2016 preview part 2 – the open-weight women


Time for part 2 of my preview the heavy….sorry…open-weight women…

2015 was dominated by Australia’s Kimmy Crow, but will 2016 be different? We all expected Crow to dominate in 2014 but New Zealand’s Emma Twigg had other ideas and spoiled the Aussie party. Now having had a year away from international competition, Twigg is back and looking to spoil Crow’s party another time. But, Emma has the small matter of having to actually having to qualify for the Games at the Final Olympic Qualifying regatta. Twiggs replacement last year, Fiona Bourke, could only manage 16th in Aiguebelette. With three spots available at the FOQR it should be a foregone conclusion that Emma takes one of those spots. Watching these two go head-to-head this season is going to be one of the highlights of the year.

Behind the top two, like in the men’s single, the battle for the bronze is going to be very open. The reigning Olympic champion, Mirka Knapkova, had a better year in 2015 than 2014. In Amsterdam she missed the A-Final altogether but in 2015 she was the runner-up to Crow. It will be a big challenge for her to defend her title in Rio, but she knows how to peak for the right events and can’t be discounted to step up again when it matters, although gut instinct says she’ll be heading the battle for bronze rather than fighting for the top prize.
The Chinese as a whole had a relatively undistinguished 2015 with the exception of Jingli Duan. She had a reasonable but not remarkable 2012, didn’t race internationally in 2013 and burst back on the scene in 2014 taking the bronze medal, a feat she repeated in 2015. You never really know what you are going to get with the Chinese, but, assuming Duan remains in the single this year she could also mount a serious challenge for the medals. I’ve got a sneaking feeling though that she might be moved into a crew boat, possibly the double, which may give the Chinese a better shot at a medal. Time will tell.
A sculler who had a fantastic 2015 was the USA’s Gevvie Stone. The Princeton grad has been racing on the senior circuit for a number of years but 2015 was her “breakthrough” season seeing her make the A-Final every time she raced and winning her first senior international medal with a silver in Varese. She just missed the medals in Aiguebelette but the performance has shown that the 30 year old is coming to her peak and 2016 could be her best year yet.

The rest of the pack will be pushing hard, Magdalena Lobnig of Austria had a disappointing world championships, breaking her record of 13 consecutive A-Finals. Ireland’s Sanita Puspure also had a disappointing 2015 after a superb 4th place finish in 2014. There were a host of world and Olympic medallists relegated to the C-Final in Aiguebelette and assuming the likes of Richter of Germany, Erichsen of Denmark and Scheenaard of the Netherlands remain in the single the battle at the FOQR is going to be intense. If we assume Twigg takes one of the 3 spots on offer the contest for the remaining 2 places will be titanic.

The women’s single is one of only two boat classes that the British have yet to qualify for the Games (the other being the W4X). Whether they make a serious assault on this boat class remains to be seen. There would definitely be some kudos to be gained if they could be the only nation to qualify in all 14 boat classes. But the question is, who would fill the slot? In my mind there are two directions Paul Thompson could take. The first is to see it as the “tail-end Charlie” boat, basically whoever misses out on selection for the any of the other boats has the consolation of trying to qualify at the FOQR. The other option is to give it a real go with one of the top athletes…..now this is where it gets interesting (and complicated). It all depends on what happens with the GB W2X – I’ll go into more detail on that when I talk about that boat class, but if the Grainger/Thornley combination is broken up then a sculler as talented as Vicky T could well qualify. I’ve spoken before about how good a single sculler I think Thornley could be if she focussed on it for an entire season. My instinct tells be GB are more likely to go for the first option and the single will be a “consolation” for whoever misses out on a crew boat and will head to the FOQR but without much expectation of succeeding.

The World Champion Kiwis, Zoe Stevenson & Eve McFarlane, have also been embroiled in the whole Dick Tonks/NZ Rowing furore and whilst they, like Drysdale, will continue to be coached by Tonks, it’s an unnecessary distraction in the run-up to the most important season in their careers. They will definitely be heading into the 2016 season as favourites having been unbeaten throughout 2015. But, whilst they have the tag of favourites the attention could well be on some of their competition.

