The World Rowing Championships preview – Part 2; The Openweight Women’s Olympic events

Aiguebelette

Time now to look at the openweight women’s Olympic-class events being contested at the World Rowing Championships in Aiguebelette….

W1X

35 scullers

Qualifying spots available: 9

As with the men’s single sculls this has a huge entry, including scullers from Kenya, Nigeria, Kazakhstan, Vietnam and Pakistan.

This season has been dominated by Australia’s Kim Crow. She’s definitely made the most of the absence of her no.1 rival, Emma Twigg of New Zealand. Some of her victories have, quite frankly, been embarrassingly easy…7 seconds in Lucerne, 9 seconds in Varese. It would be a major shock if she doesn’t add the 2015 World title to the one she won in 2013.

2015 has been a slightly better year for the reigning Olympic champion, Mirka Knapkova than 2014. Last year the only podium finish she had was at the Europeans and at the Worlds she missed the A-Final altogether, something that hadn’t happened to her in over a decade. But reports of Knapkova’s sporting demise have proven premature. Whilst she’s yet to get close to Crow she has at least been making regular appearances on the podium. She retained her European title and took silver at both Bled and Lucerne World Cups.

If Knapkova has been having a better year, then Gevvie Stone of the USA has been having a great year. This season has seen the 30 year old Princeton graduate win her first ever senior medals with a silver in Varese and a bronze in Lucerne. Stone has always been a sculler who was threatening to break into the top echelon, often just missing out on A-Final places. From her results so far this year it looks as though 2015 might just be the year she makes that breakthrough and I expect her to be a serious medal contender in Aiguebelette.

Looming over this event all year has been the absence of the world champion, Emma Twigg. The Kiwi has just graduated from the FIFA Masters course and is now focussed 100% on the Rio games. But, her place on the start line is by no means guaranteed. Her spot in the W1X this season has been taken by Fiona Bourke and it is down to her to try and qualify the boat for Rio. If she’s successful in Aiguebelette then I would anticipate a race-off between her and Twigg for the right to represent New Zealand. But, that is all dependent upon Bourke achieving a top 9 finish. The 2014 W2X World Champion had a torrid start to her W1X campaign, only managing a 14th place in Varese. Lucerne was a different story however as she finished a respectable 5th. She will not relinquish her seat to Twigg without a fight. The interesting question will be, if Twigg does regain her seat then where does Bourke go? If she’s unable to regain her seat in the W2X then the obvious place would be to strengthen the W4X, but their qualification is by no means assured….whatever happens it’s going to be an “interesting” few months for both Bourke and Twigg.

China’s Jingli Duan has only raced once this season, finishing 6th in Varese, but in 2014 she had a great year culminating in a bronze medal at the World Championships. It remains to be seen if she can replicate that sort of speed this year. I would expect a strong Olympic qualification from Duan, but a medal might be just out of her reach.

Another sculler who is very consistent is Austria’s Magdelena Lobnig. She has made the A-Final of every senior W1X she has entered and this season she has a bronze medal to her name from Varese. I’m not expecting her to make the podium but I do expect her to continue her record of A-Final appearance

2015 is the first season in the W1X for Belarussia’s Tatsiana Kukhta, and she has made quite an impact. Bronze medallist at the Europeans and in Bled, she followed this up with a 5th and 4th at the 2nd and 3rd World Cups. As with Lobnig, I’m not sure she’ll get on the podium but she’ll be a strong contender for the A-Final.

Other scullers with a strong chance of qualifying for Rio are Ireland’s Sanita Puspure (4th at last year’s worlds and 8th in Lucerne),  Fie Udby Erichsen of Denmark (London 2012 silver medallist) and Canada’s Carling Zeeman (4th in Varese).

My picks….Crow to win comfortably again with Knapkova in silver and Duan in bronze.

W2-

22 crews

Qualifying spots available: 11

The women’s pair is following a similar pattern to their male counterparts. One crew has dominated the event throughout the Olympiad. For the women’s event it’s the British. Helen Glover and Heather Stanning have set a new benchmark in this event and have not been beaten since 2011, indeed Helen Glover’s winning streak now extends to 38 races. They are the crew to beat this year and will be desperate to head into the Olympic year with their unbeaten record intact.

The main threat to the British will come from the young Kiwis, Grace Prendergast and Kerri Gowler. The New Zealander’s were 2nd in Lucerne and 3rd in Varese. But, crucially they are also doubling-up in the W8. That tactic is OK if you have a heat and final, but with the size of entries in Aiguebelette they will face 2 or 3 more races than the British and you can’t afford to give a crew like the British that sort of advantage.

