As 2015 draws to a close I thought I would look back at the year and pick out some highs (and lows).
One of the true highlights of the year was the historic Newton Women’s Boat Race. For the first time in its 88 year history the women raced on the same course and on the same day as the men. Oxford had a truly outstanding crew led by the most highly decorated athlete in the history of the Boat Race (men’s or women’s), Carryn Davies of the USA. The double Olympic gold medallist stroked her crew to an overwhelming 6.5 length victory. Cambridge were a good University crew and did well to keep the margin of defeat as close as it was. Many (me included) were predicting it could be a victory measured in minutes rather than lengths.
In the men’s race it was a similar story with an outstanding Oxford boat, led by President Stan Louloudis also defeating their Light Blue opponents by 6.5 lengths. If I’m being ultra- picky one minor drawback of the otherwise excellent BBC coverage of the race, was that with the Women’s race being televised there was no opportunity to show the reserve Isis v Goldie race (or the women’s reserves Osiris v Blondie held the day before). This was disappointing because Isis v Goldie turned into one of the best races in the history of the event. The eventual verdict was a 3 length victory to Isis, but that plain statistic hides the drama of the race. Goldie had the better start and steadily moved away from Isis, eventually opening a clear water lead by Hammersmith. Normally in races of this kind a lead like that means it’s game over as the leading crew can cover any push from their opponents. But, this was no normal race. Isis began to push back and Goldie began to get ragged and by the Bandstand the crews were level. Isis were finishing a much stronger crew with Goldie looking sluggish. In the end Isis rowed away from their demoralised opponents.
It’s just a pity there was no TV coverage of such an epic race.
In the run up to the Boat Race news emerged from the Oxford camp that someone in the squad had produced a #stupidfast ergo. But it was only in November that the exact details emerged when OUBC tweeted this picture:
It later emerged that the owner of this #stupidfast score was the 2015 Oxford President, Stan Louloudis….someone who Matt Pinsent referred to as “a bit of a beast” (more on ergos later).
April also saw the final GB Trials. Sadly this would be taking place without Andy Hodge who announced in March that due to a recurrence of glandular fever he would have to miss the whole of the 2015 racing season. When I spoke to Andy he was quite disconsolate and the illness, combined with a lot of concerns over the financial aspects of being a full time rower, made him question whether or not he’d actually ever come back. Fortunately with recovery from illness also came a re-invigoration for the sport and Andy has thrown his hat back into the ring for selection for Rio.
But, I’m getting ahead of myself. At the April trials Moe Sbihi and Alex Gregory emerged as top pair, but the real interest was in the W1X. Katherine Grainger was making her return to competition for the first time since the London Olympics and took 2nd behind Vicky Thornley. In the lightweights Imogen Walsh laid down a big marker by beating Olympic champion, Kat Copeland.
This was all to gain selection for the 1st big regatta of the season, the European Championships. In the end GB selected a “big” men’s 8 to defend the World title they won in 2013 and 2014. Their aim was to emulate the German’s and win every World Championships in an Olympiad followed by gold at the Games themselves. The German’s achieved this in the London Olympiad and GB wanted to match that at Rio. The European Championships also saw Grainger pull on a GB onesie again for the first time since the London Games. She formed a new double with Vicky Thornley. For the lightweights, despite Walsh winning trials she missed out on a seat in the Olympic class boat and had to make do with the non-Olympic LW1X.
Whilst the European Championships has been rising in importance, the 1st World Cup (this year held in Bled) has been suffering. Entries this year were a bit disappointing but notable among the results were wins for Angel Fournier Rodriguez of Cuba in the M1X and Ekaterina Karsten (who was meant to be racing in the W2X) winning the W1X a month shy of her 43rd birthday.
At the Europeans the British had an epic showdown with the German M8 going down by 2 seconds….a blow to the flagship GB 8 (although they were not at full strength with Stan Louloudis still at Oxford ). But GB emerged with 6 golds, the men’s and women’s pairs, Men’s 4-, LW2X, LW1X and LM2- all taking the top honours enabling GB to finish top of the medal table.
At the 2nd World Cup GB got their revenge on the Germans and finished top of the medal table again, this time with 5 gold medals. As well the men’s 8 the Women’s pair of Glover and Stanning continued their unbeaten run. The M4X won gold with Angus Groom replacing an injured Charlie Cousins.
The 2nd world cup in Varese also saw the first appearance as the New Zealanders. Drysdale got his 2015 campaign off to a flying start with a win in the M1X.
