From the moment the 2019 World Rowing Championships entries reached a record amount, through the heats and reps and quarter finals, then semifinals and finals, the level of intensity in the competition were at times head-turning.
At stake were direct qualifications to the next Olympic Games. Qualifying a boat class for Tokyo 2020 was the first, and often the last, thing athletes and coaches brought up in conversations about their crew's efforts on the course in Linz-Ottensheim.
Sunday, on the last day of the eight-day regatta, with racing finished up in the non-Olympic and non-Paralympic events earlier in the weekend, it was not necessary to the sit in the stands and watch racing to get a read on just how important the results were in the morning B finals, and then again in the afternoon finals for the men's and women's eights.
The crowd noise was really all that was needed. A jam-packed grandstand in the tiny and compact venue made hearing anything above the horns and cow bells, and the screaming of friends, family and fans, just about impossible.
It was that kind of day in the last set of races in the third and final preparation year of the 2020 Olympic cycle, and the lead up the Tokyo Games.
From the moment the first B finals began to when the two eights finals decided which of those six boat fields would avoid a last place finish and a trip to the Final Qualification Regatta next spring, the grandstands shook as crews raced for the finish.
The results of some of those races were, well, pretty crazy.
A perfect example would be the women's double B final. All six crews crossed the line seemingly together; the margin between first and six was about a second and a half. Italy crossed first in 6:57.08, and Belarus finished 6th in 6:58.60.
With five positions open for qualification, and six boats racing, not one crew gave up the battle to make Tokyo. Italy was in sixth place when they pressed into the last 500 meters, staged a sprint, and won the race.
Women's double B final
"The margins in the field are getting tighter and tighter," said Oliva Loe, who was in the New Zealand women's double that won the A final in the event.
Just by placing in the final, Loe had already qualified her boat class for Tokyo in the semifinal. But the fact that they had checked that box off before racing Sunday, and avoided that B final fray, was not lost on her.
"The whole field is stepping up. The B final was super tight, the C final was super tight. Anybody could have been in this final. Anybody could take this medal, so it's just making sure you turn up on the day with the right attitude and be willing to put it all on the line."
The US double of Gevvie Stone and Cicely Madden raced in that A final, and had also qualified the boat for Tokyo in the semifinal. But after leading into the third 500 meters, they were overtaken and finished fifth. Romania was second and the Netherlands was third. Stone and Madden raced to the end against Canada and the margin between their bow balls was 0.01 seconds.
Gevvie Stone and Cicely Madden
By regatta's end, the US had won 6 medals and qualified two men's and six women's Olympic class crews. In the Paralympic boat classes, all four crews qualified.
In racing Sunday, the only boat that had not yet qualified was the PR1 men's para single, but Blake Haxton won his B final in the morning and moved that boat into the green.
Among the other US women's crews that raced Sunday, the women's eight and single sculler Kara Kohler both won bronze medals and locked up places for their boat classes for Tokyo.
For the men, the 2019 World Championships was a full-on good and bad story.
All the men's sculling crews - the single, double, light double, and quad - failed to qualify and will have to go to the Final Qualification Regatta, and place high enough there if the US is to be represented in any of those boat classes. For the men's sweep crews, the men's pair joined that list. Also not qualified by regatta's end was the lightweight women's double.
But for the first time in two cycles, the US men qualified both the men's eight and four. Qualifying the eight at a World Championships qualifier will give the men's team some space to breath during the winter and spring lead up, and avoid the disruptions that accompanied having to select and train a crew months before the last two Olympics.
But even that result did not come easy;; the men's eight did not have the race they believed they were capable of, and finished fifth, the last possible qualifying spot.
For sure, it was that kind of day in Linz-Ottensheim Sunday.
Even in the races where crews were already qualified, the pace of the racing, and the push to go into the Olympic year with a medal result in this last year of the lead up, resulted in multiple dashes to the line, and athletes having to look at the finish line results board to know where they placed.
More than one boat went back to the landing dock missing a crew member.
Assist for Simone Martini
Italian single sculler Simone Martini qualified his boat in the B final then could not get up and get back into his single. A team support member (maybe a coach?) hovered over him pouring water on his head and talking to him for about 10 minutes, before hitching up his pant legs, getting into Martini's boat, and rowing it back to the dock. Rio Olympic silver medalist Damir Martin finished second in that same race to qualify for Tokyo, and did not feel noticeably better. He also had to have his boat rowed back to the dock by a member of the support staff.
In the A final of the men's single, Germany's Oliver Zeidler won in 6:44.55 and Denmark's Sverri Nielsen crossed second in 6:44.58. Zeidler made it back in his boat, but it took him a few minutes to get his legs under him to get up and walk to the media mix zone, where Sverri was sitting, trying to take in what had happened.
