GB Trials preview and thoughts on the FISA Congress

 

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First of all let me apologise for being a bit quiet on this blog for a while, as I’ve mentioned before (and if anyone who follows me on twitter will know) I’ve been unwell for the last few months. Fortunately I’m now almost (but not quite) completely well again, so I thought I would dive back into the fray as there’s quite a lot going on in the rowing world at the moment. In Britain this weekend sees the 3rd Winter assessment (and the first to include returning Olympians) and in Tokyo the FISA Extraordinary Congress will vote on the future of rowing at the Olympics.

Right,lets have a look at the GB trials….

As mentioned above, the trials are the first of the new Olympiad to include returning Rio Olympians. Here’s a quick look at which of the athletes have retired, who’s carrying on and who’s taking a break.

Campbell

M1X: Alan Campbell. After 4 Olympic Games and a senior career spanning 12 years, the 33 year old Northern Irishman has officially hung up his sculls.

 

gb-m2-rio

M2-: Alan Sinclair and Stewart Innes. Both are carrying on although Sinclair is absent from this weekend’s racing. Innes is in a pair at the trials with 2015 M2+ World Champion Matt Tarrant.

 

GB M2X

M2X: John Collins and Jonny Walton. These two have been the GB M2X for the past couple of years and both are racing at the trials. It’ll be interesting to see if they continue their partnership in 2017.

 

M4-: Alex Gregory, George Nash, Moe Sbihi, Stan Louloudis. GB’s flagship boat from the Rio Olympics, returning the 5th consecutive gold medal in this event. But, only one of the crew is racing this weekend. George Nash was the first of the crew to retire and has gone off to utilise his Cambridge degree in engineering and will be working as an R&D Engineer for Kineterol Ltd. Alex Gregory was the next to hang up his oars after winning his 2nd Olympic Gold medal.  Stan Louloudis has yet to formally announce his intentions, the former Oxford University President went travelling after the Rio Olympics and is currently listed among the “undecided” camp. A lot of people (me included) will hope Stan continues to Tokyo but I wouldn’t be surprised if he calls it a day, he’s achieved all he set out to do and has been quoted as saying he didn’t want “to be defined as a rower”. The fourth member of the crew is Moe Sbihi. Mo made it clear fairly soon after Rio that he would be carrying on and will be the backbone of the new-look GB squad.

Mo_Alex

Alex Gregory (left) and Moe Sbihi on the start line in Rio

 

M4X: Jack Beaumont, Angus Groom, Sam Townsend, Pete Lambert. Of this crew only Sam Townsend has retired – taking up the position of Master in Charge of Rowing at Radley College. Beaumont and Lambert are racing this weekend with Groom absent. The GB sculling team is very open this season and it’s going to be very interesting to see who fills which seat.

 

M8: Phelan Hill, Will Satch, Matt Langridge, Paul Bennett, Pete Reed, Matt Gotrel, Andy Hodge, Tom Ransley, Scott Durant.

Hodge

Andy T Hodge, retiring after winning his 3rd Olympic gold medal

This boat has, not unsurprisingly, seen a few retires. Most notable among them is Andy Hodge, with 3 Olympic gold medals and 4 World titles to his name it was no surprise he’d had enough. Andy’s also been quite vocal about the difficulties faced by senior members of the squad being able to support their families on the funding given, and the hurdles put in front of them to augment these earnings. Andy is now working as a consultant in water management. His long-time rowing partner, Pete Reed on the other hand has committed to Tokyo, with the permission of his employers in the Royal Navy. Pete’s not competing at the trials as he continues his rehabilitation following hip surgery. Both Paul Bennett and Matt Gotrel have decided to take a break from rowing but may yet return in 2018 to compete for seats at Tokyo. Matt Langridge and cox Phelan Hill have also retired (although no official announcement has been made). Hill returns to his job at the Treasury and Langridge is, I believe, training to be a pilot. Strokeman Will Satch is carrying on and is racing in a pair with Moe Sbihi at trials.

 

LM2X: Richard Chambers and Will Fletcher. Chambers quit soon after the Rio Olympics, a stalwart of the GB Lightweight team for 10 years he leaves with an Olympic Silver medal and 2 World Titles to his name. He’s now assistant coach for the Cambridge University Boat Race squad. His partner in Rio, Will Fletcher, is back for more and will be looking to lay down a marker as the number 1 lightweight sculler.

 

LM4-: Pete Chambers, Mark Aldred, Jonno Clegg, Chris Bartley.  So far only Chris Bartley has officially retired (after a decade in the senior squad). But, only Pete Chambers is competing at this weekend’s trials. With the future of lightweight sweep rowing so undecided it wouldn’t be too surprising to see a number of official retirement announcements in the coming weeks.

