Day Two at the World Rowing Championships was unusually challenging on a few different levels – 92 degree temps; massive big boat heats intermingled with long runs of three-boat repechages; 111 races spread over seven hours, all on five minute centers; and those from two different starting lines complete with separate starting blocks, one at the regular 2k distance, the other for the 1000-meter para-rowing distance.
US crews had only a fair day overall, with the highlights coming from the women's eight, who won their heat with the fastest time of the two heats to advance directly to the A final; and the men's double, who rowed a solid piece to place second in their heat to advance to the quarterfinals. The light men's pair also advanced to the semis with a third-place finish.
From there, coxed men's pair, the light men's quad, the light women's quad, the women's quad, the women's double, and the light men's four all will head to the repechages. It is worth noting that a few of those crews had some encouraging performances nonetheless; the women's quad, for example, faltered a bit off the start, reaching the 500 gone in fifth, but rowed back on the whole field to place a close second in a tight one-to-advance heat. And the light men's four drew the Danes and Italians, a tough one even before you get to the line.
The US para- crews had a good day on the whole, with men's single sculler Blake Haxton winning his heat rowing away, Jacqui Kapinowsiy placing second in her heat to head to the semis, and the Legs-Trunk-Arms (LTA) mixed four leading from wire to wire with the second fastest time of the day.
Today row2k talked mainly to crews who advanced in pursuit of our continuing investigation in how elite athletes approach the art and science of how to approach bearing down on and advancing in a major regatta; we'll talk to everyone else as the week goes on and they are a little more interested in discussions of advancement (and more).
The double is a wild event by any standard; this year a German former world champ single sculler is in the double, the Sinkovic brothers set world records almost every time someone says "Attention…" and hold a sub-six minute world record that would have been fast for a men's eight just a few decades ago , and the field is huge, with 24 crews headed to four quarterfinals, guaranteeing another free-for-all in a couple days' time.
So this would require some serious week-long tactics, right? Well, maybe not.
"For me, it’s interesting as an elite athlete that you need to be dumb enough to go super hard early, and then to have confidence to know that you will adapt in time for the next race," US bow seat John Graves said.
He also cited the oft-observed fact that the heats often feel like the toughest race, coming as they typically do after a taper, which does seem to make your body forget how hard rowing can be.
"For the heats, I think we go into it knowing that the first one might be the toughest physically," he said. "Our bodies will probably be feel their best later in the week. And it’s tough to really dig deep and have it hurt a lot, and then still know that if you trust each other it can be faster later.
"I think that’s a characteristic of some of these great crews out here, that they can run at 90-95% and be able to go as fast as they do, but for us we know we’re going to have to just give a spiritual effort Thursday (quarterfinals), Friday (semis), and Sunday (finals). This was a great start for us to get to that really uncomfortable point, and know that in a couple of days that point is going to be pushed a bit further by a couple ticks.
"But it is scary (in the heats) when you get to a thousand and it’s like, oh boy…"
"John and I have talked about this, how at races like this where you have a week full of racing, especially at this level and this particular event, you have to just try to win every single race," stroke seat Ben Dann said. "I think the strategy is, there is no strategy. You just have to win. You want to get in the highest position you can so you are seeded better for the next race and the next race. The way we have approached this is to think about it less, and just do more, and try to put yourself in position that may pay dividends later on."
"So Ed, now you know – he pulls, and I don't," Graves said, laughing. "But I think we’re at the point where we’re always going to learn by going up against guys like Hacker and Krueger (the German double) and giving them our best to see how far it goes in that race. I think we’ve seen in our last few years, we’re getting closer; we're not quite there but we are getting closer and closer. And that’s what motivates us, getting the chance to race those guys and just keep trying to get closer. We are trying to qualify the boat, but at the same time, we’re not learning anything by playing games out there. We’re lucky every time we get to line up against those guys. I think we are benefiting from it."
