After a few days where, mercifully, the weather was not an issue, the first day of the elite A-Finals here at Karapiro brought with it a renewed onslaught of Mother Nature, a fierce, variable cross-headwind that turned the racecourse, especially in the first half, into a swamp, and the racing itself into somewhat of a crapshoot.
Despite good promise earlier in the week, things didn't quite come together for US crews today, as a bronze medal in the W4- was the sole bright spot for the USA on the day. Perhaps it was a portent of things to come as this medal almost didn't happen save for the US crew going deep into the well; racing close in bumpy conditions, the US crew suffered a bobble that knocked them to the back of the four-boat field. The crew of Mara Allen, Grace Luzcak, Adrienne Martelli and Ali Cox, racing in her first World or Olympic final since retiring after the 2004 Athens games, reloaded quickly, got themselves going and rolled up the field from the back, coming within half a second of snatching silver from Australia.
"I'm very proud of my boat. We came together in a short time. We had a great race and came together, even in challenging circumstances. We are looking forward to next year," said Cox after the race, while teammate Mara Allen added, "A great race! We had a bit of trouble half way, but we recovered really well. It was really fun, even with the conditions."
Cox's return to the US team has been one of the great stories in rowing this year; picking up her international career, almost where she left off, Cox by all accounts added extra fire to an already competitive US women's sweep group and should play a part as the team pushes towards London/2012.
Both the US Men's Four and US Women's Quad finished fifth today; athletes in both crews pointed to conditions as a factor, but were also quick to point out that other crews had managed to achieve in the same conditions.
"Our race was really bad," said Sam Stitt of the M4-. "It really felt like the outside lanes were getting pushed more than the inside lanes, but losers will always make excuses and winners will say the opposite. In all fairness, a lot of guys had to row in this water and did really well. As an athlete, period, you just have to rise to the occasion and I didn't feel like we could do that today."
Natalie Dell, stroke of the USA W4x, had similar thoughts after the race. "I guess you have to be ready for anything, that was the craziest water I've ever had to race in. You can't look back and say 'I wish the weather had been different,' because obviously crews were able to perform in that. It's a little hard to find the silver lining at this point."
US coaches ranged from the philosophical to angry about the conditions on the course today; tomorrow's forecast doesn't look more promising than today's, and all coaches we spoke to today expressed the desire that FISA weigh their options carefully with regards to scheduling or even postponement of racing in the event of similar conditions to today.
Five other US crews were in action prior to the A-Finals racing; Glenn Ochal and Warren Anderson, racing the US Men's 2x, came heartbreakingly close to an A-Final spot in their semi, falling short in 4th place by about half a second; with all the talk about conditions today comparing the times between the two semis is probably futile, but the crew of Ochal and Anderson, racing in Semi #1, would have won Semi #2, raced 10 minutes later, by almost two secconds. Here's hoping the crew will regroup for the Petites.
US Lightweight Men's Single sculler Dan Urevick-Ackelsberg also fell short in his semi today, finishing 5th; he will also race in the B-Final later this weekend. This event proved that, at least occasionally, ergs do float; the reigning lightweight men's world record holder on the erg, Henrik Stephansen from Denmark, willed his way to a win in his semifinal in rough conditions and heads into the final as the favorite.
US Crews were in action in the Petite Finals this morning as well; the US Men's Quad finished second in their Petite for 8th place overall, while the US Women's Lightweight Double of Ursula Grobler and Abby Broughton also finished second in their petite.
Evan Tsoutsourlas and Mike Nucci, racing in the Petite of the Lightweight Men's Pair, placed third in their race, and ninth overall, and Brian de Regt and Jon Winter, in the US Lightweight Men's Double, finished 5th in their Petite for 11th place overall.
All talk about conditions notwithstanding, the first batch of A-Finals held both intrigue and fierce racing; of the seven events raced today, fully five saw new world champions crowned today, and there were a few surprises. Croatia, coming off a strong World Cup season, claimed the win in the Men's Quad. Great Britain, who've been competitive in the women's quad in the last few years without winning it outright put themselves right today, sprinting through the defending champs from the Ukraine to claim the win.