Meanwhile, over in the USA the IRA Championships saw an unprecedented performance from the University of Washington who won all four heavyweight 8’s and the Varsity 4 event. The Huskies established themselves as the dominant collegiate programme in the world.
Next came Henley…wow, what a regatta. In my opinion it was the best regatta since 1989 (which I reckon was the best ever). This year saw Sir Steve Redgrave take over the reigns as Chairman and the biggest change was the introduction of live TV coverage. Many were sceptical about how good the coverage was going to be. But, we needn’t have worried, masterminded by the production company Sunset + Vine it took rowing coverage to a new level. What was particularly impressive was the footage provided by a drone camera. It was truly spectacular and a real game changer.
On the water events were no less spectacular. In the Temple Challenge Cup ASR Nereus of Amsterdam set the regatta alight with a stunning race against Oxford Brookes in the heats on Friday. Nereus equalled the course record at the Barrier and Fawley. But from Fawley to the Finish they took an astonishing 9 seconds off the previous record. I was watching from the Press Box and Martin Cross was incredulous when the time was announced, describing it as rowing’s “Bob Beaman moment”.
In the Grand Challenge Cup we were all expecting another epic showdown between the British and Germans. As it turned out the German’s got blown away. They briefly led the British at the end of the Island, but by the Barrier the British had taken the lead and strolled away from the German’s running out winners by 2 ¾ lengths handing the Deutschland Achter their biggest defeat for years.
The other shock of the regatta was in the Ladies Plate. Everyone expected Washington to run out comfortable winners. In the final they faced Yale, who hadn’t event qualified for the Grand Final at the IRA’s. But Yale clearly hadn’t read the script as they demolished the Huskies emerging as winners by over 2 lengths!
In the Thames Cup it was Thames Rowing Club who finally got their names on the trophy for the first time in 81 years. Thames have been criticised in the past for “choking” in critical races. But when they crossed the line in the final I heard one of the crew shout “chokers my arse!”
August started on a sad and sombre note with the tragic death of former Cambridge cox, Kevin Whyman, killed when the plane he was piloting crashed at an airshow in Cheshire.
At 5ft 11 Whyman was very tall for a cox but was renowned for his coxing and motivational skills. He holds the dubious record of the most warnings ever given to a cox in the Boat Race (132!) His obituary in The Times says:
“Whyman’s reputation as a particularly aggressive cox is borne out by a recording of him screaming the unfancied Cambridge crew on to victory and is often played to motivate new crews. As the Cambridge boat stretches away towards the end, Whyman’s voice becomes louder and hoarser: “Just 15 big ones, you’re winning this one, you’re winning it. Yes, Cambridge, yes boys. We’re right on top. Last 20 strokes to glide. All yours Cambridge. Fifteen strokes go. Yes, last ten. Five strokes. Last five. Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes!”
The 2015 World Championships were held at Aiguebelette in France. Once again the British got the better of the German’s in the M8 (by just 2/10ths of a second).
GB also finished top of the medal table again with 5 golds – the imperious W2- were untouchable all season. Other “untouchables” were the Kiwi M2- the Croatian M2X and the USA Women’s 8. But, there were shocks at the championships as well. The C-Final of the W1X had 6 athletes who had all medalled at senior championships including an Olympic champion (Natalyia Dovgodko of Ukraine) and three Olympic silver medallists. The depth of the field in this event is crazy – and it didn’t even include the reigning world champions, Emma Twigg of New Zealand (dropped for the 2015 season because she wanted to study abroad). Not only were World Championship medals up for grabs but also qualification for Rio. As it turned out GB not only finished top of the medal table but also the top of the qualification table with 12 spots secured for Rio (only the W1X and W4X failing to qualify direct).
New Zealand had a mixed championships. Neither the LM2X nor the W1X were successful in qualifying and the LM4- missed out on a medal for the first time this Olympiad. The Aussies also had a “difficult” regatta with both the men’s and women’s 8’s missing Olympic qualification, the LW2X were back in the D-Final and they chose not to enter the men’s lightweight events. The USA were also bitterly disappointed at the failure to qualify the M8. It was a different story for the American women though, with the W8 continuing their unbeaten run as expected, but it was the win by the W4X that was, perhaps, the surprise of the regatta. The US won for the first time in their history and, more importantly defeated Germany’s flagship quad, a boat that had, up until then, looked unbeatable.
As the international summer racing season drew to a close some could let their attention turn to training to compete in Rio….for others the focus became training for the last chance saloon qualifying regattas to book their places on the plane to the Olympics.