Finish of the men's single
"I was pretty sure I medaled, but I didn't know more than that," Nielsen said. "I didn't want to look out in the last 500-meters. I was just feeling the Dutch man on my right side, and I could feel Olli on my left side, so I knew I was in the race," Nielsen said.
"So I focused on the boat, and just went full throttle in the last 20 strokes. I knew I medalled, but I didn't know if I was first, second, or third place until I looked at the result on the screen."
After making it to the mix zone, instead of doing a long stand up television interview, Zeidler flopped down on the cement steps next to Neilsen and talked to reporters there.
"That was hard," he said. "It was a really a tough race, and I'm exhausted right now. I saw that I was in front of Sverri, but I hadn't seen (third place finished Kjetl Borch) and I was just looking over my stern in the sprint. In the end it worked out, thankfully."
The margin from first to third in that race was 29/100s of a second, whew.
Not to overstate a point - but it was that kind of day in Linz-Ottensheim Sunday. The weather was hot, the racing was hotter, and the story lines, and implications, for 2020 were abundant.
For women's single sculler Kara Kohler, the story was her taking up the single last year, and finishing just out of the medals in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, then winning US trials in the spring, while continuing to train as one of the athletes from the US women's training center, and finally taking bronze Sunday.
Ireland's Sanita Puspure won, and New Zealand's Emma Twigg took second. The top four women controlled the front of the pack from about 500 meters in. Twigg led into the third five hundred, and was passed by Puspure in the sprint. Kohler trailed GB's Vicky Thornley until the second five-hundred-meter mark.
"I had a good World Championship last year, and I ended up in fourth place, and I was pretty happy about that," Kohler said. "I knew I had more speed to work on over the year. I'm happy to have finished up my season on the podium for the first time in a single.
"In the first half, Emma shot out, and I couldn't even see her. I could feel Sanita on me, so that was hopeful for me. I knew as long as I could stay in touch with Sanita, I should be in a good position. GB was pushing, but luckily, I was able to bring it home. This is just pure relief and confirmation that the training I'm doing with Laurel Korholz and the training center group is working so far. I only look forward to what I can build off this year."
For Puspure, defending her 2018 title, and qualifying her boat was her goal for the regatta.
"This was a tough year for me," she said. 'I really wanted to defend my title and this was the hardest race of the regatta. In the other races, I was ahead and could stay relaxed and in control. There were times I thought I would just have to be happy with qualifying the boat. But now I will go and cry my eyes out."
For Twigg, who retired after Rio, and then came back this year and made qualifying in Linz her season goal, the silver medal was very satisfying.
"I just decided today that I was going to put it all out there," she said. "It didn't turn out the way I wanted it to, but these two years are for learning, and next year's the big one. I'm happy to be back in it.
"It's such an amazing field, and filled with amazing people like Sanita and all the women in the final, and the B final. I feel like I'm just learning to row again, and every time I race, I'm learning new things."
The women's single race followed the men's eight race. After qualifying for the final in the heat, the US men felt they were going to be fast enough to medal. But their primary goal was to qualify for the Olympics, something the US has not been able to do in either of the last two World Championship qualifiers.
But Germany, the Dutch and Great Britain took the medals. Australia and the US took fourth and fifth, the last two available 2020 positions. New Zealand was left out of the top five, and will need to qualify next spring.
Men's eight finish. US qualifed in fifth
The US men, though they are aware to a man how important qualifying the boat was, were still disappointed in the result.
"We felt like we were better than that," said Ben Davison. "I know we were better than that. That was a disappointing final for us. We'll have to take a step back, and have look and see what exactly went wrong.
"Qualifying definitely checked one of the boxes for us, and takes some of the pressure off to allow the US to take the time needed to pick the boat and have a good run up to the Olympics for whoever is going to be in it. But it's just not the result we were looking for," he said.
Austin Hack was in the eight that missed qualification in 2015, and had to race at the Final Qualification Regatta in 2016. He knows the disruption to the training center men that caused.
"I think we would have loved to be better, we had higher expectation for ourselves to be better than that," he said. "But we did the critical thing, and we qualified the boat for next year. So, I think that's kind of the silver lining for it."
Head coach Mike Teti was also disappointed in the result, while still happy to have qualified both the eight and the four, and not be forced train and select a crew early, and chance the qualification racing.
"We made a few mistakes today, but I think overall, in general, if you would have told me we were going to go from 13th last year to 5th in the four, close to a medal, I would have jumped all over that.
"We'll go back to the drawing board," he said. "I think these guys are getting better. I don't think they were thinking of the qualification, but I certainly was. I think they thought they were a really capable crew. Everything we've done this year has been pretty fast, and that was definitely not our A game.
