It has been far, far too long since I last posted on this blog and for that I apologise. So I thought I would get “back in the saddle” with a few thoughts about the events on the international rowing scene in 2014 and also a look ahead to this year.
For anyone who subscribes to Row 360 Magazine (and if you don’t, why not?) You can read my (uncredited) highlights of 2014 on pages 12 -13 of issue 3.
I thought I would look at things from the perspective of the Olympic event boats…so here goes…
Things didn’t look too good for Mahe Drysdale at the start of the year when he was beaten consistently by Hamish Bond in domestic competition in New Zealand. But, when he got to Europe it was a different matter. He looked imperious with wins at the 2nd World Cup, the Diamonds at Henley and at the Lucerne World Cup. But, it was Ondrej Synek, the defending champion, who took the honours in Amsterdam with a beautifully judged race. Mahe got caught napping in the first thousand and put in an epic 2nd K but he ran out of lake. It was a brilliant performance from the Czech and he’ll be approaching the vital Olympic qualifying year in buoyant mood.
Behind these two it’s an interesting battle. There are loads of scullers who will be very, very competitive – there’s Fournier Rodriguez from Cuba, Aleksandrov from Azerbaijan, Mindaugus of Lithuania, the evergreen Hacker of Germany, Braas from the Netherlands and so on. We cannot ignore the wonderful Olaf Tufte who made his comeback this season. He didn’t set the world alight on his comeback, but it’s all about getting the spot at Rio and then seeing what happens. The World championships were also notable by the absence of GB’s perennial representative Alan Campbell. He had a horrible year and was, apparently, dropped by Jurgen Grobler at Zurich airport after only making the “C” final at Lucerne. It was the first time he’d failed to make an “A” final at a major regatta in the single scull. I have no doubt that Alan will be back, he will be desperate to win his spot back and there is no-one grittier or more determined than Alan. We had hoped to get an indication of his speed at the pre-Christmas GB trials but he withdrew through illness. We will have to wait and see.
So what about 2015….well, Mahe has started this season as he started the last, losing a domestic regatta. This time it was Robbie Manson, not Hamish Bond, who inflicted the loss and by a whopping 8 seconds. But, given what happened in 2014 it could be a good omen for Mahe! As mentioned above, I hope and expect Campbell to regain his spot and qualify the boat for Rio. But, my one to watch this year will be the big Dutchman, Roel Braas….
At the start of the year I was intrigued to see the Sinkovic brothers move into the double after the injury to Damir Martin. I was expecting them to be competitive….I wasn’t expecting them to blow away the rest of the world and produce the astonishing sub-6 minute race at the World Championships. They have, quite simply, changed the game in this event. The big question for 2015 is will they stay in the double? Damir Martin has, apparently, recovered from his back injury, David Sain wasn’t competitive in the single scull, so will they reform the 2013 world championship winning quad, or will they stay in the double? The way I see it is that the double is the better chance for the gold. My money is on them staying in the double with a new quad being formed around Martin and Sain. If the Croatians stay in the double are can’t see anyone getting close to them in 2015 (or 2016 for that matter). But behind them it’s going to be quite a bunfight. At the Worlds 2nd to 5th were separated by just 6/10th of a second, with silver and bronze just 1/100th apart. The “B” final was also extremely competitive with British, Norwegians, Serbians and Kiwis all capable of getting a medal.
So what will happen this year? As mentioned above, if the Croatians stay in the double I think they will make this event their own (like the Kiwi M2-) but behind them it’s going to be interesting. The British will looking for an improvement to 2013 and the Kiwis look potentially the “best of the rest”. Robbie Manson has laid down a big marker with his victory over Drysdale at the Christmas Regatta, they could be a big threat this year.
What more is there to say about this event….the Kiwis just keep on winning and no-one looks like getting close. What is interesting is the response from the rest of the world. The majority of the “big” rowing nations prioritise other events, which in turn, means the gulf between Bond and Murray and the rest of the world gets a little bigger. The interesting development for 2015 is that the French Olympic silver medallists, Germain Chardin and Dorian Mortelette are returning to the event after a year spent in the M8. I don’t, for one minute, expect them to get within a boat length of the Kiwis but it makes the battle for silver a bit more interesting!
