Time for the third and final part of my 2016 preview….the lightweights….
One of the stand-out crews of 2015, and indeed World Rowing’s male crew of the year, were the French Stany Delayre and Jeremie Azou. The pairing have only lost 3 races since finishing 4th at the Olympics (finishing 2nd in the heat and final in 2013 and 2nd again in 2014). So despite dominating the event since the Olympics it was only in Aiguebelette, on home water, that they finally secured a world championship gold. It’s hard not to see them as favourites heading into 2016 but there is always the lingering doubt about their ability to deliver to their potential on the big occasions….those 2 A-Final defeats both came at the World Championships, victory last year will definitely have helped to ease concerns about delivering under pressure but hasn’t removed it completely.
Chasing the French in Aiguebelette were the British, Richard Chambers and Will Fletcher. The progress this double has made in their first season together has been very encouraging. Chambers is one of the most experienced members of the GB lightweight squad, having made his senior debut in 2006. Despite his acknowledged preference for the LM4- he looks to have formed a very effective partnership with Fletcher. In Aiguebelette they really took the race to the French, swapping the lead throughout the first 1000m. They eventually ran out of steam in the sprint for the line but have shown that they have great baseline speed. Assuming they stay together, and with an extra winter of training together they could well present a serious challenge to the French.
The Norwegian 2013 world champions, Are Strandli and Kristoffer Brun, have shown great consistency for the past 2 years…unfortunately that is a consistency at winning bronze. They’ve finished in the 2nd runners-up spot in every race since taking the top spot in Chungju (in a remarkable weekend for Norwegian sculling with the heavyweight men’s double winning the following day). The question for Strandli and Brun is can they break the third place hoodoo and move up a step or two on the podium?
The 2014 World Champions John Smith and James Thompson of South Africa, only raced internationally twice in 2015 taking silver in Lucerne. At the World Championships they just managed to qualify for the final and were off the pace for the majority of the race managing to snatch 4th in the sprint to the line against the tiring Italians. Whether they can recapture the form that took them to gold in 2014 remains to be seen. 2015 might be a truer reflection of their speed rather than 2104 and the slightly freakish conditions that bedevilled the Bosbaan.
Another crew who didn’t, perhaps, fulfil their potential in 2015 were the young Germans; Moritz Moos and Jason Osborne. Still eligible for U23’s they have shown sparks of medal potential, winning the U23’s in 2014 and finishing 5th in the senior final the same year. Last year they were beset by illness which hampered their performance in Lucerne and it could well be that they were not fully race sharp in Aiguebelette. If they remain healthy they could be one of the surprise packages in Rio….and when Tokyo comes around they could be the force to be reckoned with.
As with most of the events, the final qualifying is going to be tough. Just two spots remain at the FOQR and vying for those will be some extremely talented crews. The Kiwis were very disappointed to miss direct qualification. Their double last year of Hayden Cohen and Peter Taylor could only manage 13th . Whether this is the combination that the Kiwis select must be in question. Taylor was part of the highly successful LM4- but lost his seat in 2015. Selection is going to be critical for the Kiwis this winter (starting with the Cambridge Town Cup in Karapiro this weekend).
Another crew that find themselves having to qualify are the Dutch Muda twins, Tycho and Vincent. They have been consistently in the A-Finals (or top of B-Finals) ever since they switched from the LM4- after the London Olympics, so to finish 4th in the C-Final in Aiguebelette was their worst ever performance. Clearly they have the potential to secure qualification for Rio and will want to put their performance in France behind them.
Also languishing in the C-Final last year were the Danes, Henrik Stephansen and Jens Neilsen. I’ve written before about the struggle the Danes have had to find combination that goes fast with Stephansen on board and, judging by the performance last year, the hunt continues. Stephansen has dominated the LM1X boat class, but in the double he has only made one A-Final (in Lucerne last year finishing 6th – 23 secs behind the French). At one point during last year it looked as though the 2012 defending champions, Mads Rasmussen and Rasmus Quist were on the comeback trail, but disappointing results in the races they did compete in (21st in Lucerne) seem to put paid to that idea. Unless the Danes can find the magic formula to get a fast combination I think they will struggle to qualify.