"We know what the opposition is, and we know how difficult it can be not to qualify, and that it messes up selection. But I think these guys are pretty disappointed they didn't get to the podium," Teti said.
In the final race of the day, the women's eight capped their regatta with a bronze medal and a Tokyo qualification.
New Zealand raced to the gold. Australia was second. Canada and Great Britain took the fourth and fifth qualifying positions.
"The first thing that I'm really excited about is to have qualified," said coxswain Katelin Guregian. "You can't race for Olympic gold if you're not at the big show, so that's pretty amazing.
"In terms of the race, the beginning of the race played out the way we thought it would, we knew that Canada and Australia would be really fast off the line. We thought we would be right there with New Zealand, and we were.
"They just slipped away a little bit more than we expected in the third five-hundred. The thing that I'm really excited about is that we lost a little on New Zealand and Australia, but we were able to shift our focus to Canada, and when they started pushing, we said no, and we fought harder.
"We were able to get that medal, and it was really satisfying."
Here is a rundown of the A finals races that were not detailed above in the order of finish.
PR1 Women's Single
First to race for the US was PR1 women's single sculler Hallie Smith, who had qualified her boat for Tokyo in the semifinal.
Winning that race was Birgit Skarstein of Norway. Nathalie Benoit of France was second, and Moran Samuel of Israel was third.
"I expected tough competition out there from France and Israel. I was pushing hard, we were all pushing hard. There wasn't one part of the moment I felt safe," Skarstein said. "This result feels really good, and it's only an award for all the hard work we've put in.
"This week has been a place to show the effort we've put in. I have a really great team behind me. Together with the Olympic and Paralympic team, we train together six days a week and it's great to see these results," she said.
France's Benoit said she was pleased with being close to Skarstein at the finish.
"That was the first time it has been close between me and Birgit," she said. "It's much more exciting to race like this. I have a good relationship with her and I am very happy for her result. I'm also very pleased for myself, as it was a stressful year and to have my family here is great."
Said Samuel: "The conditions today were really good for racing. When you compete with the best, you take out the most from yourself. Birgit set the bar really high for the last couple of years so it's nice to get a little bit closer every time. And hopefully, in Tokyo, I will be better. Also, congratulations to Nathalie as she comes back."
PR1 Men's Single
Ukraine's Roman Polianskyi won. Alexey Chuvashev was second. Erik Horrie of Australia was third.
"I'm exhausted but today I'm 33," said Polianskyi. "So, this is the best present for me. My plan changed as I raced but it went well!" Chuvashev said he went as hard as he could, and was happy with the finish.
"Everything is ok," Chuvashev said. "You work well, you race well. But it was a hard race, really hard. I will see you in Tokyo."
Horrie, said while he was not happy with the result, he was happy with that the season ended with a qualification and a medal. "It wasn't my day today, but I'm happy to come away with a medal considering the season I've had, coming back from injury."
China won, Ireland was second, and Poland was third. "It was such a tough race for us," said China's Liang Zhang, "every team had competed with all their energy. World Championships means a lot to us, to the whole team. But we will keep improving our weak side for Tokyo."
Ireland's Ronan Byrne said he was hurting after the race, but was happy to have medaled and qualified.
"I'm feeling a lot of pain, but also happiness," Byrne said. "We tried to train to race hard, and so we tried to stick with China. But it didn't completely go to plan. The third five-hundred meters is now our main focus. We wanted to be in a controlling position here, and I just thought to myself, we have to do it this time."
Notes from the Course
Old Man (on a) River
While everyone on the venue was watching World Championship racing on the Linz course, which is outshoot of the Danube, a lone, elderly sculler was rowing a wooden single on the Danube behind the second set of grandstands. row2k photographer Erik Dresser heard his oars working against the oar locks, and stopped covering the regatta to snap a picture.
Old man on the Danube
Olympian Magdalena Lobnig of Austria, qualified her the single in front of the home crowd, finishing third in the B final to the rousing approval of the fans in the grandstands. “I'm super happy to reach my target," Lobnig said. "It was really difficult! Today I found a better rhythm and pace than my Semifinal. I'm now ready!”
Emma Twigg wears a small silver pendant around her neck of a girl walking with a stick on her shoulder with a little sack tied to the end.
The pendant, she said, is just a popular New Zealand design titled the Runaway Girl - and said it has no emotional significance, or ties to her journey away from rowing after Rio. But she did acknowledge that it could.
"This is just a Kiwi design," she said. "It's called a Runaway Girl. I've had it for a number of years. I guess I was a runaway girl, but I've come home."