The British were the “best of the rest” in 2014 with James Foad and Matt Langridge. Time will tell whether these two will still be in the boat this season. They will be looking to get seats in the 8, a boat with real gold medal potential, rather than the 3rd priority British boat where the best that can be hoped for is a silver. But, whoever is in the British boat will be a strong challenger for the silver with the French.
If the Croatians have made the M2X their own, and the Kiwis the M2- then the British have done the same in the M4-. At the start of the season when the line-up of the GB 4- was announced the only surprise was the omission of Pete Reed who, it transpires was suffering from a dog allergy. But the crew that Grobler put together looked formidable. So far they have totally dominated the event and are unbeaten. The US pushed them in the final at Amsterdam but never seriously threatened the gold. What is most impressive about the GB boat is the way they row. Some of Grobler’s crews have been quite “brutal” in the way they row – muscling the boat along, but this four row beautifully. As with the Kiwi pair I cannot see anyone threatening the British for the gold this year and the battle is for silver. If the US prioritise the 4 ahead of the 8 they can mount a serious challenge to make 2nd place secure (and keep the pressure on the British). The Dutch have struggled to recapture the form that took them to the title in 2013 (or perhaps it shows that the standard in 2013 was lower than it was in 2014).
The Aussies are always strong in the four and in reality this boat is likely to be their best hope of a medal this year and probably at Rio as well. I’m also expecting the Canadians to improve, they have a very talented line-up which includes double Olympic medallist Conlin McCabe. Anyone who read my interview with Peter Cookson in issue 2 of Row 360 magazine will know that the Canadians are not planning a M8 in Rio so their focus is on producing a medal winning M4-. So for my money the British will be the favourites for the gold with the lesser medals being disputed by Australia, USA, The Netherlands and Canada. What’ll be most interesting is whether the Kiwis can produce a competitive 4 – they have a lot of talent and with the experienced George Bridgewater making a comeback they could well be the dark-horses of the event.
With the absence of the Croatians this event suddenly became very open. The German’s must have fancied their chances to dominate the season. But at the European’s it was the Ukrainians who took the win just ahead of the British with the Germans back in bronze. The Ukrainian’s then didn’t compete again until Amsterdam. In their absence the British and German’s produced some epic battles. No matter what the German’s tried the British always had an answer and beat them at the 2nd and 3rd World Cups. The US gave the British a scare in the semi at Henley, leading until the enclosures with the British eventually sculling through them to win by ½ length. The US couldn’t reproduce this sort of speed at Amsterdam but they undoubtedly have talent and can’t be discounted in 2015. The final at Amsterdam was one of the races of the year with the Ukrainian’s just holding off a massive sprint from the British. They were, perhaps, the most well deserved winners given all the problems in their home country in 2014. Let’s hope that life is a little easier for the crew in 2015 as they are sure to have a great battle with the British again this season.
This season I think it could be a head-to-head between the British and Ukrainians again, but watch out for the young Swiss quad – the U23 world champions. It’ll also by intriguing to see what the Canadians do – it’s possible that Julien Bahain may be drafted in to strengthen the quad now he’s based fulltime in Canada. Also the Kiwis will be expecting more from their quad – as with the 4- they could well be the surprise package of the season.
Not many people thought the British could defend the title they won in 2013. The smart money said they were medal potential but were likely to be behind the Germans. Early season results reinforced that thinking. They could only manage bronze at the Europeans, beaten by the Germans and also the “new kids on the block” the Russians under the tutelage of Mike Spracklen. That was followed up by another defeat to the German’s at the 2nd World Cup. In fact the British only won 3 races all season, the final of the Grand at Henley, and then the repechage and the final at the World Championships. A brilliant example of peaking at just the right moment. The defeat at Amsterdam will have been a bitter pill for the German 8. They could’ve perhaps excused the defeat in 2013 on the grounds that the British had put all their top guys in the 8. But, in 2014 the M8 was the 2nd ranked boat for the British against the no.1 ranked boat for the German’s. They will be going into 2015 determined to regain their crown but with the knowledge that the British have the strength in depth to challenge anything the German’s can produce.
