BY ED MORAN
PHOTOS BY LISA WORTHY
Through the months of planning for the first U.S. Olympic rowing trials, the idea that most of the winning crews racing in Sarasota, Fla. this week would not get the opportunity to earn a place in the Tokyo Olympics lingered in the background.
Of the five events being contested at Nathan Benderson Park, only the women’s single was previously qualified to race in Tokyo at the 2019 World Rowing Championships by Kara Kohler, who took bronze there.
The rest of the boat classes — the men’s single, men’s double, and the men’s and women’s lightweight doubles, all missed automatic qualification in 2019 — and would have to race at the 2021 Final Olympic Qualification Regatta in Lucerne in May.
World Rowing had already set the dates for when that regatta would take place, but it was just a date, and the decision to hold the regatta had not been made. So, even as they were practicing and preparing to begin racing Monday morning, there was no clear answer about what would come next for most of the athletes.
That answer finally came just about the time racing was to begin at 8:00 AM when World Rowing announced that it was going ahead with the qualifier, as well as World Rowing Cup II (also in Lucerne in May), and the Final Paralympic Qualification Regatta, set to take place in Gavirate, Italy in June.
“Following extensive discussions with all key stakeholders and applying the previously published decision-making framework, the World Rowing Executive Committee has verified that preparations for the three events conform with the World Rowing requirements and confirms that the three regattas will take place as planned,” World Rowing announced in its statement Monday morning.
The announcement keeps alive chances for six US crews to race in Tokyo, including the crews racing this week and the men’s pair and quad, which will race in the next U.S. trials in April.
“I knew the decision was coming today but didn’t hear until I got off the water,” said John Graves. Graves is hoping to get the chance to race in Lucerne and earn a place in the Olympics in the men’s single. “It was definitely nice to get some positive news and allows all of us going for non-qualified boats to rest easy and just focus on the task at hand this week.”
The good news came just after a good race for the Craftsbury Green Racing Project sculler. Graves placed first in his time trial finishing in 6:37.20 He was followed by Leonard Futterman of Malta Boat Club in 6:39.35 and Penn A.C. Rowing Association’s Thomas Phifer in 6:41.10.
“That was a solid piece and felt great to be out there again,” Graves said.
Graves’ race was the second event of the morning and followed the women’s singles time trial. The winner of that event will be the first U.S. rower named to the 2021 Olympic team.
Kohler, one of five women entered from the USRowing Princeton Women’s Training Center, was among the 35 women racing and finished with the fastest time of the day in 7:08.61, followed in second by Cambridge Boat Club’s Gevvie Stone, who rowed the course in 7:11.83. Third best time of the morning – 7:19.08 – belonged to Princeton Training Center’s Sophia Vitas.
Kohler and Stone advanced to the Tuesday semifinals along the other top 16 finishers.
“Tomorrow when we get to be side by side it will feel more like racing,” Stone said. “As for today, it’s always good to dust off the cobwebs, the pre-race routine, and to get going. A bonus was the great conditions after a bunch of rough water days recently.”
The men’s heavyweight double must also go to Lucerne. That event had 10 crews racing. Craftsbury’s Jacob Plihal and Mark Couwenhoven posted the best time in 6:08.85, followed closely by Charles Anderson and Finn Putnam of Penn A.C. in 6:09.50. The Vesper Boat Club and Oklahoma City High Performance Center composite entry of Kevin Cardno and Jonathan Kirkegaard took the third best time in 6:12.76.
“It was great to be back out on the course again, seeing the buoys pass by with each stroke,” said Plihal. “We had a decent piece and have some things to iron out in the next race. Mark and I are excited to line up side by side with some crews tomorrow for the heats.
“I saw the news that world rowing had confirmed the FOQR this morning before we launched. It was great to see, as most of the crews racing here this week are reliant on a good finish in Lucerne to qualify for Tokyo. It definitely provides a degree of reassurance and motivation for the racing to come.”
Like it was for the other athletes in non-qualified crews, hearing the news that the qualifier had been confirmed was a lift for the athletes racing in the men’s and women’s lightweight doubles.
For the women, leading the time trial field by 17 seconds were Michelle Sechser and Molly Reckford, who are rowing as a composite entry from Cambridge Boat Club and Sarasota Crew. Mary Nabel and Emily Schmieg from Cambridge Boat Club and Potomac Boat Club finished second in 6:47.29, followed by Craftsbury’s Grace Joyce and Christine Cavallo in 6:47.37.
Sechser and Reckford were still waiting to get on the water when the news was announced. “It was fantastic news to hear that FOQR was confirmed before launching,” Sechser. “It helped silence any lurking doubts that I’m sure everyone in a not-yet-qualified boat class is feeling.
“Being back out there on the start line again was amazing,” she said. “It felt like coming home. We have a long week of racing ahead, but it felt great to get our first trip down the course as a double combination.”
For the lightweight men, Vesper Boat Club’s Zachary Heese and Jasper Liu took the top spot in their race, rowing the course in 6:06.92. Teammates James McCullough and Joshua Remland finishing behind them in 6:13.82. The composite Riverside Boat Club/Unaffliated crew of Alex Twist and Hugh McAdam finished third in 6:16.68.
“We didn’t try to do anything special,” Liu said. “We just wanted to put down a solid piece that represented all the training we’ve put in and set us up well for the heats. The (FOQR) confirmation is great news.
“From what I’ve seen recently, people will do everything they can to let sporting events go ahead,” he said. “So not entirely surprised. We’re racing hard this week regardless and hope to earn the chance to go.”