Another strong challenger to the British are the US, Felice Mueller and Ellie Logan. They earned their spot by winning the US trials, but in Varese they were beaten by the 2nd US pairing of Megan Kalmoe and Kerry Simmonds. In the US system however, it’s the Trials winners that have the option of taking up the spot on the team or not and Mueller and Logan took that option.

The Danes, Anne Andersen and Hedvig Rasmussen produced a strong performance in Lucerne taking the bronze medal following a 5th place in Varese.

Another crew to watch out for are the Dutch, Elisabeth Hogerwerf and Olivia van Rooijen. They won gold in Bled and followed that up with silver at the European Championships. In Lucerne they switched to the W8 that finished 5th. For Aiguebelette they are also doubling-up in their preferred 2- and will be strong medal contenders.

The Canadians, Jennifer Martins and Cristy Nurse are, like the Kiwis, doubling-up in the W8. In Lucerne they took gold in the W8 and 4th in the W2-. As with the Kiwis it’s going to be a big challenge to double-up in a field as big as this.

The final crew to mention in detail are the South Africans, Lee-Ann Persse and Naydene Smith. They are a well-established combination and finished 8th at London. They made the A-Finals at the last three World Championships and this season they have a 5th place from Lucerne. If they can continue their record of making the A-Final then that’ll be “job-done” for the year.

Two final shout-outs are for the Polish Wierzbowska sisters (6th in Lucerne) and the young Romanian pairing Andreea Boghian and Cristina Grigoras, both of whom were in the W8 that finished 4th in Lucerne.

My picks…GB to continue their winning run with the Kiwis and Dutch some way behind.

W2X

25 crews

Qualifying spots available: 11

The Kiwis dominated this event in the first decade of this century courtesy of the Evers-Swindell twins. The Kiwis have now found a combination that can take on that mantle. Zoe Stevenson and Eve Macfarlane. The won in Varese and again in Lucerne and Stevenson is the defending World Champion. They will be heading into Aiguebelette as the strong favourites and will be very, very tough to beat. Their main competition will be from Australia, the holders of the World Best Time, Sally Kehoe and Olympia Aldersey. They took the bronze in Amsterdam and so far this season were a bit disappointing first time out in Varese where they could only manage 5th. But in Lucerne they returned to form with a strong silver behind the Kiwis.

The British have, perhaps, the most focus on them. Olympic Champion Katherine Grainger has returned to defend her title with new partner Vicky Thornley. They had a reasonable result in Varese with a bronze medal but then had a disaster in Lucerne. A crab off the start in the semi-final saw them playing catch-up all down the course and ultimately they missed out on the A-Final. There is extra pressure on Thornley in Aiguebelette as Grainger’s partner from 2012, Anna Watkins, has just announced her return to the fray with the aim of retaining her title with Grainger. Thornley won’t let her have it without a fight but it does put her in a potentially difficult situation. If she and Grainger successfully qualify for Rio (which I think they will) she may lose the seat to Watkins and then what…..the 8, the quad, the single???? Time will tell.

A big challenge to the Kiwis are the 2013 World Champions, Donata Vistartaite and Milda Valciukaite. Since then they’ve not achieved the top step of the podium but have only missed out on a medal once after finishing 4th in Amsterdam. They’ve only raced once so far this season with a silver medal at the Europeans, so their speed is a bit of an unknown quantity. They are a very talented combination (Valciukaite won the U23 W1X title last year) and won’t be far off the podium.

Another very experienced combination are the Belarussians, Yuliya Bichyk and Ekaterina Karsten. I’m not 100% convinced the double is the best boat for Karsten, personally I think she’d do better in the single. As a double she and Bichyk missed the A-Final in Varese but showed some good speed in Lucerne where they took the bronze medal. Karsten is an amazing athlete but I just get the feeling in crew boats she’s very “hit-or-miss”. They could get a medal or they could miss out on Olympic qualifying altogether. It remains to be seen.

Silver medallists in Varese were the Americans, Meghan O’Leary and Ellen Tomek, they were 6th in Amsterdam last year. They have been sculling together since the Beijing Olympics and have been consistently near the medal zone, a situation I expect them to continue at Aiguebelette.

The reigning European Champions are the Poles, Magdalena Fularczyk and Natalia Madaj. They are another experienced duo and took the silver medal in Amsterdam. They’ve only raced in one of the 2015 World Cup’s with a 4th place in Varese. They will be pushing for a podium place with the likes of the Lithuanians, the US, the Brits and the Belarusians.

