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FISA Olympic Qualification Cancellations Means Uncertainty for Many Athletes

STORY BY ED MORAN
IMAGES BY ED MORAN AND PETER SPURRIER

Emily Schmieg and Mary Nabel were just finishing up their afternoon row at Nathan Benderson Park and putting equipment away when they got the news that the U.S. Olympic Trials they were in Sarasota for was not going to happen.

It was not the same kind of news that collegiate and high school athletes were getting all last week when that their spring rowing season had been wiped out. Still, Schmieg and Nabel were ready to start racing and were hoping to win the chance to go to Switzerland in May and get a shot at qualifying the lightweight women’s double for the U.S. and race in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

Those hopes were eliminated late Saturday when FISA announced the cancellation of the Final Olympic Qualification Regatta and World Cup III. An announcement about how the remaining spots on the Olympic schedule will be filled is expected from FISA Tuesday.

In a statement published about the cancellations, FISA said: 

“FISA is now in close contact with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) in order to finalize proposals regarding the changes to the respective qualification systems. The next communication will take place on Tuesday, 17 March 2020.

“FISA understands the tremendous disruption to athletes, crews and all training opportunities as a result of the global pandemic situation and is taking these decisions in the very best and most principled way we can under the circumstances. Due to the unprecedented containment measures being taken by governments around the world, we recognize that Member Federations’ planning for Tokyo 2020 qualification, travel, accommodation and equipment movement is changing on a daily basis. FISA is working to gather information, analyze carefully, make decisions and communicate promptly.”

The postponement, and Saturday’s FISA announcement, threw a huge wrench in Schmieg and Nabel’s plans and depending what decisions follow from FISA, they could be facing the possibility that their only chance to race in the Olympics was just eliminated.

Needless to say, Schmieg and Nabel were stunned, and are now training in a hold and hope pattern.

“We had just finished up our second row of the day,” Schmieg said. “We were getting all prepared for our final race pace piece prior to the start of trials, and got the email from (USRowing high performance director Matt Imes.) It felt a bit like the rug was pulled out from under us. But we understood. We were disappointed, but understood where they were coming from.

“A majority of this is outside of our control, so we’re trying not to put too much focus on those things that we can’t control and go back to what we can control, which is to be physically and mentally prepared to race, and hope that everything works out and there is still a race to be had. 

“We really don’t know what is going to happen yet,” Schmieg said. “I think a lot of it hinges on what FISA reports (Tuesday) and then sort of playing our cards on what USRowing might do.”

Training in Austin, Texas for Olympic selection. Photo by Ed Moran.

What USRowing might do will depend on what FISA announces. 

“With FISA’s announcement today of cancelation of qualifiers we will wait for the update on the 17th to see how they address the remaining spots,” Imes said. “I’m sure like everyone else we’re disappointed our athletes won’t get a chance to compete to qualify, but at the same time we understand the extremely difficult decisions organizations are being forced to make at this time.”

During an interview Saturday morning prior to the FISA announcement, Imes said USRowing was in the process of developing a number of scenarios. Imes said there is still time to hold two separate U.S. trials. The spring schedule was designed to allow athletes to compete for spots in the singles and lightweight doubles, and give athletes who did not win time to regroup and race in team boats at a second U.S. Trials if they choose to.

The second trials is scheduled to take place in Sarasota April 13-18. But what will happen can just not be safely predicted. There is still time to hold two trials. Or the two trials could be condensed into one, which would force athletes to choose which boat to compete in. 

“We still have the ability to execute the overall selection process and plan that we had in place, just bumping it back in time, if need be,” Imes said. “We have to wait for FISA to determine what is viable for them before we can to determine what the pathway is for some of these boats.”

Imes said contingency plans are being developed and that USRowing will be prepared to decide based on what FISA decides and hope to announce those plans within days.

“We would like to be able to say in the next two weeks what part of the selection process is going to be viable or not. But we will have a plan B and a Plan C. ” Imes said what happens will also depend on how the coronavirus containment efforts are proceeding.

“We don’t know where we are going to be in two weeks,” he said. “Nobody in the U.S. knows where we are going to be in two weeks, and whether we will be in a better situation or a worse situation.

“From a selection standpoint, we can add a date, we can break out a date, but we don’t know yet what we are going to do. These are uncharted waters and we want to be thoughtful, we want to be able to put a plan in place. Will it be what we had hoped for a year ago, no it will be a little bit more condensed and compressed,” he said.

Of the Olympic class crews that will be contested at trials, only the women’s single and women’s double are already qualified. Elimination of the final qualification regatta will not impact those crews – but it would force some athletes to choose which boat to race in should the two trials be compacted into one.

Entered in the postponed trials were 28 women’s single, including 2019 world bronze medalist Kara Kohler and 2016 Olympic silver medalist Gevvie Stone.

Gevvie Stone training in Austin, Texas. Photo by Ed Moran.

Stone and 2019 partner Cicely Madden qualified the women’s double for the U.S. last summer. While Stone was hoping to regain her spot as the U.S. women’s single, she would still have the option to race in the double at the second trials.

“That thought has crossed my mind,” Stone said. “They might hold the events together and I don’t know what I will do. My dad (and coach, Gregg Stone) is driving the trailer back to Boston, so obviously, he would be a critical part of that decision.”

