New Worlds Order

By Bryan Kitch

Rio de Janeiro. BRAZIL. NZL M2- Bow Eric MURRAY and Hamish BOND 2016 Olympic Rowing Regatta. Lagoa Stadium, Copacabana, “Olympic Summer Games” Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon, Lagoa. Photo by Peter Spurrier.

While records fell and new faces emerged atop the leaderboard at the penultimate World Rowing Cup in Poznan, the final stop on the three-race circuit in Lucerne July 7-9 saw some of international rowing’s most seasoned veterans take center stage as they prepare for the world championships in Sarasota, Florida. However, in some cases, those veterans were out to prove that old dogs could indeed learn new tricks.

How so? Look no further than the men’s pair final and you’ll discover that the Sinkovic Brothers’ campaign to switch from sculling to sweep has begun auspiciously for the 2016 Olympic gold medalists. The Croatian duo, who own the world best time in the double from the 2014 world championships in Amsterdam, landed on the podium in their first international appearance in the pair, taking silver behind a new-look Kiwi combination made up of James Hunter and Thomas Murray. And speaking of switching disciplines, Hunter last raced at the 2016 Olympic Games in the lightweight men’s four for New Zealand, placing fifth overall—one of the first in what could be an interesting trend (given the removal of the lightweight men’s four from the Olympic Program) in former lightweights moving over into heavyweight crews and making a name for themselves.

The women’s pair was a repeat of the second World Rowing Cup for gold and silver, with New Zealand’s Grace Prendergast and Kerri Gowler taking top honors ahead of USRowing’s Megan Kalmoe and Tracy Eisser once again, though this time New Zealand duo didn’t set a new world best time in the process (as they did in Poznan, posting a 6:49.08). (Could these women take over the “Kiwi Pair” moniker after the departure of Hamish Bond and Eric Murray from the sport? Given they have a track record that already includes under-23 and senior world best times, it’s starting to seem like they should.)

In the big boats, it was Romania that earned the gold in the women’s eight—a nation once synonymous with podium finishes in that boat class, but in recent years struggling to find a footing against the likes of the U.S., the Netherlands, and Canada. However, the Romanians took bronze ahead of New Zealand in Rio, and edged the Kiwis again in Lucerne, this time by a margin of just over two seconds, with Great Britain finishing a distant third in a field that did not include an American entry.

Meanwhile on the men’s side, it was another world best time-holding crew from Poznan repeating as champion in Lucerne, with Germany’s vaunted ‘Deutschlandachter’ just holding off a great push from Australia. In the end, just seven tenths of a second separated gold from silver. (The Aussie crew could be one to watch at the upcoming world championships, with a nice mixture of youth and experience, including Princeton grad Tim Masters in four seat.) Taking third place was the Netherlands, and, showcasing growing Dutch depth, a second Netherlands crew took fifth place, with Romania taking fourth overall.

Switching to sculling, again it was Robbie Manson of New Zealand running away from the field—the double Olympian in the quad and double sculls has been having a breakout season, including setting a new world best time in Poznan. And Lucerne was no different. After a slow start that saw him in fifth place at the 500-meter mark, Manson opened up an impressive lead on a very experienced A-final field that included Cuba’s Angel Fournier Rodriguez and three-time Olympic medalist Ondrej Synek of the Czech Republic, with Manson eventually winning by roughly four seconds. Rodriguez took silver, with Stanislau Shcharbachenia of Belarus (not yet a household name, but certainly with some pedigree, having placed fifth in the men’s single in Rio, and third at this year’s European championships) rounding out the medals.

How good does Manson have it going? If Manson continues to perform at such a high level, it could complicate any potential comeback to the elite ranks for reigning Olympic gold medalist Mahé Drysdale.

In the women’s single, USRowing’s Felice Mueller had an impressive debut at the senior level, moving over from sweep, where she has had tremendous success in small boats (Mueller has done the majority of her international racing in the pair, four, and eight, including a fourth-place finish in the pair in Rio). In the end, Mueller just missed the podium behind experienced Austrian sculler Magdalena Lobnig (gold medalist a month earlier in Poznan), who edged Mueller by less than one tenth of a second for bronze.

Ahead of both of them was another North American sculler: Canada’s Carling Zeeman. Zeeman is coming off an 11th place finish in the single in Rio, and looking like a solid contender in one of rowing’s deepest fields heading into the next quadrennial. Interestingly, it looks like the top end of the field may be changing with Olympian Victoria Thornley of Great Britain (who earned a silver along with rowing legend Katherine Grainger in the double in Rio) and Switzerland’s Jeanine Gmelin—winner in Lucerne—moving up in the ranks.

Finally, in the lightweight events, it was New Zealand’s women’s combination of Zoe McBride—a world best time-holder in the women’s lightweight single and former under-23 and senior world champion in that event—and Jackie Kiddle continuing the Kiwis’ prowess in the lightweight double, while the men’s side saw Olympic champions Jeremie Azou and Pierre Houin of France extend their winning streak. In fact, to find the last time that Azou finished second, you have to go all the way back to 2014 (and even then, it took a new world best time from South African Olympic champions John Smith and James Thompson to keep Azou off the top of the podium).

What remains to be seen is whether nations with strong traditions in the lightweight four take the same approach as New Zealand and James Hunter, moving elite lightweights into heavyweight boats, or whether the fields in the lightweight doubles continue to grow ever deeper. In any case, one thing is clear: The best of the best generally find their way to the podium, regardless of weight or boat class.