Whilst Andy Hodge may have been absent from the GB squad during 2015 he certainly hadn’t be sitting idle. He spearheaded a new Sprint Racing series called the RoRoRo Sprints. This was planned to be a really innovative contest held over 250m with no limits on boat design and the chance for crowd participation. The concept looks really exciting. Unfortunately the test event due to be held at Osterley Park in West London had to be postponed due to a lack of entries (caused by a clash of events rather than a lack of interest). Fingers crossed this does take off in 2016 as it looks a great idea.
Part of the winter training cycle are the dreaded ergs, I wrote a blog last month about some of the amazing results that have been emerging on social media. Stan Louloudis’s 14:51 5K (Dynamic) Eric Murray’s 14:56 5K (Sliders) and Josh Dunkley-Smith’s 15:10 static. But there was also a fantastic new world Junior 2K record of 6:28 set by Greece’s Sofia Asoumanaki.
At the British Indoor championships Moe Sbihi broke Matt Pinsent’s British record with a 5:41. It’s surely only a matter of time before Moe joins the exclusive sub 5:40 club.
As the year draws to a close there has been a fair bit of controversy on the coaching front. First, at the University of Washington, Bob Ernst was fired from his $145,000 a year job as chief coach of the Huskies women’s programme.
This followed a disagreement over his approach to coaching the team. From what I’ve read it appears that some members of the team considered him a bully and so after more than 40 years, Ernst was kicked out. A lot has been written about this. One the one side you have those accusing members of the team of leading a mutiny against their coach and politicising the issue. One the other you have those saying his attitudes to the women under his care was misogynistic and out-dated. Whatever are the true facts of the case, the outcome is very sad as someone who had dedicated his career to one organisation has had that career terminated under a cloud.
Another furore on the coaching front is still playing out. Dick Tonks, the legendary Kiwi coach has said he’s “finished with NZ Rowing”. This follows a reprimand he received for coaching some Chinese athletes who were on a training camp at Lake Karapiro. Tonks argued that he was helping these athletes prepare for their Regional Championships and they were not in direct competition to any New Zealand athlete. But New Zealand Rowing appear to have wanted to exert their authority over Tonks, and gave him a telling off. They appear to have been caught out by Tonks responding the way he has. He has insisted that he no longer wishes to be part of the NZ Rowing Coaching staff and has been offered a job in China. From the outside this appears to be a case of gross mismanagement by NZ Rowing which, when taken alongside their intransigent attitude towards Emma Twigg this season, suggests a fundamental disconnect between management and athletes/coaches. This has been further compounded by Nathan Cohen resigning from the Board of NZ Rowing to take up the role of Technical Advisor to the Chinese.
The really disappointing aspect of the Tonks affair is the impact it is having on the athletes involved. Tonks was the coach to both Mahe Drysdale and the W2X. Mahe has been dragged into the affair by having to act as intermediary between Tonks and the Board, a role which has brought him to the point of breakdown (check out this interview….. http://www.3news.co.nz/sport/video-mahe-drysdale-breaks-down-over-rowing-drama-2015121718#axzz3uaLacO1n )
Drysdale is desperately trying to find a solution which allows him to keep his coach in the run up to the Olympics. But this would involve the somewhat farcical situation of Mahe (& the W2X) boating from the team base at Karapiro and being joined on the water by Tonks who would have had to have boated in his coaching launch from elsewhere on the lake….ridiculous.
I’m astonished that this situation has reached the stage it has. If Tonks’s contract didn’t specifically stipulate that he was only allowed to coach crews approved by NZ Rowing then they don’t really have a leg to stand on. For his part it probably would have been the courteous thing for Tonks to do to inform his bosses of his plans. At the time of writing no solution has been made public but it is a sorry state of affairs.
If Tonks really has finished with New Zealand Rowing I would imagine his phone will be ringing with offers from international programmes for his services for the Tokyo Olympiad. Could he replace Jurgen Grobler if the German decides to retire after Rio??
So that’s my take on 2015, this is always a really exciting part of any Olympiad – heading into Olympic year itself. There’s going to be plenty of debate over the coming months about the line-ups of various Olympic crews – no more so than in GB with Anna Watkins, Andy Hodge and Debbie Flood all returning to the fray after leaves of absence. But it’s not just limited to GB. The Danish LM2X Olympic champions Quist and Rasmussen had a stuttering start to their comeback this year, but can they recapture their form or can the Danes form a new partnership to retain the title. Emma Twigg looks assured of W1X selection but she will have to do it the hard way and qualify for Rio via the final Olympic Qualifying Regatta. The US and Australia have work to do to get just to get their flagship M8 on the startline in Rio….it’s going to be a fascinating few months….I can’t wait!!