Edit: It was announced on 27th Jan that Rasmus Quist and Mads Rasmussen of Denmark have been given sponsorship for the rest of this year to support their bid to retain their Olympic title. What interesting from the article is that there is no mention of the Henrik Stephansen and Jens Neilsen combination. So it would appear that Quist and Rasmussen have won the internal selection battle. They now face the challenge of actually qualifying, and as described above, the Kiwis and Dutch may well be the top challengers for the two available qualifying spots. The other question is what will Stephansen (and Neilsen) do? Stephansen raced in the heavyweight single in London, maybe he’ll try and qualify for the single again. Or, perhaps he’ll stick to being a lightweight and race the single at the World Championships? For Neilsen I could envisage him forming part of a World Championship lightweight quad. It’s certainly going to add some spice to the Final Olympic Qualifying Regatta.
Throughout 2013 and 2014 the Danes and the Kiwis have been trading punches in this event, with the British leading the under-card. But in 2015 that all changed. The Swiss have been quietly putting together a formidable squad, with the 2014 LM2- world champions Simon Neipmann and Lucas Tramer joined by Mario Gyr and Simon Schurech. Under the guidance of their Kiwi coach, Ian Wright, they shattered the duopoly of the Danes and Kiwis. After winning the European championships they were 2nd at both the 2nd and 3rd World Cups. But in Aiguebelette they looked imperious and it was the Danes who had to rely on a frantic sprint to snatch silver ahead of the French. So, what can we expect from the Swiss heading into 2016? It looks as though, under Wright, they have found the right combination of athletes and coach that could take them all the way to gold in Rio.
But….the Danes live for this event and they have a great tradition at Olympic level with 3 golds and 2 bronze medals since the event was introduced in Atlanta. They definitely have the firepower (and experience) to take the gold and add to the illustrious roll of honour.
As already mentioned, the Kiwis have been one of the leading nations in this event over the past few years and won both world cups in 2015. But in Aiguebelette they were chasing the race and ended up missing out on the medals entirely. As with the LM2X it will be interesting to see whether the line-up remains the same heading into 2016. But, as with the Danes, whoever fills the seats will definitely have the experience and firepower to challenge for the gold.
The British had a torrid year in this boat class, fielding a different line-up at every regatta. This inconsistency translated into only two A-Final finishes. This amount of chopping and changing is unusual for the British who normally like to stick to a line-up unless injury forces a change. But in the LM4- they used seven different oarsmen in 4 regattas with Sam Scrimgeour, Joel Cassells and 2015 trials winner Jamie Kirkwood, only being given one regatta each in the crew. The British have the most strength in depth of any nation and if they can settle on their best line-up and stop messing about with it, they should be medal contenders.
The US lightweight men’s squad have been through some lean years. With the exception of LM1X Andrew Campbell they have had little to shut about recently. But in 2015 their LM4- of Anthony Fahden, Tyler Nase, Ed King and Will Daly gave them something to cheer with a 7th place finish overall and qualification for Rio. Whether they have the firepower to step up to challenge the Danes, Swiss, and French is questionable but they have the makings of a solid crew.
As with a number of Olympic class events this is shaping up to be another classic GB v NZ battle. After a terrible 2014 the British, Kath Copeland and Charlie Taylor stepped up in 2015 winning the Europeans and the 2nd World Cup (and setting a World’s Best time in the process). The British took first blood in Varese but the Kiwis, Sophie Mackenzie and Julia Edward (pictured), got their own back in Lucerne and, crucially, took the big one in Aiguebelette. The interest heading into 2016 is whether these two line-ups remain the same. The top two in the LW1X in 2015 were Zoe McBride of New Zealand and Imogen Walsh of Great Britain. Both of these women will be pushing for a seat in the Olympic class boats. It will be a bit of a surprise if either of these line-ups do, in fact, change but the fact that competition for places is so strong can only be good for the event as a whole.
Behind these two, the South Africans are the leaders of the chasing pack. Ursula Grobler has raced for the US in the past but is now firmly back in the South African fold and has formed an effective partnership with Kirsten McCann. The Canadians, Lindsay Jennerich and Patricia Obee are one of the longest established partnerships in the event having been racing together since 2011. Silver in 2014 and 4th in 2015 shows they are definite medal contenders.
Overall I think the Kiwis and the British will be going neck and neck all the way to Rio and behind them it’ll be a dogfight between the South Africans, Canadians with also the Danes and a rapidly improving German double chasing for the minor medal.
That’s it…..Olympic year is well and truly upon us the selection battles that will be going on across the rowing world will make the next few months absolutely fascinating.