By Bryan Kitch

Winds of Change

Men's lightweight four in St. Catherines, Ontario. Photo by Peter Spurrier.

The second World Rowing Cup of the 2017 season June 16-18 was an impressive showcase of what’s to come in the new quadrennial. While there were some familiar names and federations atop the leaderboard in Poznan, Poland, there were more than a few newcomers to the podium. And some very notable absences.

Perhaps the most notable? The men’s lightweight four, which had zero entries for the regatta. For lovers of lightweight rowing, it’s a tough thing to see, as one of the sport’s most competitive events disappears from the World Rowing Cup circuit. Further absences that didn’t go unnoticed: Mahé Drysdale in the men’s single (though how the new top New Zealand sculler fared is another story), and Hamish Bond and Eric Murray—the Kiwi Pair. On the women’s side, Olympic silver medalist Gevvie Stone didn’t make the trip. Instead, the U.S. was represented in the single by fellow 2016 Olympians Meghan O’Leary and Lauren Schmetterling (the latter moving over from the gold medal-winning women’s eight in Rio), who placed eighth and 11th, respectively. And speaking of the women’s single, former world champion and Olympian Emma Twigg announced her retirement after Rio; reigning Olympic champion Kim Brennan of Australia was not in evidence; and 2012 Olympic champ Mirka Knapkova sat this one out.

In short, there may be a real reshuffling of the field at hand.

That extends to the results of the women’s eight as well. The U.S. has dominated the field for the last decade and more. Their third-place finish behind a very strong New Zealand crew, and Great Britain (building on their momentum from the last quadrennial, it appears, albeit with a new lineup) was the squad’s lowest placing in the event in the last 12 years. Given the early stage of the season, and the limited number of crews, this is perhaps more a testament to the amazing precedent the U.S. women have set over that time than it is to a shift in the speed of the field. The U.S. women also took second behind Australia in the women’s four in a field that will certainly grow deeper as the quadrennial goes on, building toward a return to the Olympic program in Tokyo.

And the men’s eight? Well, as they say in German, “achter gut—alles gut!” (If the eight is good, then all is good.) The Deutschlandachter smashed the world best time in the men’s eight, recording a blistering 5:18.680 and shaving almost a second off the former mark posted by Canada of 5:19.350 set at World Rowing Cup II in 2012.

The finish by Germany prompted Canadian Olympic eights medalist Will Crothers to tweet: “Rest in piece 5:19.35. We’ve had a lot of good times together. Might have to get the gang back together.” Maybe a view of things to come?

But that wasn’t the only record to fall in Poznan. While New Zealand’s squad saw a couple of key retirements in the offseason (not least of which mthe most dominant boat in the history of international rowing), the Kiwis clearly have plenty of talent in the pipeline. In the women’s pair, Grace Prendergast and Kerri Gowler showed that they still have the magic, winning the event and setting a new world best time of 6:49.080 in the process. It’s the second record for the duo—in 2014, they won the under-23 world championships with a 7:02.890. Just back of them was the U.S., with Megan Kalmoe and Tracy Eisser taking silver in 6:54.610, followed by Australia’s Molly Goodman and Sarah Howe. The latter combination featured the only two athletes to medal in multiple events at World Rowing Cup II, having won gold in the four.

In the men’s single, 2012 and 2016 Olympian Robbie Manson dethroned his fellow countryman Mahé Drysdale to set a new world best time: a jaw-dropping 6:30.740. Looks like he’s filling those ‘big shoes’ nicely already. Finally, the women’s single saw a new world best time posted by Austrian Olympian Magdalena Lobnig, who took gold in the event ahead of Britain’s Vicky Thornley in 7:13.260.

It wasn’t all about new faces in new places, however. Norwegian double Olympic champion Olaf Tufte proved that his retirement announcement on April 1 of this year was in fact a head fake and showed that he still has plenty in the tank, taking second overall in the men’s double with Kjetil Borch. Tufte had also raced at the European championships earlier this year, taking fifth in the men’s quad.

Cuba’s Angel Fournier Rodriguez showed that he’ll continue to be a force to be reckoned with in the men’s single, nabbing second place behind Manson. And the lightweight men’s double saw a battle between French Olympic champions Jeremie Azou and Pierre Houin, and the ever-popular O’Donovan brothers of Ireland. Azou kept his unbeaten streak, which now stretches back through 2015. In fact, to find the last time that Azou finished outside the medals, you have to go back to the 2012 Olympic final, when he and partner Stany Delayre took fourth overall.

Lastly, another notable absence was that of the U.S. men. It’s not unusual for the men’s team not to attend World Rowing Cup contests, especially when under the guidance of Mike Teti, who returns to the elite coaching ranks this summer and is sure to spark interest throughout the international rowing community as the men’s team looks to climb back onto the podium.

The world championships aren’t all that far away. And while early season hardware is great, the only results anyone remembers are those of the last race of the year.

How will the U.S. team set the tone for the quadrennial in 2017? We can’t wait to find out.