Sofia Asoumanaki's new junior world record (and beating her big sister)

Sofia Asoumanaki’s new junior world record (and beating her big sister)

The Greeks took silver in 2015 and are one of the most exciting prospects on the whole international rowing circuit. With 23 year old Aikaterini Nikolaidu is the precocious talent of 18 year old Sofia Asoumananki. The youngster has been making a name for herself, setting new benchmarks on the erg and taking silver medals at both junior and senior world championships in the same year. The question is whether they can carry this sort of form into the Olympic year and cope with the additional pressure. My opinion is that they won’t quite match the highs of 2015 as other nations raise their game, but come 2020 when Nikolaidu will be 27 and Asoumananki 22 they could become a dominant force in this boat class.

Grainger watkins
The other boat that is attracting a lot of attention are the British. The combination of Thornely and Grainger have shown sparks of medal winning speed but haven’t yet really caught fire. What has made things really interesting is the return of Grainger’s 2012 crewmate Anna Watkins. The Watkins/Grainger combination were unbeaten in 26 races. The challenge for Watkins is to get back to “race fitness” as quickly as possible. It’s going to be one of the most intriguing selection battles to watch. What makes the double so interesting is that the whole is often greater than the sum of its parts. So in singles trials Thornely may come out on top but Grainger & Watkins may form the faster combination in the double – they certainly have the experience together. But, it could also be that Thornely and Watkins form the fastest combination…..now that would make life interesting! The next few months are going to be fascinating.

Another selection conundrum to watch will be the Belarussians. They seem set on using Ekatarina Karsten in the double and Tatsian Kukhta in the single. Karsten is doubling with Yuliya Bichyk but the 43 year old has proven she’s more competitive in the single (winning in Bled when Bichyk withdrew through illness on the eve of the regatta).

Ekaterina Karsten

Ekaterina Karsten

To me Karsten seems more at ease in the single, happier doing her own thing and, if she secures selection, is heading to her 7th Olympic Games – certainly the most by any rower – incredible.
Anyway…yet more selection intrigue may also be with the Lithuanians. There is a rumour that the combination of Vistartaite and Valciukaite – World champions in 2013 may come under pressure from Lina Saltyte. That’s another one to keep an eye on.

Glover & Stanning
If you’ve got any money left over from betting on the Kiwi men’s pair then stick it on the British to win the women’s. As much as Bond and Murray dominate the men’s version, Glover and Stanning dominate the women’s. With Glover unbeaten in the pair for 41 races they are a formidable combination. It will take another seismic event to prevent the British from retaining the title they won in London. Again, as with the men’s pair, the battle for the minor medals is what will make this event interesting to watch. The Kiwis and Americans have been taking it in turns to play 2nd fiddle to the British for years. In 2015 it was the Kiwis turn to lead the chasing pack with the US in hot pursuit. It remains to be seen who gets selected for the US boat this year – selection in 2015 was mildly controversial with the selected pair of Mueller & Logan being beaten by team mates Megan Kalmoe and Kerry Simmonds in Varese. Time will tell who gets the nod for Rio.

One of the surprise performances in this event came from the Danes; Hedvig Rasmussen and Anna Andersen were the 2nd fastest European pair in Aiguebelette finishing 4th (albeit over 6 seconds behind the third place Americans). I can’t really see any other nation stepping up to challenge for the medals (unless the South Africans can find something special this year), so this is going to be an easy year to call (if everyone stays healthy) GB to continue their dominance with the US and Kiwis fighting it out behind them.