The GB claimed their second gold of the afternoon in the Men's Lightweight Double; the defending Olympic champs Zac Purchase and Mark Hunter, who missed the worlds in 2009 after an injury-plagued preparation, returned to form emphatically. The "home" Olympics in two years time are definitely on their minds, and Hunter seemed to acknowledge as much as the crew arrived at the awards dock, shouting "We're BACK!" as he got out of the boat.
The most surprising finish of the day had to be the Men's Four, which saw France finish ahead of a surprising silver medallist from Greece, with the NZ crew, spurred on by near-deafening support from the grandstands behind us, surged ahead of the British crew to claim Bronze.
See below for more athlete quotes after the racing, courtesy of FISA, and check out our Friday Winners Reel video for all of today's winners.
Apparently, it's perfectly legal to bet on any sport in New Zealand; no report on whether folks are flocking to the bookies to place bets on the rowing finals, but we've spoken to a few folks here who speak matter-of-factly of having won money on rowing during various rowing events over the years. US residents are not permitted to bet, so we weren't able to try this out online, but as of Friday morning, the US Men's 8+ was at 10-to-1 odds to win, while the US Women's 8+ was at 1.75-to-1.
Finally, two clear signs that this week at worlds is drawing to a close; a number of boats derigged and wrapped, and lots of very fit people, some wearing medals, at the regatta bar at the course rather than taking another 8km of practice on the lake. Fingers crossed for tomorrow's weather, and good luck to all the athletes racing in the weekend's finals!
LM2- / Race 118
Jean-Christophe Bette (FRA) – Gold
"We are happy of course, but it was not easy. Our tactic before the race was to be in front of the other crews quickly with a big margin and that wasn't the case, because the Kiwi crew was very strong. We knew they were very strong. The conditions were very difficult at the beginning of the race, but we knew it would be flatter water at the end of the race. And those are better conditions for us."
"We knew we could come back in the second part of the race when we saw that we were level with the Kiwis. It's the end of a two year challenge with Fabien. We will try to come back in the lightweight men's four for next year's World Championships and the Olympic Games. "
Fabien Tillet (FRA) – Gold
"To be World Champion once is already difficult, but it is even more difficult to defend a title. At the middle of the race when the Kiwi crew rowed out in front of us we thought of the heat and we knew that we are very strong and knew how to manage the second half of the race."
Graham Oberlin-Brown (NZL) – Silver
"The crowd was fantastic. We made the call at the 400m to do it for the crowd. The boat just jumped up, but unfortunately it wasn't enough to beat the French."
Rares Crisan (CAN) – Bronze
"We stayed as relaxed as we could and tried to handle the elements as best as we could. Rowing is so widely received here. The grandstand is packed and everyone knows who we are and what we are doing. We wish we could take this back to Canada."
Matt Jansen (CAN) – Bronze
"We had our heads down and did our race."
Race 119 - Women's coxless four (W4-) - A Final
Nienke Kingma (NED) – Gold
"It was a very good race. We did it last year and we were hoping to do it again this year and we did. It was very exciting to come out here today, when we didn't know what we could do. The race was a bit different because we only had a race for lanes beforehand. Our main race is the eight, but we all love racing the four!"
Chantal Achterberg (NED) – Gold
"We didn't get into our rhythm until the last 500m. The first 1500m was just about surviving, because of the quite windy conditions."
Sarah Cook (AUS) – Silver
"We had a rough start, as our bow ball was pointing into the lane of the Kiwis when the start went off and we pretty much went straight into that lane. But our anger and adrenalin kept us going. Through the middle of the race it was everybody's call. Nothing we can do about it now."
Race 120 – Lightweight Women's Double Sculls
Lindsay Jennerich, (CAN) – Gold
"At the 750m I felt very confident and determined to stay in front. I knew we were rating at a good pace, but also knew we could lift it up. But I've seen the Greeks sprint across the finish line before. It's not done until you cross the line."
Tracy Cameron (CAN) – Gold
"That was an unbelievable and amazing race and I'm sitting here with Gold."
Daniela Reimer (GER) – Silver
"I still can't believe it. This is great. The last time I won a medal was back in 2005. This double has been awesome and we worked really well together. We hope we might be able to continue this. No celebrations just yet as we still have the quad tomorrow and the plan is to sit here again then."
