All Eyes Turn to Tokyo

U.S. women, para-crews lead the way at worlds as USRowing qualifies eight crews for 2020 Games.

By: Connor Walters, Photography: Lisa Worthy.

At the world championships every year, the medals count is the easiest way to measure each nation’s success. In the year prior to an Olympics, however, the more important metric perhaps is Olympic qualification.

In Linz-Ottensheim, Austria, the U.S. women and para-crews led the way to the medals stand with six for the red, white, and blue. Importantly, they also qualified eight crews for the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2020, including in both the men’s and women’s eights.

“I think it was a great way to end our season,” said Margaret Bertasi, who won gold in the lightweight women’s pair with Cara Stawicki. “Results aside, we wanted to come off the water having had a good piece that we’re proud of and I think we really, really did that. It’s been an adventure getting into a sweep boat for the summer, and I couldn’t be more proud of the way we finished.”

The pair contended against a small but closely-bunched group of competitors, winning their first race by under a second and claiming gold in the final by about 1.5 seconds.

Only one other gold medal was claimed by the United States, earned by Jacyln Smith and Molly Moore who defeated Italy in the PR3 women’s pair.

The remaining medals, one silver, and three bronze, came from the PR3 mixed coxed four, the PR3 mixed double, the women’s eight, and women’s single.

Kara Kohler earned her bronze in the single out of a deep field of 34 entries, with a brutal schedule of four to five races per rower. Ireland’s Sanita Puspure appeared better than ever as she claimed back-to-back world titles. She won every race throughout the entire regatta including, of course, the grand final, where she finished 1.4 seconds ahead of New Zealand’s Emma Twigg and roughly five seconds ahead of Kohler.

“It’s just pure relief and confirmation that the training that I’m doing … is working so far, and I look forward to what I can build off of this year,” she said. This was just her second year competing internationally in the single, and she has an Olympic bronze medal to her name in the quad from the 2012 Games in London, so Kohler is in a strong position heading into Tokyo next summer.

Striking silver has become something of a trend for the United States PR3 mixed coxed four. The second-place finish was the sixth straight at a world championships; each of those has come behind Great Britain, which owns the event with nine consecutive titles. Boston’s Community Rowing, Inc. has been the home base for this crew for several years now, and while the athletes in the boat have changed, the high standard of success continues.

In the men’s eight, the racing was tight and unpredictable. The Germans have emerged as the team to beat in recent years, but Great Britain reigned in Rio, the U.S. has retooled its training system, and the Kiwis fielded an entry with the likes of Hamish Bond and Mahé Drysdale.

The final result came with a few surprises and a narrow clinching of an Olympic bid for the United States by virtue of its fifth-place finish. Germany won its third consecutive world title, and the resilient Dutch emerged from the repechage to take silver, a mere half second out of first. Great Britain earned bronze with Australia fourth, about a second ahead of the U.S.

Qualifying for Tokyo this year was a necessary step for what awaits the team.

On the women’s side, the deepening competition internationally has made it much more difficult for any country to repeat at the world championships. As the U.S. women sought to defend their 2018 world title, they were upended this year by New Zealand and Australia. Yet the U.S. women have not lost in the eight at an Olympics since 2004; qualifying for Tokyo this year was a necessary step for what awaits the team.

Emily Regan, a 10-year veteran of the national team and member of the crew, said, “We can’t prepare our best for the Olympics if we don’t qualify this year, so now the pressure in terms of having the boat at the Olympics is off, but we’ll have to fight really hard to earn a seat in the boat next year.”

Blake Haxton claimed a Paralympic berth for the U.S. men by willing himself to a first-place finish in the B final of the PR1 men’s single sculls. His entry at the world championships came on the heels of an attempt to qualify for the Olympics in sprint canoeing, which became a Paralympic event in 2016.

“For the para side, especially for my event, [rowing and canoe] are really similar,” he said. “As long as you’re training for 2k you can go do 200 meters and not get into too much trouble.” As the field of arms and shoulders single scullers grows, Haxton said it has increased the competition.

“There’s more unknowns in terms of other people’s speed,” he said. “You never know year by year who’s going to show up. There’s a little bit more emphasis on being sharp.”

This year marked 10 years since a rare flesh-eating bacteria nearly took Haxton’s life and left him with both legs amputated above the knee. Qualifying for his second Paralympic Games goes beyond what he thought possible for his life.

“For a while I just thought I’d never get in a boat again,” he said. “Just to do it was one thing, to have the experiences I’ve had. It’s just sort of unreal. How lucky can you be?”

For crews who weren’t fortunate enough to secure spots in next summer’s quadrennial event, the training continues. The so-called “last chance regatta” will take place in July in Lucerne, Switzerland. Now that the U.S. has eight crews confirmed for Tokyo, the countdown to July 24, 2020, officially begins.

Margaret Bertasi and Cara Stawicki sprint to gold in Austria. Credit: Lisa Worthy.

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