Best of 2019

Our take on the athletes, events, and moments that mattered in the year in rowing.

By: Ed Winchester, Photography: Peter Spurrier

Male Athlete of the Year: Oliver Zeidler

Casual rowing fans can be forgiven for not knowing who Oliver Zeidler is. The German swimmer-turned-sculler hadn’t taken a stroke prior to 2016, and 2019 was only his second full season on the international stage. But if Zeidler isn’t a household name yet, it’s only a matter of time. Zeidler comes from long line of German national team rowers—his grandfather is a double Olympic gold medalist for West Germany and his father is a former junior world champion—and looks straight out of central casting in a Dolph Lundgren kind of way. But the real story is his performance on the water. The blond, boyish 23-year-old had a breakout season in 2019, winning his heat, quarterfinal, and semifinal at the Linz-Ottensheim worlds, and finishing first in a final considered one of the most competitive in history—just one second separated first through fifth. Zeidler’s season wasn’t without its bobbles, however. After winning the European Rowing Championships in Lucerne and the second World Rowing Cup in Poland, the high-rating sculler struggled in the rough water at World Rowing Cup III and finished a disappointing 13th. All of which adds to the intrigue of the upcoming season. Zeidler is undeniably a talent, but experience counts for a lot in an Olympic year. Will it matter that he has far fewer strokes under his belt than his competitors? We can’t wait to find out.

Honorable Mention: Hannes Ocik

The fearless rhythm-setter for the German men’s eight keeps rowing fans engaged with a robust social media presence, but it’s his quick work in stroke seat of the world-champion Deutschlandachter that holds our attention.

Female Athlete of the Year: Emma Twigg

Everyone loves a good comeback story, and New Zealand single sculler Emma Twigg’s is as good as they come. Heavily favored to win Olympic singles gold four years ago, Twigg faltered in Rio and finished one spot out of the medals in fourth. And then she walked away. While it’s not uncommon for athletes to sit out part of an Olympic cycle, in the ultra-competitive men’s and women’s singles events, such sojourns are both rare and exceedingly difficult to come back from. (See Mahé Drysdale’s struggles to return to fighting form after a one-year break.) Twigg’s two years away from the sport, however, seem to be just what she needed. Twigg looked stronger than ever in 2019, winning the Princess Royal Challenge Cup at Henley Royal Regatta and finishing first in the second and third stops of the World Rowing Cup circuit. She appeared to be on track for a similar result at worlds, too, pacing the field for 1,500 meters before reigning world champion Sanita Puspure found her extra gear in the final quarter of the race. It may not have been the medal she was hoping for, but there are times in sport when silver is as good as gold. As Twigg learned the hard way in the last quadrennial, you have to peak at just the right time, but with the Olympic Games less than 250 days away, she’s where she needs to be: back in the boat and very much in the mix.

Twigg looked stronger than ever in 2019, winning the Princess Royal Challenge Cup at Henley Royal Regatta, and finishing first in the second and third stops of the World Rowing Cup circuit.

Honorable Mention: Kara Kohler

Michelle Guerette. Gevvy Stone. And now Kara Kohler. The last 10-plus years have been very good for American women’s sculling. With an inspiring third-place showing at worlds, Kohler is within striking distance of the United States’ first-ever Olympic gold in the single.

Event of the Year: 2019 World Rowing Championships

What makes for a memorable event in rowing’s current era? Video streaming technology certainly helps, as England’s Henley Royal Regatta has demonstrated in recent years. Size matters too, with Boston’s Head of the Charles dwarfing all comers on the competitive calendar (11,000 racers over two days can’t be wrong). But in rowing, nothing is more important than what happens on the water. Simply put, good racing wins every time, and there was plenty of it in 2019—from NCAAs to the IRA to the Royal Canadian Henley Regatta. Nothing, however, could quite match the quality of this year’s senior world rowing championships in Austria. Whether you watched it in-person or caught it on cable or online, the level of racing was simply stellar. And because this year’s worlds also doubled as the Olympic qualification regatta, practically every race had significance. The quarterfinals looked more like semifinals and the B finals had as much at stake as the races for medals. This dynamic was especially pronounced in the lightweight doubles, where only the top seven finishers had their tickets punched for Tokyo, down from 11 in 2015. This, of course, is bittersweet. With weight-class rowing facing an uncertain future beyond 2020, Linz-Ottenshiem was likely the last time we’ll lightweights will vying for an Olympic berth.

Honorable Mention: 2019 Henley Royal Regatta

The toast of the British social season just keeps getting better. Along with its best-in-class live streaming, this year’s Henley Royal Regatta also celebrated the centenary of the 1919 Peace Regatta.

Coach of the Year: Gary Hay, Rowing New Zealand

The New Zealand women’s sweep team put the world on notice in 2019. After failing to make the A final a year earlier, the Kiwi big boat stormed to a three-second victory over rivals Australia in Linz-Ottensheim. (The reigning world champion U.S. women’s eight was more than five seconds off the winners.) Even more impressive was the fact that they did it with Grace Prendergrast and Kerri Gowler—who struck pair-oared gold earlier in the regatta—sitting in five and six seat respectively. The architect of the Kiwi women’s rise, Gary Hay, is a longtime Rowing New Zealand coach and former national team lightweight who was among FISA’s nominees for coach of the year 2019. The honor was justified. Hay’s charges executed near-perfect race plans in Austria, in both cases coolly stalking the leaders for the majority of the race before rowing them down in the final 250. New Zealand now find themselves with a sizeable target on their backs heading into Tokyo, but Hay has seen this movie before. The coach headed into the 2016 Olympics with high expectations for several of his crews, only to leave with a pair of disappointing fourths. With New Zealand now rumored to be focusing solely on the eight, Hay isn’t taking any chances. 