 

Glover & Stanning

Helen Glover and Heather Stanning of Great Britain

W2-: Helen Glover & Heather Stanning. Major Stanning announced she was returning to her Army duties fairly quickly after the Olympics. Helen Glover, World Rowing’s no.1 rower of 2016, is taking a break. She married TV presenter and Naturalist Steve Backshall and has spent the past few months in Japan and Australia making a film for  BBC World. Whilst in Japan she did do some rowing, getting out in a eight with a local club. She’s said in interview that she’s not yet decided on her future in the sport but has given strong indications that she doesn’t quite feel finished just yet. She’s expressed an interest in the W1X and if she does return it’ll be a fascinating contest to see her and Vicky Thornley battling it out for supremacy.

 

W2X: Katherine Grainger and Vicky Thornley. With 5 Olympics medals and a Damehood to her name Dr Katherine Grainger has still not officially announced her retirement from the sport.  It’s highly unlikely the 41 year old will make another comeback, especially after the emotionally draining 2016 season, but until she officially says “that’s it” we can’t completely rule it out! Thornley, on the hand, has committed to Tokyo. She’s racing at the Trials and will expect to be GB’s no.1 sculler. As such she may have some say over which boat she races in. We could well see a showdown between her and Glover for the W1X (or how about a Glover/Thornley W2X….now that would be interesting!)

 

W8: Zoe De Toledo, Zoe Lee, Karen Bennett, Olivia Carnegie-Brown, Jess Eddie, Polly Swann, Fran Houghton, Melanie Wilson, Katie Greves.

Only one member of this crew, Karen Bennett, is racing at the GB Trials this weekend. She was due to partner Zoe Lee but Zoe has withdrawn due to illness.  Fran Houghton has stepped down after an astonishing career in the British Team which included racing at five Olympic Games, winning 3 silver medals and 4 World Titles. Personally I’m a little disappointed that despite all her success, she’s yet to receive any form of Honour…not even an MBE. In my opinion no-one in the British team, male or female, typifies the phrase “for services to rowing” more than Fran. Maybe now she’s retired she might get the recognition she deserves.

Polly Swann has decided to take a break from rowing as she competes her medical degree but has indicated her intention to try for Tokyo. Katie Greves has retired after a career spanning 15 years and Olivia Carnegie-Brown has taken up an internship at Ernst & Young. Cox Zoe De Toldeo, Jess Eddie and Melanie Wilson have also retired although not yet formally announced their decision.

 

LW2X: Kat Copeland and Charlotte Taylor.  Both Copeland and Taylor (now racing as Charlotte Booth having married after Rio) are racing at the GB trials. After a bitterly disappointing 2016 they will be looking to retain their seats in the LW2X and re-establish themselves as one of the best crews in the world.

 

So that’s the state of play of the returning Olympians, but who to watch at the trials….

Competitors face a 5K time trial in singles or pairs on the waters of the River Witham in Boston, Lincolnshire

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Competitors at the recent GB Junior Trials on the River Witham in Boston

M1X

34 scullers. Among the senior athletes it’s going to be a showdown between Jack Beaumont, Pete Lambert, John Collins and Jonny Walton. Watch out also for Leander Club captain Nick Middleton. Among the younger scullers the ones to watch are last year’s U23 M4X; Rowan Law, Harry Glenister, Harry Leask and Andrew Joel and also Welshman Tom Barras – fifth in the U23 M1X last year. Cambridge University President, Lance Tredell, is also racing in the M1X.

Edit: Jack Beaumont has just withdrawn from this weekend’s trials due to a hamstring injury.

M2-

31 pairs. Moe Sbihi and Will Satch will be looking to win, and win well. What’ll be interesting this season is what boat these two find themselves in. With the Kiwis taking a break from the M2- the field has suddenly opened up and the switch of the Olympic M2X champion Sinkovic brothers from Croatia to the M2- makes it one of the events to watch this year. My gut instinct is these two will eventually find a seat in the M4- at Tokyo but it wouldn’t surprise me to see them have at least one season in a smaller boat. The biggest challenge to the Sbihi/Satch combo will be Stewart Innes and Matt Tarrant. Innes was 4th in this boat class in Rio and Tarrant won gold in the coxed pair in 2015. I expect these two pairs to be well clear of the rest of the field. “Best of the Rest” may well be the young crew of Callum McBrierty and Jacob Dawson. McBrierty won the M2+ world title this year and was sub in the M4- in Lucerne. Dawson is in his first year in the senior squad after an extremely successful career at the University of Washington – I could well see Dawson becoming the first US educated man to win a senior international vest for GB. Oxford University also have a couple of strong boats racing with senior international William Warr racing with Josh Bugajski and 2016 World Champion Ollie Cook racing with Vassillis Ragoussis. Watch out also for the fleet of Oxford Brookes boats especially Morgan Bolding and Michael Glover.