The final crew to highlight are the Germans, Julia Lier and Marieke Adams. In Varese they were 6th and in Lucerne they came 4th. In such a strong field I’m not sure they’ll make the A-Final but they should secure a comfortable Olympic qualification.

My picks….I think the Kiwis will take the win but it’s going to be a massive battle behind them….I reckon the Lithuanians will take silver with the Brits sneaking in for the bronze.

W4X

11 crews

Qualifying spots available: 5

Germany have started to dominate this event just like they did in the 1990’s. They are unbeaten since the first World Cup last year and have looked in impressive form. It’s going to take a slip-up on their part, or a truly exceptional race from their opposition to dethrone them in Aiguebelette.

Leading the charge against the Germans are likely to be the Australians and Americans. The Aussies were 2nd in Lucerne and 5th in Varese. The entry at Lucerne was quite small, just 6 boats so it’s difficult to read too much into a one-off straight final. What’ll be more telling is consistent speed throughout the regatta with 2 or 3 races required.

The US have made one change to the crew that finished 3rd in Aiguebelette, as mentioned above, Megan Kalmoe returns to the boat class in which she won a bronze medal in London. She will be a great addition to the crew but the question remains how quickly they will be able to gel as a unit, something that is crucial in a quad and also, how Kalmoe deals with the disappointment of missing out on selection for her preferred boat, the W2- (something she’s written about in her blog). Given the professionalism in the US women’s system I fully expect this crew to be pushing the Germans very hard.

The Kiwis have an exciting combination that have made the A-Final in both their races so far this season. But, just making the A-Final in Aiguebelette won’t be enough to secure Olympic qualification. I think they will have a real fight on their hands, not just to make the A-Final but to secure that all-important top 5.

Other major contenders include the Dutch who have put together a very effective unit. 7th in the world last year, so far this season they have bronze medals from Bled and Lucerne and a silver from the Europeans. I’m not sure they’ll be on the podium in France but they will be definitely be in the mix for the Olympic qualifying spots.

The Polish won silver in Varese behind the Germans but could only manage 5th (out of 6) in Lucerne. If they can improve on their consistency then they could also be pushing for a podium place.

The Chinese have been mixing-and-matching their crews and the quartet they have settled on is a combination of the two quads that raced in Varese. Yang Lyu and Xiaxing Shen were 4th and Yan Jiang and Xinyue Zhang 8th. Time will tell just how quick this combination will be.

The British have not yet found their spark. Every time I write one of these previews I say the same thing, “the British have a lot of talent and huge experience but haven’t yet delivered on that promise” or words to that effect, and every time the result is the same. 7th in Varese and 6th (out of 6) in Lucerne they need to find something special in Aiguebelette in order to threaten for a qualification space. My heart dearly hopes they do but my head says they won’t. With Polly Swann to come back into the team and Anna Watkins also coming back into the mix (potentially unseating Vicky Thornley) we could well see some changed in this boat, even if they do manage to qualify this time.

My picks…Germany for gold ahead of the USA and Australia with Poland and the Netherlands taking the final 2 qualifying spots.

W8

10 crews

Qualifying spots available: 5

As with the M2- and W2- it’ll take an event of earth-shattering magnitude to stop the US from claiming yet another crown. They have not lost a World Championship final since 2005!

The Canadians have been playing the bridesmaid to the US for the past couple of years and gave them a real challenge on this water last year, leading through the halfway point by a length only to be rowed down over the 2nd half.

But, behind these two things get a little more interesting. The British have high expectations for their crew and want to be the ones to push the Canadians and the Americans. So far this season they have bronze medals from Varese and Lucerne. But in Lucerne the US were absent and the British were beaten to the silver by the Kiwis. The British will be anxious to reverse that result in Aiguebelette. The Kiwis will be a big threat however, and include the W2- pairing of Gowler and Prendergast. As with the W2- the extra racing involved may have a detrimental impact for the W8.

The Netherlands also have the W2- doubling up in their boat, they finished 5th in Lucerne and will have a real battle on their hands to get in the top 5.

The Russians are the reigning European champions but have not raced since so it’s a bit tricky to assess their end of season speed. If they perform as they did in Poznan then they could well spoil the Brits party.

Romania finished one place behind the British in Lucerne and have a number of highly talented oarswomen onboard.

My picks….a straightforward 1,2 for the USA and Canada but behind these two…..very tight…if the Brits race to their potential they will secure the bronze but the Kiwis will push them hard and the Russians could snatch the final qualifying spot ahead of the Dutch.

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