Honorable Mention: Dominic Casey

Ireland’s O’Dononvan brothers may have put tiny Skibbereen on the world rowing map, but it’s their coach, Dominic Casey, who has served as the boys’ true north.

International Men’s Crew of the Year: Irish Lightweight Men’s Double

Elite crews survive lineup changes all the time. Most, however, are not as dramatic as the change the Irish lightweight men’s double underwent in 2019. Far fewer still are as successful. To recap: After winning their first world title in the event in 2018, it was looking like Skibbereen’s telegenic O’Donovan brothers, Gary and Paul, would be putting on their podium pants again at next summer’s Olympic Games. Enter Fintan McCarty, who, with twin brother Jake, is part of another improbably fast Skibbereen sibling duo. This is where things get complicated. By the third World Rowing Cup in Rotterdam, Gary was out and Fintan was in. Despite Gary’s efforts to regain his seat, the quicker lineup remained intact for worlds. To some, breaking up a reigning world champion small boat in an Olympic-qualifying year—and in such a competitive event—is a risky move. But the results suggest otherwise. After winning their heat, quarterfinal, and semi, McCarty and O’Donovan were slow out of the blocks in the final, but quickly began working their way through the field. By the time the finishing horn sounded, the new-look combination had built up a more than 2.5-second lead on second-place Italy—a sizeable margin for the typically tight lightweight men’s double. (Gary and Paul O’Donovan also edged the Italians for gold a year earlier, but the margin was a second slimmer.) In a worlds full of unexpected results, this was perhaps the most unexpected of all.

Honorable Mention: Netherlands Men’s Eight

Judging by the impossibly close men’s eight margins at this year’s worlds, the fight for Olympic gold in rowing’s so-called “blue-riband” will be a bruising one. Look to this smooth-rowing sleeper crew from the Netherlands to be right there.

International Women’s Crew of the Year: New Zealand Women’s Pair

Doubling up is a tall order. To put it into perspective, New Zealand’s Kerri Gowler and Grace Prendergast, who rowed both the pair and eight at the 2019 worlds in Austria, had to race a total of six times over the regatta’s eight days. Even more impressive than their schedule, however, were their results: Gowler and Prendergast won every race they contested, picking up a pair of world titles and earning all-important Olympic qualifying berths for the Kiwi women’s eight and pair. And while their stunning eights victory was among the most talked-about moments in Linz-Ottensheim, it was their performance in their signature event—the women’s pair—that truly set the crew apart. Gowler and Prendergast rowed a meticulously executed final, sitting calmly in second behind the Australians for three-quarters of the race before unleashing a punishing sprint in the contest’s closing meters. A day later, they did it again in the eight—again over Oceania rivals Australia—and in the process joined an exclusive club of athletes to strike double Olympic event gold at the same regatta. Any boat that can win a world title in a pre-Olympic year could make a credible case for crew of the year honors, but Gowler and Prendergast are clearly not just any boat. “We worked really hard for this,” Prendergast said after their win in the pair. “I think that was the closest race I’ve ever been in, which made it even more special.”

Honorable Mention: Australian Women’s Four

Australia’s convincing win over New Zealand in the women’s four suggests the dawn of a new Oarsome Foursome era as the straight four returns to the Olympic program for 2020.

Men’s Collegiate Crew of the Year: Yale University

Will anyone solve the Yale men’s eight? While Washington took the team title at this year’s IRA regatta, collegiate rowing’s most coveted event—the first varsity eight—once again belonged to Yale University. For the third consecutive year, and with winning margins that grow every season, Steve Gladstone’s top boat proved unstoppable at the collegiate men’s national championship. When the waters had calmed on California’s Lake Natoma, the Eli varsity had finished three full seconds up on second-place Washington, with rivals Harvard crossing the line in third. It was a command performance by a program at the peak of its powers and among the most memorable at any level over the past 12 months. Sure, Yale’s dominance in the event—and Washington’s before that—may have been a slightly unsatisfying outcome for those who prefer a little more variety in their results. But according to Gladstone, who is quickly closing in on the all-time record for national championships, winning never gets old. “For the athletes particularly, there is a sense of satisfaction that they performed at a high level and they did it consistently through the course of the season. When a group of guys accomplishes what they set out to accomplish there is a profound sense of satisfaction.”

Honorable Mention: Cornell Lightweight Men’s Eight

Coach Chris Kerber’s varsity eight bounced back in a big way in 2019. After finishing last at the IRA in 2018, the Big Red took a nail-biter on Lake Natoma in 2019 with a 0.5-second victory over the Princeton Tigers.

Women’s Collegiate Crew of the Year: University of Washington

Washington women’s coach Yaz Farooq said just the thought of her varsity women’s eight surging through the field in their telltale yellow Empacher gave her the chills. Their win at the 2019 NCAA championships on Indianapolis’ storied Eagle Creek course “was as much mental as it was physical,” added Farooq following the race. “In racing pieces at home we work on taking risks and going somewhere you haven’t gone before.” Of course, looking back on the University of Washington’s remarkable 2019 campaign, however, the Huskies had indeed been there before. With standout wins in the varsity eight, second varsity eight, and varsity four, Farooq’s charges had earned the school its second sweep of the Division I events at the collegiate women’s rowing championship in the last three years. The trifecta also powered the Huskies to their fifth team title and places them within striking distance of Brown’s record seven championship titles.

Honorable Mention: Bates College

With wins in the first and second varsity eights, the Maine-based program picked up a well-deserved third Division III title in 2019.

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