Anja Noske (GER) – Silver
"It went really well. It's great to be vice world champion. We worked very hard for this and with this medal all the hard work was worth it. 2010 has just been a great season, cool partner, cool racing, just awesome! We've had a great time here and it's been amazing what the New Zealanders have organised, it's been a fantastic event! "
Christina Giazitzidou (GRE) – Bronze
"We had a very bad start, because we kept loosing direction and we tried to correct that quickly. That made us very tired. We tried to focus just on our style without looking at the others. We are happy with a medal and it's good for the future. We are still learning. "
Race 121 - Lightweight Men's Double Sculls
Zac Purchase (GB) – Gold
"The first 1500m we were just surviving. We were able to start sculling over the last 250m. We are just glad we got to the line first and we were keeping an eye out on the Italians."
Mark Hunter (GB) – Gold
"We've got all three now. We got Olympic, World Cup and World Champs gold. Now we want two of everything."
Elia Luini (ITA) – Silver
"There were just too many waves. Today it was not so much about who's the strongest, but who got most strokes into the water. But I'm still very, very happy and we knew the British would be very strong, so the result is fine. I expected New Zealand to do a bit better as this is their home course, so honestly we probably were expecting to come third, so silver is fantastic."
Storm Uru (NZL) – Bronze
"It was a tough race. Britain and Italy were just faster than us today. Unfortunately they beat us."
Race 122 - Men's Four (M4-)
Julien Despres (FRA) – Gold
"We had a strong start, a few mistakes in the first part of the race. I didn't really see the other boats, but I heard from my teammate Germain [Chardin] that we were in third position. We continued to row at a high pace and at the start of the last 500m we saw that we were in a strong first position. At this moment we gave everything we had left in our body. We heard the crowd and it was fantastic."
Germain Chardin (FRA) – Gold
"Our coach Samuel Barathay told us before the race to be focused on our race only. When we were in first position, every stroke we thought about our families, our girlfriends and knew that no one could beat us. We had a hard training camp in Soustons before coming here with difficult water conditions like here and that helped us to win."
Ioannis Tsilis (GRE) – Silver
"We had a very good race. Not such a good start, but we tried to keep up with the others and tried to push ourselves. We thought that the world was shouting for us."
Nikolaos Gkountoulas (GRE) – Silver
"It was lovely, very difficult and one of the most stressful races we've had, but we had very good preparation and we were very determined."
Apostolos Gkountoulas (GRE) – Silver
"We had a very good race and if you know about Athens, you know that we know about the waves."
Hamish Burson (NZL) – Bronze
"The conditions were very pretty rough. I have the greatest respect for France getting through. We could hear the crowd at 300m and we knew they were yelling for us."
Jade Uru (NZL) - Bronze
"I was calling the race plan, kept yelling at the boys, half length, quarter length, canvas, everyone did what they had to."
Race 123 - Women's Quadruple Sculls (W4x)
Frances Houghton (GBR) – Gold
"Absolutely fantastic race! That's why I row, to row a race like this!"
Annabel Vernon (GBR) – Gold
"It was so rough, so we thought we had to use our power, but we were so calm and relaxed throughout the race. It's my second gold, but this one will definitely be special."
Beth Rodford (GBR) – Gold
"The conditions were really tricky and the wind was swirling and we couldn't tell from the warm-up what it was going to be like on the race track." Britta Oppelt (GER) – Bronze
"It was a battle of survival out there, the conditions were really rough. But all four of us tried to make the best of it and I think our crew handled this difficult race as well as we could."
Race 124 - Men's Quadruple Sculls (M4x)
Valent Sinkovic (CRO) – Gold
"It's so crazy. I'm so happy and I don't know what to say. It's our first gold medal at this level and it's the best feeling ever. The conditions were very bad, but we pulled it through."
Simone Rainieri (ITA) – Silver
"We are very happy. We had a good start and handled the waves quite well. The conditions were difficult, but every now and then you just need a bit of luck as well."
Karsten Forsterling (AUS) – Bronze
"We took on a lot of water on the way up, so had to bail our boat at the start line and started off with cold legs. We wanted to control the race, but the Croatians and Italians did that. We had a good tussle with the Germans, but came out on top."