Today was heartbreak Wednesday at the Rowing World Championships as countless crews had their Olympic qualification hopes dashed in today's semis, quarterfinals, and reps. Return docks and boatrack areas were filled with tears and consolations, soul-searching and frustration and regrets, and likely not a little bit of soul-searching
Of course, many crews kept their medal and qualification hopes alive today as well, but most of these still have a serious job to do before qualification is complete, so it was mostly game-face even after a good advancing performance. It was the deep disappointment that was so palpable and impossible to hide – accompanied in a very personal way by sometimes profound questions of what went wrong, what else could have been done, and what happens next.
For the US, two para- crews qualified their events for the Rio Games (the men's single and the LTA mixed four), and two crews are out of the qualification running, the men's single and men's eight. Everyone else still has a shot at Olympic qualification, and most still have a shot at the medals.
Here is a full report from the course, in order of racing.
The day started with the race-for-lanes for the women's four, who had the longest wait of anyone at the regatta to get underway; you can read about what they did and how they handled it here.
Men's Coxed Pair
The rep of the men's pair was a brutal affair, and not just because it was the lead sled; at the line, only 2.5 seconds separated the winner from the fifth place finisher in the four-to-advance rep. Unfortunately, the US crew had spotted the field a bit too much water in the early going, rowing in sixth to the 1000, so despite having the second fastest third and fourth 500 meter splits, placed out of the A final by 0.43 seconds.
The splits and relative positions for this race are worth a look; talk about different race plans and variations in speed, whew.
Light Men's Single
The light men's single went to quarterfinals today, which were intense enough even given the fact that no Olympic qualification is on the line, so the desperation efforts seen in some of the other quarters was not there – I guess you could say it was more "normal."
Despite a quick crab early in the race, US light mens' sculler Nick Trojan put in a solid row in his quarter, rowing in second throughout before putting in the fastest fourth 500. He took a similar approach to that of his heat.
"I approached it the same way we approached the heat, not trying to predict anything but just go out and hone in on our own boat. I tried to take some notes from the heat to work on things, and definitely executed a lot better today. It was a hard race, and obviously as things go forward it’s going to get harder and harder. I’m happy to be in a place where I can make it to the A finals. Everything’s good."
Trojan purposely even split the middle 1000 to within a tenth of a second, but wasn't using electronics to do so, going more on old-fashioned boat feel.
"I wasn't checking splits, but just kind of going with feeling, using peripheral vision and keeping it in your own boat," he said. "Just watching the boat and feeling the water. It’s hard when it’s tough conditions like it was, but I think I was definitely able to control the conditions better today so it was good."
Light Men's Quad
The light men's quads rowed a single six-boat rep today, with two to the A final, so the brawl for shots at the medals was pretty solid, with the top four crews within a few seats of each other most of the way. The US crew went out with a plan to go out hard and vie for the lead, but instead found themselves a bit down and working to claw back in, including needing to post their fastest 500 in the last 500, whichwas critical, as it got them just 0.23 ahead of Australia for the second advancing spot.
"We were excited to get another opportunity to race, as we haven’t done a ton of racing in the quad," stroke seat Austin Meyer said. "The goal was to actually go out in the first thousand a little hard. It didn't play out that way.
"But you have to adapt, and we really put it together in the second thousand; we were able to find a really good rhythm and the sprint was really good."
I asked how the crew came together midrace, and Meyer said it was due to focusing on some fundamental things such as leg drive and keeping the blades shallow, and then things fell into place.
"If you keep your confidence and you keep your calm you’re going to be able to make those minor adjustments," he said.
"Those little adjustments can make a big difference in the second thousand," three-seat Hugh McAdam said. "When we have a good rhythm it’s really easy to pick up and we can build off of it. It’s a boat that it’s easy to find a really aggressive rhythm."
"Then sometimes we just find each other a little bit more," Meyer added. "It feels like we’re getting better and better each time we go out there and race, and luckily it was good enough today and then hopefully we’re a notch better in the final."
"Now we’ll get back in the boat and keep working, try and iron out those last little kinks and really come at it again on Friday," McAdam concluded.
Light Women's Quad
The US light women's quad found themselves in similar straits in the first thousand, although perhaps expectedly so, as they had a bit of a slow start in the heat as well.
