorrow in a three boat D final.
As I finish this report in the coolest press tent you're ever going to see, I am sitting behind the finish line on a floating barge (by the way, free Orangina, Red Bull, and water wis gas), the sun is starting to peak through the clouds. Alleluia! I am sorry about my comments about the weathermen in Austria, maybe they were right. It's going to have to warm up at least 20 degrees for them to be totally right, but it looks like the weather is finally going to break. Good thing, tomorrow is the first day that medals will be handed out as all of the Junior A Finals will be raced, along with the Junior B, C, D and E Finals. Seniors will race their finals on Sunday.
The US will have five crews- the JW1x, JM8+, JW8+, JW4-, and JM2- racing for medals in A finals, four crews- JM4+, JW2-, JW2x, and JM2x racing for 7th thru 12th place in B finals, two crews- the JW4x and JM1x racing for 13th thru 18th places in C finals and the JM4x will be racing in their D final tomorrow for 19th thru 21st place.
It's hard to imagine the racing being any better than it was today. I know we will all be on the edge of our seats for most of it and I hope I can describe it all. Check in midday tomorrow for a full report on tomorrow's finals racing.