The Poles have been the one consistent feature in this boat class over the past couple of years, with a crew that has largely unchanged. This year they really started to show good consistency. They went from a good “A” final crew in the last couple of years to a real medal contender. It remains to be seen if they can maintain this consistency in 2015. The Russians started the season strongly but tailed-off when it came to the business end of the season. There is also a cloud hanging over all sport in Russia with the reports of systematic doping throughout athletics and, if some reports are to be believed, all other Olympic sports as well. The Russian rowing federation have a poor reputation as regards doping but I sincerely (and perhaps naïvely) hope that the current squad are all clean. I cannot imagine someone of the calibre of Mike Spracklen being involved in an organisation that is guilty of doping.
The US love the 8 but in 2014 they didn’t really fire. They will be disappointed to have been beaten by the Polish, but, like the British, the M8 was the 2nd priority boat for 2014. It remains to be seen if this remains the case in 2015. Curtis Jordan will have an interesting decision to make as to whether to prioritise the 4 or the 8. The US psyche is all about the M8 so it wouldn’t surprise me if the big boat gets strengthened this year.
The French were the enigma of the season. Early reports suggested that they were putting together a crew with all their top guys. But rumours abounded of discontent within the crew (which culminated in Julien Bahain “defecting” to Canada). In races they never really fired. As a result for this season the top two guys, Chardin & Mortelette, have abandoned the 8 and returned to the pair.
The big question in 2015 is, can the British make it a hat-trick, can the Germans get their revenge or will the US spoil the party?
Now onto the women’s events…
2014 was meant to be all about Kim Crow. She was expected to carry one from where she left off in 2013, with a world championship gold medal under her belt she was hot favourite to retain her title. But, Emma Twigg of New Zealand had other ideas. The first World Cup in Sydney saw Twigg produce an astonishing sprint to pip Crow on the line. She followed this up with wins at Aigubelette and Lucerne. Suddenly all the talk was of a Twigg v Crow world championships with the Kiwi taking the mantle of favourite. In the final she never looked threatened and took a superb gold. 2015 presents an interesting conundrum. Twigg is studying for the FIFA Master management, Law & Humanities of Sport programme. This has resulted in the New Zealand Federation telling the reigning world champion that she will be ineligible for selection in 2015….with this being the Olympic qualifying year the conundrum is, do the Kiwi authorities back down and select Twigg for the Worlds, or, do they select another athlete to try and qualify the boat for Rio and then have a race-off for the Olympic spot??
Behind these two it’s a pretty open field. The Olympic champion Knapkova hasn’t shown the speed that she showed in 2012, failing to make the “A” final in Amsterdam (the first time she’d failed to make the top race since Lucerne 2001). I’ve no doubt she will mount a stronger challenge in 2015. One of the stand-out performances of 2014 was from Ireland’s Sanita Puspure – she took a superb 4th place at Amsterdam and is beginning to show the consistency that will help her challenge for the medals in 2015.
The “B” final at Amsterdam was a pretty stacked affair, not only did it contain the Olympic champion, but also the Olympic silver medallist, Fie Udby Erichsen, returning to competition after taking time off to start a family. She’s another sculler who I expect a stronger challenge in 2015. Also in the “B” final were the American Genevre Stone and GB’s Vicky Thornley. Stone has always been a “there-or-thereabouts” sculler….usually at the top end of the B final. The priority for her will be to secure a spot for Rio. For Thornley it’s more interesting. She started the season in a double with Fran Houghton but switched to the single when Houghton was injured. The question is, what will GB do with her in 2015? Will she stay in the single, go back to the double with Houghton, move to the quad or perhaps form a new double with the returning Katherine Grainger?? Selection in the British women’s squad is going to be fascinating. Personally I’d like to see her stay in the single – I think with a full season of focus in the single and she could become a real medal contender in Rio.