I think we came in with a pretty solid plan based on our first days," three-seat Hillary Saeger said. "In the heat we were a little slow off to start, so in our heads I think we planned that we would be down off the start and would have to walk through today. It's almost easier to work in that position, to push through people if you kind of mentally prepare"
I asked if it was harder psychologically to race that way.
"It was for the first race, mostly because we didn't know what was going to happen," she said. "But coming to this race, it's a little less so knowing that we might be dropped, but also knowing that we can have the power to push through them."
"We all came into this race ready to have to fight through the whole thing,and so that mindset was helpful, especially in the second half of the race," stroke seat Erin Roberts said.
"Right after the 1000 there was a sudden leg move that I felt, and that we all responded to. That actually stood out, and then at the 750 I think we all mentally prepared that we might start the sprint early so we all got sharper. Then we did start the sprint a little early, and we all started to move at that point."
"Moving together was something that we worked on a lot at in training," two-seat Mary Foster said. "Because we do a lot of training in our singles and doubles, putting the quad together, that was something that we sometimes struggled with. So we worked on it so that we're all supporting each other and all supporting the boat speed as we try to go faster."
In what might have been the most inspiring race by a US crew of the day, the US men's pair of Michael DiSanto and Dariush Aghai lined up against the dominant Kiwi pair, the Dutch pair, and a batch of solid contenders, fell back into fifth, and then did an extended windup that had the announcers marveling at their 42 stroke per minute slash to the line to take the third of three advancing positions.
I asked Aghai if the crew could have imagined themselves lining up against the NZ crew and then sprinting through for a qualifying spot earlier this summer. Read that interview here.
Light Men's Double
As mentioned a couple days ago, the quarterfinals of the light men's double are a huge step toward qualification for Rio; with 11 crews qualifying from Aiguebelette, if you get yourself into the A/B semis, you know at the very least you will end up in a situation where if you can beat one crew, you made it.
After we talked about their race a bit, including about how their time training in the basin on the Charles helped them deal with the crosswind today, I asked the US double of Andrew Campbell and Josh Konieczny if the qualification was on their minds.
"It was on our minds," Konieczny said definitively and with an almost imperceptible but somehow unmistakable slight stiffening of his back and snapback of his head.
"It was definitely on my mind," agreed Campbell with a laugh.
"Last year I remember beating the Chinese in the quarterfinal by just a couple tenths of a second, so I knew it could come to that," Konieczny said. "It was nice that we didn’t have to really pull it out in the quarterfinals this time."
"This regatta is interesting because I think now is the point that we can start to think about finishing in a high position, where up to this point it’s been entirely about just qualify the boat," Campbell said.
Is it like defensive rowing?
"To some degree the defensive rowing is done and offense starts now," he said. "First down."
Light Women's Double, Women's Quad, Women's Double
Unfortunately, we did not get to speak to these crews due to a few different factors, but all three advanced in what were very hard fought races.
The US light women's double rowed from fourth up to second before the Russian crew posted the best 500 of any crew in any 500 in their final 500 (if you can't quite follow that, see the splits here), and the US crew had to settle for the third advancing spot.
The US women's quad was in a wild race in which all kinds of movement occurred in the ranks; the splits don't quite do it justice, but have a look here.
And the US women's double got their money's worth as well today after finding themselves in fifth position of five at the 1000 meter mark, and rowing up into second by the finish with a negative split performance
Light Men's Four
The US light men's four seemed to be cruising with the Dutch four in their four-boat rep today, having led to the thousand and then rowed into the last 500 pretty much even before the Dutch crew pulled away. The crew had planned to go hard in the early going, but afterward felt like they still have some things to improve.
"We wanted to try to push a little more in the first half of the race, which we definitely did," stroke seat Will Daly said. "I think maybe that we spent a little too much on raw power, and could've taken a second and focused on technique a little more and got a bit more run, though. For our second race, though, we did what we wanted to do and now we're just trying to refine it for the semis."
Looking ahead, Daly is hoping to have their best race on semis day.
"For us, the semi is basically the final," he said. "That's the way you've got to look at it. We think we're good enough to be in that A final, so that's what we have to go out to try to do."