One of the surprises of the Aiguebelette World Championships was the defeat of the German women’s quad. The US won their first ever gold in this event and in doing so shattered the supremacy of the Germans. Since losing the Olympics to the Ukrainians in 2012 the Germans have dominated this event but they came unstuck to an inspired performance from the US. Megan Kalmoe may profess to prefer rowing the pair but it’s the quad that has brought her most success. A bronze in London and now World Championship gold has set the US up as a, perhaps unlikely, (given their pre-occupation with the W8) powerhouse in women’s crew sculling. This defeat will have caused some soul-searching among the Germans, who revere the quad as much as the US do the 8. There will also be pressure on the US to consolidate their victory and maintain the momentum in 2016. It’ll be interesting to see if the line-ups for both of these crews remain the same.

Whilst these two were creating the headline the Dutch have been quietly putting together a very effective unit. They were disappointed in 2014 not to make the A-Final but in 2015 they stepped up medalling in every race. They will now be looking to find that spark that gets them amongst the US and Germans for the gold medal fit. I think they could well spring a few surprises this year and are definitely near the top of my “ones to watch” list.
With only 5 crews qualifying in Aiguebelette the competition this year just to get to Rio is going to be fierce. The Aussies just snuck in to grab the final spot in France but that leaves the Kiwis, Chinese, British, Russians, French and 2012 champions Ukraine all among the crews battling for the final 2 spots.

New Zealand made a bold statement in 2014 that they wanted to qualify in all 14 boat classes. That’s proving to be a challenge and none more so than in the quad. They just missed out in France taking 6th but the competition at the FOQR means they are not certain of taking one of 2 remaining spots.

The British have struggled in this boat class ever since taking the gold in 2010. They have the athletes to produce a boat capable of beating the world, but they have (so far) failed to click. But, with the likes of Anna Watkins, Polly Swann and even Debbie Flood returning to the mix, the athlete pool just got a little deeper. There is a medal-winning combination out there somewhere, the British just need to find the one that works and secure the all-important qualifying spot. Gut instinct says whoever misses out in the Grainger/Thornely/Watkins selection battle for the Double could well find themselves a seat in the quad. Swann may go into the 8, but she’s a talented, powerful sculler and could certainly bring something to the boat. We shall see!

Break open the piggy bank, hunt down the back of the sofa….if you can find a bit more cash, then stick it on the US to win their 4th successive Olympic title. Indeed, such is their dominance that they have won every world championships since 2006. The Americans have a seemingly endless conveyor belt of talent feeding into this boat and no matter what line-up they put out, they dominate their opposition.
What was a surprise last year was the success of the young New Zealand 8. All eyes were on the Canadians to be the challengers to the US but it was the Kiwis who won the sprint to the line. I do think it’s a mistake for the New Zealanders to double up in the pair and the 8 though. The eight has huge potential, and without the distraction of the pair, they could well mount a real challenge to the Americans.
The British have high hopes that their crew can take a major medal. In Aiguebelette they had a bold strategy, leading the US to the 500m mark and holding 2nd through the thousand. In the end they ran out of steam and just missed out on a medal. But, as mentioned earlier, the talent pool is very deep in the UK and if GB get their race strategy right they could become the “best of the rest” behind the US.
For their part the Canadians would’ve been very disappointed to take bronze in Aiguebelette. They’ve long felt that they are the natural challengers to the US’s dominance and indeed have come closer than any other nation to defeating them. But, when the pressure is on the US step up a gear and the Canadians seem to step down one.
Just 2 spots are available at the Final Olympic Qualifying regatta and the Dutch will start as the favourites to take one of those spots. They were just pipped to the automatic qualifying position by a strong performance from the Russians. But this is their no.1 women’s sweep boat and they have high expectations, not just f qualifying, but of being medal contenders.
The Australians were also disappointed not to qualify direct (for neither the men’s or women’s boats to qualify direct was a big blow to the Aussies pride). They will also be hoping to make amends in Lucerne.
Romania used to be the dominant force in this boat class, indeed they are the last country to defeat the Americans over 10 years ago. The current crop of athletes are well below the levels set by their forebears in the late 90’s and early 00’s and qualifying would be a great result for them.

That’s it for the openweight women…..next up…part 3….the lightweights.


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