LM1X

40 scullers. Pete Chambers will be starting as favourite, especially after it appears Will Fletcher has withdrawn. Chasing Chambers will be 2015 world LM2- champion Sam Scrimgeour of Molesey Boat Club along with three of the 2016 LM4X – Charlie Waite-Roberts, Zak Lee-Green and Jamie Copus (the 4th member of that crew, Jamie Kirkwood has retired and is now working as Assistant Coach with the Oxford University Women’s Boat Race crew). The U23 version were world champions last year, and all four of the crew (Hugo Coussens, Oliver Varley, Matthew Curtis and Gavin Horsburgh) are racing at trials.

At this point it’s worth discussing what may happen with the lightweights. It’s looking highly likely that the LM4- will be dropped from the Olympic programme for Tokyo 2020 (more below). This raises the question of what will GB do? Will they continue to run a lightweight sweep programme if it’s no longer part of the Olympics. With funding always an issue I can see an argument that says “why spend money on boats that won’t feature at the Olympics, or aren’t a development boat for the Olympics”. I would not be surprised to see GB (and other big rowing nations) drop out of lightweight sweep racing.

W2-

15 pairs. As mentioned above, the only returning Rio Olympian is Karen Bennett. She’s partnered by Leander club-mate Katherine Douglas. They will have their work cut-out against Fiona Gammond and Holly Norton both of whom were in the gold medal W4- last season. Another boat to watch out for is the Southampton Coalporters/Agecroft combo of Caragh McMurtry and Rebecca Chin. McMurtry last raced for GB in the W8 at the 2014 World Championships and Chin won a silver medal in the W4- in 2015. Cambridge University have three boats entered with the pick possibly being the Holly Hill and Melissa Wilson pairing. These two were in the U23 W4- that won bronze in 2015. Also in the U23 W4- from 2015 was Sam Courty of Bath University, she’s joined by former Oxford President Anastasia Chitty (herself an U23 medallist from 2014). The final crew to mention is the Molesey Club pairing of Katie Bartlett and Ruth Whyman – both of whom raced in the U23 W8 that won a silver medal in 2014.

 

W1X

40 scullers. As mentioned above, Vicky Thornley will be expecting to come out on top and continue her status as GB’s no.1 women’s sculler. Behind her though it should be a good fight. U23 W2X World Champion Jess Leyden raced in the W4X last season narrowly missing qualification for the Olympic Games. Holly Nixon of Leander club has swapped one oar for two having been part of the World Championship winning W4- last year. Another talented young oarswoman swapping from sweep to scull is Charlotte Hodgkins-Byrne of the University of London. The 20 year old was a member of the silver medal winning W8 at last year’s U23 World Championships. Watch out too for Bethany Bryan, the 23 year old from the Leander Club will be looking to win her first senior vest this season having won a bronze medal at U23 level in 2015

LW1X

29 scullers. Kat Copeland and Charlotte Booth (nee Taylor) will expect to be well ahead of the rest of the field, especially after their disappointing 2016 season. If Copeland and Booth had a disappointing 2016 the same definitely can’t be said for three of their rivals – Ellie Piggott, Brianna Stubbs and Emily Craig won gold in the LW4X at the 2016 World Championships (the 4th member of the crew, Imogen Walsh, is currently working to develop rowing in the Maldives). The pressure in the lightweight women’s team for the coveted seats in the double is going to be extreme.

 

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Delegates at the FISA Extraordinary Congress in Tokyo

So that’s a look at trials…but 6000 miles away the future of rowing at the Olympics is being discussed at the FISA Extraordinary Congress.  The biggest single issue they are voting on is which events to recommend to the IOC for inclusion at the Tokyo Olympics. I’ve written at length on the two options available, but basically it’s between dropping the LM4- in favour of the W4- or dropping the M4- in favour of the LW4-. The first is the preferred option of the FISA Council and the latter has been proposed by a group of nations including China, Ireland, Switzerland, Canada and Australia. Today was devoted to the discussions of the proposals. FISA President Jean-Christophe Rolland opened the debate saying that when

discussions [started] with the IOC for the 2020 programme, the starting point was: zero lightweights”.