The women's eight event is getting better all the time, with the rivalry between Canada and the United States still in full flower, and other crews clawing their way into the conversation, especially the steadily improving New Zealand crew, and a very game Netherlands crew. After that, the GB isn't far off the pace, and the Romanians seem like they can still get up to the old tricks of their dominant predecessors from years and decades past.
In the first heat, the Romanians charged to the front early, followed by Canada and Australia, while the NZ crew trailed. But soon the Canadians and Kiwis rallied to the front, with the Kiwis closing a few inches every few hundred meters, and the Canadians responding diligently and purposefully to hold off NZ by a second in the two-to-advance heat.
The second heat unfolded similarly, with the Dutch crew running into the lead in the early going, which pushed the American crew to post the fastest time of the two heats by about three seconds, finishing in 5:59.58.
Again pursuing the approach of asking folks at the top of the sport how they deal with the same things that everyone does at all levels of rowing, I asked US women's coach Tom Terhaar not so much about how his crew did today, but instead about his thoughts on how to approach a heat, whether they try to save themselves for subsequent races, how to deal with it when you win or lose, and what the times do or don't mean, touching on both his experiences as an elite and as a college coach.
"The most important thing is that they are able to race really hard, and if they win, that's wonderful," he said.
As for saving themselves for a subsequent race, he said he rarely thinks about it.
"We have so few opportunities to race, so if it's a race we are going to try to win, and to see how fast we can go," he said.
Which brought up the topic of heat times, and how much credence coaches might or might not put in them.
"I don't think it's that important that you would worry about it too much," he said. "If you have the fastest time it's nice, but everything always changes when you actually line up to race side by side. So we're not looking at times to find out whether we have speed so much as to know that we are in the ballpark, and then you have to go out and go as fast as you possibly can."
Next, I noted how every athlete and coach has been in a lopsided draw where a bunch of closely-ranked crews are all together, as well as in situations where you don't see your main competition until the last race of the regatta. Given the choice, Terhaar said he would rather see and race against his most direct competition.
"Mainly because you want to know where you are," he said. "You're not trying to hide or be cute; it's more that every time you race you try to go as fast as you can. So I’d rather see them and see if you can learn something by pushing as hard as you can. It's not like you have something up your sleeve that you try to pull out at the last minute, which I’ve never done – or if I did it never worked!"
As noted above, the US para-rowing crews had a good day overall, especially in the men's single and the mixed four, two crews who were young but still knocking on the door last year.
Single sculler Blake Haxton has made leaps in his rowing in the past year, and even the sometimes jaded commentary team thought so as well, specifically noting his powerful and very smooth style. It turns out Haxton's rowing improvements are the result of a dedicated team of coaches, organizers, and even engineers.
After last year's fourth-place finish at Worlds, at which Haxton said "we kind of accepted we didn’t know much and we kind of threw our hands up in the air said let’s just get everything close enough where we can put up a good race and then we’ll worry about everything else later," Haxton and his coaches went back to the drawing board.
Or more accurately, Haxton and coaches Kurt Schwarz, Pat Kington, and Steve Barthelmas, with the help of Tom Darling who set up an early training camp last year in Florida where they tested some ideas, they threw the old drawing board out, ditching most received wisdom about equipment, technique, rigging, and more.
"We went into it with the attitude that para-rowing, especially arms and shoulder rowing, is so new that there’s not a lot of knowledge around it," Haxton said. "We also made the assumption that able-bodied rowing wasn’t going to transfer well, so we decided let’s just do arms and shoulders rowing. I think that was a really, really good place for us to start.
"Little by little we kind of put the pieces back in place, and with the help of those guys and that kind of thinking it was just one piece at a time and it finally all started wrapping together. Pat totally redesigned the training plan and I feel so much better than I did in Amsterdam. At every distance I’m so much more comfortable.