This is one of the most open events in the entire programme. The Kiwis, Zoe Stevenson and Fiona Bourke only made the “B” final at Aiguebelette but found their form in Lucerne to take the gold. In Amsterdam however it was the Aussies, Olympia Aldersey and Sally Kehoe who led the way. They had clear water at the 1000m mark with the Kiwis 3 seconds adrift. However the 2nd 1000 was a different matter. The Kiwis covered the 2nd half of the course 7 seconds quicker than the Australians who paid heavily for their fast start and were 9 seconds slower in the 2nd half, eventually hanging on for the bronze. The Poles, Magdalena Fularcczyk and Natalia Madaj came out of the quad and have been in the medals all season. The question will be can they move up to challenge for the top spot. The British had a double of enormous potential, Fran Houghton and Vicky Thornley. Reports from training suggested that they were medal contenders but in racing they never really showed the same sort of speed missing the medals at the Europeans and the Aiguebelette World Cup. 2015 will be very, very interesting for the British (as mentioned above) Will they return to the Thornley/Houghon pairing or will they form a new pairing with Grainger? It’ll also be interesting to see how the Lithuanians fare in 2015. Milda Valciukaite had a mixed season, silver at the Europeans and in Lucerne she switched to the single for the U23’s (she’s still only 20) and won the gold. In Amsterdam however she and partner Donata Vistartaite were out of the medals….will they be back on the podium in 2015….I reckon they might be.
Another superb, unbeaten season for the British. With Stanning returning to competition after her tour of duty in the army. After a shaky start for her (she missed the European’s through fatigue). But when she did get back in the boat with Helen Glover they were unstoppable. The US tried to unsettle the British (at Aiguebelette there was the sight of an “A” final with no fewer than 4 US crews taking on the British and the Chinese) but the British brushed off the threat in imperious fashion. Glover has now gone unbeaten in the pair since 2011 and they will be keen to maintain an unbeaten record for the entire Olympiad. The battle behind them is likely to be between the US and the Kiwis. The intrigue will be what the New Zealanders do. There was a bit of a hoo-ha when the U23 world champions, Grace Prendegast and Kerri Gowler, defeated their senior team-mates at Lucerne by over 5 seconds. Would the selectors stick with the established pairing of Louise Trappitt and Rebecca Scown or go with the young guns? In the end they stuck with the senior crew and they were rewarded with a bronze. Will that be the case in 2015? The youngsters raced in Amsterdam in the non-Olympic W4- where they won gold and set a new World’s best time. If the Kiwis decide to put together a W8 it’ll be based around this four, but Prendegast and Gowler might have their eyes on the W2- for Rio….it’s going to be fascinating.
The Germans have dominated the event in 2014 although they had a bit of a hiccup in Sydney when they lost to the Aussies and then to the Belarusians at the Europeans. But, from then on no-one as gotten within a length of them. At the Worlds they were superb and set a new world’s best time.
The question going into 2015 is can anyone challenge the Germans when it really counts. The Belarusians “flattered to deceive” somewhat last season, they took victory at the Europeans but didn’t race again until Amsterdam where they could only manage 10th place. They seem undecided as to whether to focus on the quad or the double. At both the 2nd and 3rd World Cups Karsten and Bichyk finished 6th in the double but then the quad did poorly at Amsterdam. The question remains as to which boat is best for them charismatic 42 year old Karsten?
The Americans have established a strong reputation in this boat class and they produced a strong performance in Amsterdam to take bronze following a silver in Aiguebelette. They are a young and relatively inexperienced crew and with an extra season together they could definitely be in the hunt for the medals this year and in Rio.
The Chinese were the world silver medallists but you never really know what you are going to get with them. Some years they can produce world beating crews only for the athletes to disappear from competition – 3 of the crew had barely raced internationally before this year so who knows who will be in the boat this season.
The Aussies, Kiwis and Canadians will all feel they have crews capable of getting amongst the medals this year. The Canadians especially would have been a bit disappointed with 6th, a crew of their quality would’ve been expecting to be pushing the Germans, but a relatively poor semi saw them in an unfavourable lane for the final which effectively cost them a chance of a medal. I’m pretty certain 2015 will be a different story – Canada could well be the crew that pushes the Germans the closest.
As for the British….it’s fair to say the quad has been a disappointment for the past couple of seasons. They are an extremely talented crew and “should” be capable of getting a medal, but it appears that they just cannot get that boat to fly as it should. It remains to be seen who will get selected for the boat this season but they need to find some speed from somewhere otherwise Olympic qualification is by no means guaranteed.
