At this time of year everywhere you look there is a “review of the year” or “best of 2013” so I thought it was time I jumped on the bandwagon and did my own review of the year (and a bit of a look forward to 2014).
I don’t pretend that this is anything but a subjective look back and is by no means comprehensive so if I miss out something you were expecting then I make no apology!
So….what’s been happening….
Post-Olympic year is always interesting, it’s a time of rebuilding squads following retirements and others take time off. It also gives coaches the opportunity to try some different combinations. This sometimes produces results that aren’t always expected.
Eric Murray and Hamish Bond are, without question, the finest pair in history. I think Steve Redgrave and Matt Pinsent in their prime would’ve given them a good run for their money but ultimately I think the men in black are just freakily good. They’ve put some icing on the cake at the end of the year by breaking Graham Benton’s world records for the 60 minute ergo and the ½ marathon. They have now extended their unbeaten run to 15 consecutive regattas. No-one has come close to them since Hodge & Reed in 2010 (3/10th of a second to be precise). So good are the Kiwis that they I think they’ve had the same effect on the rowing world as Pinsent & Redgrave did. Most of the other “big” rowing nations prioritise other boats, knowing they would be racing for silver at best in the pair. So they don’t “waste” their top rowers taking on the mighty Kiwis. It was the same in the 1990’s with the British. They created an aura of invincibility that meant that other pairs lined-up racing for the silver. This is not to underestimate the amount of work and effort that the Kiwis put in, I love watching them race…..it just looks effortless.
But, men’s rowing this year was not just about the Kiwi pair. The British decided to make a point and put together a “big” 8 including the 3 remaining Olympic champions (Andy Hodge, Pete Reed and Alex Gregory). Their performances were a little erratic but they did lay down an impressive 5:25 at the 2nd World Cup at Dorney…the fastest ever time by a GB M8. They also broke the record at Henley and topped it off by becoming the first ever British M8 to win the World Championships. The question heading into 2014 is will the British prioritise the 8 again….my thoughts on that later.
For me one of the highlights of the 2013 season is seeing the Norwegian M2X fulfil the potential that they first displayed in winning the final world cup of 2012. Kjetil Borch and Nils Jakob Hoff bring an enthusiasm and joy to their racing that is infectious….you only have to see their victory celebration at Chungju to see that! The Norwegian’s had a great year, with Kjetil Borch taking the course record at the head of the Charles and the lightweight double of Kristoffer Brun and Are Strandli claiming a 2nd gold for the Vikings at Chungju (which, I think, is the first time the Norwegians have won 2 golds at a World Championships).
In the single, Ondrej Synek was truly dominant ending the season unbeaten and never looking under threat. Elsewhere in this event it was a difficult year for the Olympic champion Mahe Drysdale. The Kiwi joined the 2013 party late and struggled. Beaten at the Holland Bekker, beaten at Henley and withdrew from the World Championships through injury after struggling to make the “C” final. I’m positive we’ll see more of the “old” Mahe in 2014, but he’s already suffered another defeat losing to Hamish Bond at the Christmas Regatta on Lake Karapiro. Britain’s Alan Campbell also had a mixed year losing to Charlie Cousins at the GB Trials and to Aleksandrov at Henley, he missed out on a World Championship medal for the first time since 2007.
In the quad the Croatians were superb, I never tire of watching them race…it’s a brilliant combination of raw power and exceptional technique. At Chungju they got revenge on the Germans for their defeat at the Olympics. Special mention must also go to the British who secured a World Championship medal in this event for the first time ever.
The Women’s events in 2013 saw some exceptional racing. In the 1X Kim Crow was dominant. The Aussie was unbeaten all year and looks like she’s shaping up to make this event her own for the next few years.
For me, the no.1 crew of 2013 are the British W2-. In 2012 Helen Glover and Heather Stanning got better and better as the year went on culminating in a storming victory at the Olympics delivering Team GB’s first gold of the games. But, at the start of 2013 Heather Stanning returned to her duties as a captain in the Royal Artillery…so who could possibly fill such “big” shoes? Up steps Polly Swann. Many people (including me) didn’t expect too much from this new combination. But, in reality this new combination picked up just where Glover and Stanning left off. They completely dominated the event finishing 2013 unbeaten. What’s more they did it in such style. For my money Helen Glover is the best rower in the world at the moment. She had the ability to bring out the best in whoever she partners. Both the pair with Stanning and also with Swann are a model of how to row a boat. It’s also a testament to the coaching skills of Robin Williams….possibly the best “technical” coach in the world at the moment. What’s going to be really interesting heading into 2014 is who goes in the pair? Heather Stanning is now back from her tour of duty and has returned to the British squad. The question is will she or Polly (or someone else) partner Helen Glover in the pair…the selection battle is going to be fascinating.