"And then Steve put a ton of work into the seat," he continued. "I would say maybe the parallel to able-bodied rowing, if you think of all the work you put into the shell, the rigging, and the blade - all of that and probably more goes into just the seat. That in and of itself was kind of a learning curve. My seat actually is entirely customized; we don’t have any commercial parts on it. I have two buddies at home who are fabricators, and they put the whole thing on a CAD program, and we got it exactly where we wanted it. That was incredibly helpful.
"I just totally lucked out with a great team around me that was willing to put in the time and the effort to make me faster," he said. "They did everything they could to help me get quicker, and hopefully we are seeing the benefits of that."
The changes also extended to the training and race plans to work toward a more even-splitting pace; today Haxton went 2:25 to the 500 and 4:50 to the finish in the 1000-meter race.
"I always thought of myself as more of a get ahead and try to stay ahead kind of guy, I want to start quick," he said. "Over the course of this year, we changed that and learned to spend a lot of time even splitting. I think today was the first time I’ve ever done that in a race ever.
"The plan was to get out, stay in your lane, hit your numbers and don’t worry about what’s going on," he said. "I hit the first 500 before I really even worried about where I was, and then from there I was kind of surprised. I think the new training plan kind of kicked in at the 500 and it felt a lot better. I was able to pull through and stay steady and get a little more speed there in the end. All in all great first row."
Women's single sculler Jacqui Kapinowski has had to make some changes to her rowing as well, but in a very different way, as she was previously a Legs-Trunk-Arm double sculler at the 2011 Worlds in Bled. Kapinowski suffers from the very rare Stiff Person Syndrome, which was originally caused by two distinct bouts of bacterial meningitis in her 20s, one of which resulted in her having her last rites read to her.
Since 2012, her condition of has progressed considerably, putting her into the Arms-Shoulders category after her advancing dystonia caused her to break several ribs and two vertebrae.
In addition, she had to beat throat and thyroid cancer along the way, so her comeback here is an impressive and emotional event.
"I have been through quite an ordeal the last four years, but I am so blessed to be here, to be on this platform and part of this event," she said.
Despite a solid second place performance, Kapinowski had a rough go on the water due to her body's inability to regulate temperature, which is a common problem with many para athletes.
"I was able to recover and get my wits together, and I didn't feel I had a great race, but coach (Susan St. Sing) said she is happy, that I looked good coming down the course, and I pulled away at the very end to place second, so I am happy."
Despite having been on the team in 2011, her new classification has presented all new challenges for Kapinowski.
"Arms and Shoulders is so different from trunk and arms," she said. "You are just rowing with your arms and shoulders, and I have very minimal control of my ab muscles, so it is very different from being maybe an amputee rower. I feel almost like I am in my own class it is so different. The training is different, the racing is different, but I have a really good coach who I am blessed to have taken me on, and I'm thankful to be here on this world stage having this conversation with you here today."
Before she started rowing, Kapinowski placed fourth in the 2010 Paralympic Games for Wheelchair Curling, took bronze at the 2007 and 2008 Marathon World Championships, and took bronze at the 2008 World Championships for Wheelchair Curling. And she isn't stopping there; since beating cancer and while dealing with complications of SDS, the mother of two completed a marathon.
So likely there is more to come – including next up, the A final of the World Rowing Championships later this week.
LTA Mixed Four
The US silver medal four from 2014 returns to Aiguebelette with a couple changes in seat placements but otherwise intact, and showed it has seasoned well with a pretty big win in the heats today. The crew has not raced internationally since last year, as there are not that many opportunities to race para events, but they have been tracking their competition as well as improving their speed since last year.
"We’ve been together a long time, and really get together on and off the water, so it was just good to see it all come together in this first race," 19-year-old crew member Zachary Burns said. "We’ve seen some results on how France and Italy have been doing at World Cup, so we had a general idea of who’s fast."
The crew has done some racing on their own as well.
"We raced Canadian Henley so we have some experience, so today our approach was just to trust our training and go out there and get ahead and stay ahead to win the heat."
Notes from the course:
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