FISA’s challenge therefore was to do what they could to preserve lightweight rowing in some shape or form at the Olympics. The chances of the alternative proposal were dealt a blow when one of the original proponents, Canada, withdrew their support;

 “We are withdrawing our individual proposal. We looked at a number of factors. We feel there’s no appetite with IOC to increase the number of Olympic events. Universality argument we haven’t seen the data. When you look at participation over the last 2 decades, in lightweight rowing it is dominated by big rowing nations. I think with that the FISA council proposal is the one we support”.

Morten Espersen (currently Irish High Performance Director – although he has resigned from this post a couple of weeks ago) argued that the removal of the LM4- will mean an number of countries would suffer and called on “all countries that have not won medals yet, should vote for the alternative proposal.” He was also critical of FISA President J-C Rolland saying he shouldn’t have claimed that to vote for the alternative proposal was “irresponsible”.

Other nations took a more pragmatic approach, Germany stated that we shouldn’t “decide what is good for rowing as a rower but…what the IOC thinks is good for the Olympics”. The South Africans said that despite winning gold in the LM4- in London “we’ve elected the FISA leadership and have to support them”.  Annamarie Phelps, representing GB, tried to move this away from a discussion about lightweight rowing and instead focussed on rowing’s need to be flexible and innovative and “cannot risk….asking the IOC to do something we know they don’t wish to do”.

But perhaps the most important voice of the day came from Denis Oswald:

Two years ago the Olympic Programme commission had decided to eliminate lightweights, and thanks to the work of Jean-Christophe and Matt [Smith], they have managed to keep the doubles, based on their contribution to universality. We cannot afford to lose them. I like the alternative proposal and if I was the one to decide I would choose it, but I do not decide. And it is just not realistic, and not possible, unfortunately. The FISA Council has done its best to keep the principle of lightweight rowing, to keep our events and our quota. The Council proposal is the only one that has a realistic chance of being accepted by the IOC Executive Board”.

So, at the time of writing voting hasn’t yet taken place, but it looks a foregone conclusion that the FISA Council proposal will be adopted and the LM4- will be replaced by the W4-. But, it’s important to stress that this doesn’t automatically mean that all 14 events will be raced at Tokyo. FISA will make a proposal to the IOC about which events they would like included, but it’s up to the IOC Executive Board, in consultation with both FISA and the Olympic Programme Commission, to make the final decision. It’s still possible that they may decide to drop all lightweight events from the Tokyo 2020 programme. There is also a concern that losing the LM4- will be the “this end of the wedge” the light doubles may survive to the Tokyo Olympics but may not make it to 2024. As mentioned above, the removal of the LM4- from the Olympic programme also poses a significant risk to the future of lightweight sweep rowing. It would be highly unlikely that the major rowing nations (who’s funding is totally geared towards the Olympics) would continue to divert funds into a non-Olympic boat class. Personally I think by 2019 at the latest lightweight racing at World Cup and World Championship level will be restricted to sculling events. Lightweight sweep died on February 1th 2017….RIP.

 

Edit: Saturday 11th February

Votes were cast earlier today and the result was closer than I expected. The FISA Council proposal to replace the LM4- with the W4- was accepted by 94 votes to 67. This will now be presented to the IOC Executive Board for a final decision in July. Fingers crossed the IOC accept the proposal in full and rowing keeps 14 events in the programme for Tokyo 2020. Needless to say the decision has resulted in a lot of disappointment from the rowing world, but as I mention above, it was the most pragmatic decision FISA could have made and should protect the light doubles (at least for this Olympic cycle).

A couple of other interesting changes approved by Congress is the increase in the distance for Para-rowing from 1000m to 2000m. On the face of it this makes excellent sense and should make organisation simpler. It also makes sense for a boat like the LTAMix4+ and TAMix2X. My only small worry is for the two 1X para events. When the races were held over 1K they would take around 5;30mins for the men and 7 mins for the women (so not too dissimilar from some of the able-bodied events). But, with the distance doubled I have a worry that the IPC (International Paralympic Committee) may be reluctant to have races that could last anything up to 18-20 minutes. Hopefully I’m worrying over nothing as the ASM1X and ASW1X are great events, but you never can tell.

The other significant change approved at the Congress this weekend was the decision to remove the restriction that said coxes had to be the same gender as their crew. Thus men may cox a women’s 8 and vice versa. I wonder who’ll be the first to apply the rule. In GB with both Phelan Hill and Zoe De Toledo stepping down from their coxswain’s duties, selection will become very, very interesting….

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