After what seemed like a tentative start to the regatta on Sunday, US sculler Gevvie Stone looked much more on form today, placing second in her quarterfinal to strong favorite Kim Crow of Australia. Stone said that the crosswind and chop in the first 1000 had her spinning her wheels a little bit, and she reached the 500 in fourth place, but that when the water got a bit better, she was able to find a rhythm and make some progress.
We talked about her race as well as the unique challenges of the single, which can require up to five races over the full eight days of the regatta. You can find the full discussion here.
Foremost among the US crews caught in the mix of crews who saw their Olympic qualification hopes dashed was the US men's eight, which was racing in as deep a men's eight field as we have seen in a long time. I you look at the split and final times from today's two reps, you will see how evenly matched the top
The US crew made at least a couple really nice bids for the lead in the first 500, and then after the Dutch crew got the lead did so again to try to cement the second qualifying spot in the third 500, but the New Zealand boat is known for its ability to sprint, and their 1:21 last 500 got them ahead of the US crew with about 100-150 meters to go, and the US could not get back on terms, and placed third to head to the B finals. With only five crews qualifying from Aiguebelette, the US crew will be unable to contest to qualify for the spot.
"We're all disappointed, and I feel terribly for the guys in the boat," US men's eight coach Luke McGee said after the racing. "They executed what I asked them to do at the start of the race and they put themselves in a position to win. Credit to the Dutch and the Kiwis on rowing a great race.
"We knew the eight would be the hardest boat to qualify for Rio, but coming into Worlds the eight had been our highest percentage boat in race pieces," he noted. "We had high hopes for a medal performance and a direct Olympic qualification, which only adds to our disappointment. But we cannot hide from this result. We have to own it and get started with picking ourselves up and qualifying this boat in 2016. It starts by getting back out there and racing our hardest on Sunday. "
Before relaying the specifics of the races, it is important to note that both the men's single and the LTA mixed four qualified the US for the Paralympic Games
US sculler Blake Haxton rowed a very similar race to his heat, starting out in the pack and pushing closer to the front all the way to the finish line. He didn't quite even split like he did the other day, although conditions may be partly to blame.
The para- single field is tightening up considerably, and has gotten much deeper in just a year's time. As recently as last year, the top scullers more or less dominated all week, while everyone else was spread out considerably in many races. This year, the second had five crews within 2-3 lengths, and scullers like defending world champ Tom Aggar were racing in the middle of the pack; Aggar placed third in his semi.
Haxton is encouraged by the development (not to mention in the mix of it as well), as it is a very good indicator of the health of the event.
"I think it's getting a lot more exposure, so I think a lot more people are starting to find the sport and really finding that it's something that they can enjoy," he said. "I think one of the things that probably draws people to it is once you're out on the water, it's a very independent sport. It's a fun way to be out there by yourself and really have full control over what you're doing. That sense of independence is really tough to get back, but I think you find it eventually. And I think it's great; it's fantastic for the sport.
"And the spreads are definitely tightening up," he continued. "The field's getting deeper, and I don't think that's going to change anytime soon. I think it's going to continue that way.
I asked if he found it exciting, intimidating, or both.
"Little bit of both," he said, laughing. "It's fun getting to this level where you just know there's a lot of speed, and you have to bring your best, because if you don't you're going to get beat. And that's really how it should be. And that you're getting to be a part of that, and that without it you're never going to be as good as you could be. I think it's definitely something that we enjoy and it's why I keep coming back."
The US LTA four won their semi with the fastest time of the day, a blink faster than the defending champ GB crew.
"We all know that the stakes go up and with every race that will happen, but we go out there and do what we have to do to row our race and we don't worry about anyone else," bow seat Jaclyn Smith said. "We went out and we had a plan and we stuck to it. The results show that we rowed our race, and now we are going to get excited for tomorrow."
Notes from the course:
The medals will be presented by… Title… Name.
Winners of the bronze medal, Country 3!
Represented by… Athlete 1! Athlete 2! Athlete 3! And Athlete 4!
Winners of the silver medal, Country 2!
Represented by… Athlete 1! Athlete 2! Athlete 3! And Athlete 4!
Winners of the gold medal, and 2015 World Rowing Champions… Country 1!
Country 1, represented by… Athlete 1! Athlete 2! Athlete 3! And Athlete 4!
Now ladies and gentlemen, the national anthem of… Country 1!
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