The Great Britain Rowing Trials – or The Return of the Jedi and the Lightweights Strike Back

GB rowing

This weekend saw the first of the Great Britain Rowing trials of the Rio Olympic year. All those seeking to represent Great Britain were required to compete (unless they had a note from matron).
The trials consisted of a 2K erg test on Saturday followed by a 5K time trial on the delights of the River Witham in Boston (Lincolnshire – not Massachusetts!)
The heavyweight sweep men raced in pairs with everyone else competing in singles.
What was really interesting about this weekend was it marked the “Return of the Jedi” – aka Andy Triggs Hodge and Anna Watkins. Hodgey missed the whole of the 2015 season due to a recurrence of glandular fever. Earlier in the year there were some doubts as to whether he’d ever row competitively again. But, he returned to training a few months ago and has been making steady progress.
Anna Watkins on the other hand, has not rowed competitively since the London Olympics. But, with two children safely “under-her-belt” so to speak, the competitive spark has returned. With her crewmate from London, Katherine Grainger, making the return to competition last year the stage is set for a return of the “dream team” for Rio. But, it’s by no means a forgone conclusion…one thing that can be said about the GB Rowing team is that there’s no room for sentimentality. If Watkins (& Hodge) don’t cut it then they won’t make the boat.

So, what happened today….

In the men’s pairs it was pretty much business as usual at the top end. Mo Sbihi and Alex Gregory won by 6 seconds ahead of Pete Reed and Stan Louloudis, with the London 2012 bronze medal pair of George Nash and Will Satch reuniting for another 3rd place finish.
Sbihi Gregory

Things got a little more interesting in the single sculls. GB’s top sculler, Charlie Cousins, was missing from the line up and in his absence it was a great performance from Sam Townsend to win his first Trials race. The Reading University man won by 14 seconds with the GB M2X due of John Collins and Jonno Walton finishing 2nd and 3rd. GB’s representative in the single scull, Alan Campbell, finished in 4th 26 seconds behind Townsend. Whilst it’s still very early in the season Campbell’s lack of dominance does raise the question of whether he retains the 1X slot for Rio, or whether he gets pulled into one of the crew boats. My gut instinct is that he will stay in the single but he’s got some way to go to recapture the magic that took him to a medal in London.
One of the best performances of the day came from Welshman Tom Barras. The 21 year old finished a superb 6th with fellow U23 international Frazier Christie two places behind him.

For Andy Hodge today marked his first public race since the 2014 World Championships. We’re more used to seeing him in the pair and at the front of the field, but this weekend was more about putting down a marker as to where he sits in the pecking order. In the end he finished in 13th 52 seconds behind Townsend. But tellingly looking at his splits it looks as though he had a cautious start, he was only 19th at half-way, but was 7th quickest over the 2nd 2.5K. It’s an encouraging return and Hodge himself described it as “alright”. It’s just great to see Andy back in a boat and targeting Rio. He’s the best strokeman in the world and a fit Andy Hodge gives Grobler a lot of options.

Looking at the timings I’m assuming there may well have been one or two glitches as fastest over the first half of the course is listed as Matt Swiss of Dart Totnes who apparently covered the first 2.5K in 7:11…more than 2 minutes faster than anyone else and a time that would be a nailed on gold medal in the M1X at Rio!! His 2nd half was a somewhat more sedentary 13:18….3 minutes slower than anyone else…..shurley shome mishtake…..

In the Lightweight men’s single it was a Chambers 1,2. Elder brother Richard getting the better of his kid brother Pete. Chambers-elder’s time of 18:51 was the 2nd fastest overall with Pete 7 seconds back.
Rich Chamber’s doubles partner Will Fletcher was 3rd. Joel Cassellls of Oxford Brookes was the top U23 athlete finishing an excellent 6th in 19:20. One notable absentee from this weekend was Jamie Kirkwood. Winner of the senior trials back in April he had a tough season with injury and then wasn’t given a consistent run in the LM4-. He’s had a cold this weekend so has is sitting out the racing.

In the Women’s single it was intriguing to see the first performance of the 2nd of my “Jedi’s” Anna Watkins. In the end she finished just outside the top 10 in 12th, one place ahead of World Champion Heather Stanning. Winner on the day was Vicky Thornley. The Leander sculler has been far and away GB’s best female sculler in this Olympiad. In the 2015 racing season she’s partnered Katherine Grainger in the W2X but they’ve yet to really fire. Grainger herself finished a strong 2nd just 4/10ths ahead of Mel Wilson with the U23 Mathilda Hodgkins-Byrne finishing a superb 4th. There was no Jess Leyden or Helen Glover who you would expect to have made the top 5 but it’s still a fantastic performance from the Reading University sculler Hodgkins-Byrne who finished 20 seconds ahead of her nearest U23 rival.
With Watkins producing a reasonable performance in 12th the focus will be on the possible reuniting the “dream-team” of Grainger and Watkins in the W2X. This places a huge amount of pressure on Thornely to defend her seat in the top boat (especially after the relative disappointment of this year’s world championships). I’ve always felt that if Thornley had a good run in the 1X she could become a medal contender. GB haven’t qualified this boat for Rio yet, and if they do choose to field a boat it’ll have to be done at the Final Olympic Qualifying Regatta. It’s a big gamble but she is possibly the only sculler in GB that could do it.
Another sculler who had a great weekend is Debbie Flood. The former Leander captain has not raced internationally since 2012 but has been a force to be reckoned with on the domestic circuit. She’s now caught the “comeback bug” and produced a sterling performance to finish in the top 10. She could be a fabulous addition to the squad and could bring valuable experience to the W4X (something that is sorely needed).

Finally the LW1X. Imogen Walsh produced a stunning performance to take the win finishing 23 seconds ahead of Olympic champion Kat Copeland. The London Rowing Club sculler’s time of 20:14 was the 2nd fastest time overall (just like Richard Chambers in the LM1X)…..the “Lightweights strike Back!”
Copeland’s partner from the LW2X this summer, Charlie Taylor, was absent, but the selection battle for the two Olympic seats between these three is going to be fierce. Emily Craig was 3rd with Edinburgh’s Robyn Hart-Winks finishing an excellent 4th in her first senior Trials.

Whilst these trials are merely the first step on the road to selection for the Rio Olympics it’s certainly thrown up some intriguing questions about who will be staking their claim for one of those converted seats on the plane to Rio.


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