Another standout performance in the women’s events were the Lithuanian double. Donata Vistartaite and Milda Valciukaite won an epic race at Chungju by just 4/100ths second over the Kiwis. What makes the Lithuanian’s so interesting is not just the way they race but the fact that Valciukaite is only 19. She went straight from the junior to senior ranks, winning the JW2X in 2012 followed by senior title the following year. These two could well dominate this event in the run-up to Rio.
In the W8 the US delivered their 6’th successive world title and broke the world’s best time into the bargain. No other country got close. What’s so impressive about the US is the amount of power they lay down…they really muscle their way over the opposition…it’s mightily impressive. It’ll be interesting to see if any nation can step up to challenge the American’s in the run up to Rio, somehow I’m not sure they will….
In the lightweight events it was an epic battle all season between the Danes and the Kiwis with the British snapping at their heels. The Danes are always get fun to watch….they only know one way and that is flat out from the green light to the finish line. The British had a significantly different crew to 2012 with the Chambers brothers racing the double. But, it’s highly likely that they will return to the LM4- for 2014 and that could really produce some fireworks. This event is going to be really something to watch in 2014.
Outside of the World Championships it’s been a really interesting year. FISA have made some tweaks to the format for Olympics with a rebalancing of the number of men and women competing. They have reduced the number of boats in the M1X, M4X and M8 and increased the number of spots in the W1X, W2- and W2X. This is a positive step, but for me they could have gone further. By increasing the number of boats in existing events they are “lowering the floor”. I’m worried that these extra boats will be “cannon fodder” and of a relatively low standard. What I would have preferred to have seen is the introduction of an event like the LW1X into the Olympic programme. This will help the gender/weight balance of the events at the Olympic programme and also raise the ceiling rather than lowering the floor as I think the current plan will. Still, it’s a step in the right direction and I’m sure we’ll be seeing more changes to the way the sport is represented at the biggest show on earth. Every Olympic sport needs to learn from the experience of wrestling….you change or die as an Olympic discipline.
Elsewhere I thought this year’s Henley Royal Regatta was one of the best ever….incredibly hot, records galore and some great racing. It was especially enjoyable for me as I was part of the Regatta Radio commentary team (an experience I hope to repeat in 2014). It was pretty special to see the top GB M8 break the record in the Grand and also to see a Ladies Plate crew go sub-6 minutes for the first time (although many, including me, think the Leander/Molesey Ladies Plate crew – aka GB2 – were more suited to the Grand rather than the Ladies Plate). As an old Abingdonian I was particularly pleased to see the old school make history as the first school since Bedford in 1949 to win a hat trick of Princess Elizabeth titles. Who knows, maybe they can make it 4 in a row in 2014. But they will have their work cut out as one of the other significant events in junior rowing in the UK was the return to Eton of Alex Henshilwood. Alex put together some of the best ever schoolboy crews during his previous tenure at Eton and I wouldn’t like to bet against him working his magic again in 2014. Abingdon also took the Thames Cup with the old boys of Griffen getting better and better as the regatta went on.
I can’t mention junior rowing without talking about another record breaker…Hollingworth Lake’s Jess Leyden. She made history by becoming the first British woman to win an openweight 1X world title at any age group. Now at Leander, Jess has been racing with the senior squad, being a part of the elite Leander quad that won at the Head of the River Fours. I do hope that the Leander and GB systems nurture her talent and don’t push too hard too soon. Jess may play a part in Rio but I reckon she will be a major force come the 2020 games.
Talking of the Fours Head of the River, that was another great experience for me personally. As Press Officer I was part of the organising committee of a major event for the first time. I had a great time and the highlight for me was watching the Tideway Scullers “Super” quad destroy the field. Alan Campbell, Aleksander Alexsandrov, Valent Sinkovic and Ondrej Synek were, possibly, the best quad ever to take to the Thames.
Some commentators have criticised Scullers for putting out this sort of “rent-a-crew” of superstars (and similar 8’s at the Head of the Charles). But, I totally disagree with these moaners. I think it’s fabulous to see this type of all-star crew take to the water….even if it’s just to give the squad boats a real challenge. I struggle to think of any other sport where this sort of multi-national all-star team could be put together? The closest I can think of are rugby union’s Barbarians.
Heading to the end of the year we are now well into the training for the 2014 season and certainly for Team GB we are starting to see some of the 2012 stars returning. I’ve already mentioned Heather Stanning, but the recent 5K trials also saw the return of Olympic champion Kat Copeland and Olympic bronze medallist Stan Louloudis. It remains to be seen if Anna Watkins and Katherine Grainger return to training and also if Zac Purchase decides to make a comeback (he did compete at the early season trials as a heavyweight but failed to meet the ergo standard – once he’s back to the right weight it might be a different story).
So, we are at the end of 2013 and now things start to get just a little more serious….the post-Olympic year is over and the formations for Rio will start to appear in 2014. It’s going to be fascinating to watch and I’m really looking forward to writing all about it in the coming months!
Happy New Year to everyone!