I was blown away this season by the awesomeness of the US women’s crew, in particular their performance at Aiguebelette. Over a length down at the halfway point they produced an astonishing sub-3 minute 2nd 1000m to overhaul the Canadians. It was one of the most amazing performances I’ve ever seen (up there with the Searles in 92 and the French M2- in 2000). The US basically won the world championships in that race. They proved to the rest of the world, and their main rivals Canada, that no matter what they did the US had far more firepower. I had high hopes that the British could come away with a medal but it was, in the end, a disappointing season for them. They have the raw speed to challenge for a medal but they just look to lack consistency. If they can put together a decent run of results they could establish themselves as a firm medal winning boat.
I can’t see any nation getting the better of the Americans this year or next.
Now for the lightweights…
The men’s and women’s light doubles were, perhaps, the biggest surprises of the year in Amsterdam. For the men the French had looked a class apart. Stany Delayre and Jeremie Azou produced one of the best ever races at Henley when they narrowly defeated the British heavyweights and had been undefeated all season. The talk in Amsterdam was more about who would take the silver and bronze. But the South Africans had an absolute storming regatta (some suggest aided by the conditions…) to win by less than 1/10th second and set a new world’s best time to boot. I’m not sure even the South African’s could believe it given that the previous month at Lucerne they were languishing in the “C” final…I can’t remember any other crew having such a big variation in results between Lucerne and the World Championships. But it’s a prime example of peaking at the right time (and making the most of the conditions!)
I would still not bet against the French for 2015 and in Rio. A crew that I’m excited to see develop are the young Germans – Moritz Moos and Jason Osborne. They shocked their senior crew at Aiguebelette and followed that up with a win at the U23’s. They then won the selection battle for the senior worlds. They reached the “A” final and although never in the hunt for the medals there are a very exciting duo, Rio may come a year or two too soon for them but they have the potential to dominate the next Olympiad.
It’ll also be interesting if the promised return of Olympic champions Rasmus Quist and Mads Rasmussen actually happens this year, if it does it could really put the cat amongst the pidgeons!
The women’s lightweight double also provided a big shock. The British looked dominant in this event. Kath Copeland returned to completion after a 2 year break and formed an effective new partnership with Imogen Walsh. They were winners at Aiguebelette (with the GB no.2 boat in silver) and also in Lucerne. But in Amsterdam they had a disaster in the semi-final and missed out on an “A” final spot altogether. The shock on their faces after the race was palpable. They responded by setting a new world’s best time in the “B” final (only to see it broken in the “A” final by the Kiwis). The British will be determined to put right the failure in Amsterdam in 2015. Copeland has laid down a big marker at the pre-Christmas GB trials when she finished 2nd overall in the time trial and 4th in the side-by-side racing.
If the British had a disappointing end to the season the Kiwis had a superb finish. They put together a new double of Sophie Mackenzie and Julia Edward. Mackenzie was able to add the senior world title to the U23 title she won earlier in the season and Edward won her first ever World championship medal.
My money is still on the British to put things right in 2015.
Finally, but by no means least is the Lightweight M4-
This was very much business as usual…the Danes v the Kiwis v the British. The drama in Amsterdam was the loss of James Lassche after the heat. They subbed in Alistair Bond and just squeaked into the final. But, they produced one of the races of the season to secure the silver medal. The only disappointment was that we were robbed of the epic confrontation between a fully fit New Zealand crew and the mighty Danes. I pretty much expect the same story in 2015, the Danes and the Kiwis knocking three bells out of each-other every regatta with the British ready to pounce.
The Australians were 5th in Amsterdam but they go into 2015 having to almost start from scratch as three of the crew have announced their retirement from international competition. It remains to be seen what sort of boat they can put together to qualify for Rio.
That’s it for the Olympic events, my apologies if it’s been a bit rambly…just one other thought outside of the Olympic events…I thought the Head of the Charles was one of the highlights of the year. One day I’ll get to Boston to watch it in person! The showdown between the “Super-sweepers” and “Super-Scullers” 8’s was epic. The only disappointment was that the British squad were unavailable – I know the “Sweepers” had wanted Alex Gregory. I would love to see the British take the squad to the Charles….maybe their own versions of “Super-Sweep” and “Super-Scullers” 8’s…I can dream can’t I????