Stone said the postponement news took her and her Cambridge Boat Club teammates entered to race in the women’s single by complete surprise. None of the three Boston based scullers, including Stone, Madden and Emily Kallfelz, had even made it to Florida, and were just traveling to Sarasota from their winter training camp in Austin, Texas.

“We weren’t even down there,” Stone said. “We landed in Charlotte for a layover and we all got a text from my dad when we turned on our phones that said trials postponed, reroute your flights to Boston. So, we did.

“We were surprised, because it seemed like the day before things were going to go as planned. We were disappointed for sure because we were ready and tapered and we were all really excited to get on the racecourse.

“Our immediate reactions are selfish because I was thinking about how much I had put in and how much I wanted to race,” she said. “And knowing that the college season was canceled because we were training so closely with (University of Texas women) most recently, and I had trained around Radcliffe in the fall, and being in touch with the Princeton coaches, we were all really excited to get on the line and have a race and channel all that college energy. We would do it for them, and then we got the same news they got.”

Saturday afternoon, Stone, Madden and Kallfelz were running stadium steps and doing off water training while waiting for the boat trailer to get back to Boston, so they can resume on water training on the Charles River.

“So, we go back to training. That’s all we can do at this point. But part of my heartbreak (Friday) was that (trials) could have been my last regatta in the single,” she said. It would be nice to race the single again because it’s a part of me and I love it, and I would love to have that opportunity. The fact that trials are separate this year was a gift, and I was really excited for that chance.”

So, Stone and all the other athletes hoping to race in the Olympics are waiting to see what will happen to the rest of their spring and summer racing plans.

That is not the case for collegiate and some high school athletes, who had their season canceled last week. One of the first to cancel was the Ivy League, which opted to end all winter and spring sports and close campuses on Tuesday.

When the news that the season was done, Yale head coach Steve Gladstone said the first thought was the decision was an overreaction, but as the scope of the pandemic in the U.S. became clearer, that thought became understanding.

“The first thought was that we understand that this is a serious situation, and that they would close the schools,” Gladstone said. 

Yale Craig W. Johnson ’68 head coach of heavyweight crew Steve Gladstone. Photo by Peter Spurrier.

“But we thought, well, maybe they will allow us to train and compete. And then, within hours, it became clear that the situation was unfolding quickly, and the gravity of the situation was becoming more and more clear. Everybody understood that the decision was the right decision to make.

“At first we didn’t realize the magnitude of the situation, the virus, then after that became clear, almost immediately there was just a profound sense of sadness that this racing season was gone. All of these things were digested fairly quickly and the guys were there to support each other before they went their separate ways.”

Some of Yale athletes had plans to compete for their national teams, but, “I don’t think anybody knows what their plans are because nobody knows what these various clubs, national teams, and so forth, will be doing. So that’s up in the air. I think we’ll know much more about the rowing and what the options are probably in two to three weeks. But right now, it’s about getting back home and stabilizing.

In attempting to ease the impact of the loss of the winter and spring seasons, the NCAA is extending athlete eligibility for one season. Gladstone said he was happy to see the NCAA make that move and is waiting to see if the Ivy League will do the same.

Still, he pointed out that some seniors have plans they could not forgo for another semester at school and rowing.   

“Some seniors, probably a majority of them, have commitments for next year, work commitments, or graduate school commitments for next year and would not be able to take advantage of the season of eligibility that would be granted. Maybe some will decide to take that, but until the Ivy deans and president make it clear how they will deal with this, we certainly won’t know,” Gladstone said.

At the University of Washington in Seattle, which has been at the forefront of the outbreak and has experienced one of the highest death rates in the country, head coach Yasmin Farooq, said she was grateful for the NCAA decision.

Washington was one of the first universities to shift to virtual classes. But while all athletic facilities have been closed and the season wiped out, Washington is hoping that the athletes can return to some form of a practice schedule. 

“We are fortunate to have an athletics department that is just so in touch with student-athletes. They are just so sensitive and aware have been trying to make sure everyone gets the information they need to get as soon as possible. 

“We are kind of on the front line of this here, and we’ve been in it for a bit. I’m grateful that the NCAA had the wisdom to within 24 hours of canceling the season to grant that blanket waiver and extend eligibility. That was the right thing to do. 

“And I think as tough as it is for everyone to lose the season, to have a response that quickly in that regard. Because that was the thought going through many senior’s minds. And so for them not have to wait and see if it’s even a possibility, the extension gives them that option if they want it,” she said.

On the junior and club level, some impacted organizations that have elected to close and lost plans to hold events are adjusting, and hoping to find ways to continue. In Boston, CRI closed their doors for 30 days, but are moving forward to a virtual youth erg event. Closing the club would have eliminated the Youth Erg Trials International event CRI had planned to host Friday, April 3 at the Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center in Roxbury Crossing.

Yesterday CRI, announced plans to make the event virtual. 

“As you may know, many organizations including CRI and the Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center have taken measures to protect and care for their communities. CRI is closed until March 30th and The Reggie Lewis Center is limiting large external groups,” wrote CRI Director of Development Shawn Cotes in announcing the decision.  
 
“During these uncertain times, we remain committed to our mission. The youth we serve in the Let’s Row program train for and look forward to the YETI. Their hard work and dedication deserve to be showcased with a rewarding event. As such, we are shifting YETI to a virtual format. We are communicating with our school partners and providing them with the tools to participate in this fashion.” 

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