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Olympic Trials Tuesday – Dealing With Nerves and Racing for a Day Off

BY ED MORAN
PHOTOS BY LISA WORTHY

Kara Kohler was feeling nervous Tuesday morning while getting ready to go to Nathan Benderson Park for the second day of Olympic trials racing. It was not that she didn’t know what to expect, Kohler has been an elite national team rower since she was an undergraduate at the University of California.

She has raced as a member of seven U.S. national teams, won a bronze medal in the quad in London in the 2012 Olympics, and in 2019 placed third in the single at the World Rowing Championship, collecting another bronze medal and qualifying the boat class for the Tokyo Games.

She knows what it is like to race in big races.

Tuesday did not qualify as a huge race, not really. It was the heats of the women’s single, one of five events being contested in Sarasota, Fla. Kohler had the fastest time in the Monday time trials, and short of some unexpected difficulty, she was favored to win her heat and advance directly to the Thursday semifinal.

Still, like everyone else racing Tuesday at the trials, there was a lot on the line – in the case of the women’s single a direct path to the 2021 Olympic team. Of the five events being run, only the women’s single is qualified.

The nerves were understandable. Yes, there would be a second chance if something caused her not to advance, but it would not be the best possible result.

Add to that the pressure of not having raced next to another boat since 2019 – time trials don’t count in that regard – it’s just one athlete at a time rowing against the clock for seeding.

“There was a lot of anticipation with that long year off,” Kohler said about finally getting to race next to another competitor. “There was a lot of excitement, but still lots of nerves.”

“There was a lot of anticipation with that long year off,” Kohler said about finally getting to race next to another competitor. “There was a lot of excitement, but still lots of nerves.”

-Kara Kohler

That evaporated quickly enough, apparently. After taking the lead from the start, Kohler built enough of a cushion in the first half of the course to back off in the second thousand and row comfortably into the finish.

“It’s like riding a bike, you don’t forget,” she said about getting settled. “It’s exciting just to get back into the race routine. There was a pretty consistent headwind on the course, but I raced the first half of the race and then had a comfortable enough lead to row steadily to the finish,” she said.

Her win, like it did for the rest of the 22 crews that advanced into either the Thursday semifinals or Friday finals, earned her some time to sleep Wednesday morning and to get some relaxation time.

“It’s a relief to have a day to calm the nervous system, recover and then build back up for the semis on Thursday,” Kohler said. “It’s been hard to get good sleep the past couple of days with getting up really early for these races. I’m looking forward to a day to unwind and then building back up for Thursday.”

That day off will be a high-pressure day for the rest of the crews that can only advance to the next level of their event through the Wednesday morning reps.

Also, advancing directly from the Tuesday morning four-lane heats in the women’s single were Cambridge Boat Club’s Gevvie Stone and Cicely Madden, and Sophia Vitas from the U.S. women’s Princeton Training Center.

Of those races, the outcomes were mostly foreseeable based on the times that were rowed in the time trials. That was not the case for Madden, who was lined up against ARION’s Kristina Wagner. Wagner bested Madden’s Monday trials time, but by a hair.

“Definitely looking at the times from the time trial, things were pretty close,” she said. “I knew it was going to be a hard race, and I always go into a race ready. I never take anything for granted and race as hard as I can.

“It’s been a really tough training year for everyone, adapting to the pandemic and doing what we can. Our group in Boston had to move around our training centers to work with the pandemic, so all that work is paying off and we’re excited to race finally,” Madden said.

In Tuesday’s race, Madden took the lead from the start and held to the end with Wagner by just about 2.5 seconds.

Madden’s training group also included her 2019 world championship doubles partner, Gevvie Stone. Stone is as familiar with this level of racing as anyone. She is a two-time Olympian, representing the US in the event in London, and then winning a silver medal in Rio in 2016.

Kohler beat Stone in the 2019 world championship trials on this same course. Stone understands the idea that these races can cause nerves, but said she always looks forward to the racing.

“It’s something you don’t get to do often, so part of it is familiar, and part of it is still adrenaline boosting and exciting. We train a lot for not a lot of races, and so, yes, I know how to do it but it still has a novelty and excitement every time you get out there on the start line.

“(Tuesday) was a not super exciting race,” Stone said. “I was able to get out early and control the race from there. It’s always good to get one step closer and another step of the way done. And I can’t complain about a day off in between.”

In the men’s single event 16 scullers raced for the chance to earn the extra day, but only four will be sleeping in Wednesday.

Finishing with the best overall time of the four heats was Malta Boat Club’s Lenny Futterman, 29, one of the older athletes in the event, who after 14-years in the sport, has decided that this will be his last competitive year and is taking the racing, not casually, but with a clear understanding of where he is in his rowing career and life.

“It’s great to be able to race again,” said Futterman. “I predominantly train alone, so it’s great being next to someone, to be able to race again. That’s the fun part of the sport.” Asked if he was experiencing any nervousness about the rest of the week, Futterman said no.

“Not really, it’s all going to happen. I’ve kind of gone into this knowing it is no secret that this is my last run at things. And, the thing that’s been great about the last year is being able to understand the role of sport in my life.

“I love this sport, and I’ve been doing it for 14 years, since I was a freshman in high school. But it’s just rowing when it comes down to it. You go out to try to win a race, but if you don’t win, it’s not like you had a million-dollar contract that isn’t getting fulfilled.”

John Graves, who raced in the first of the four heats, has also been clear that this is his last time chasing an Olympic berth. He has rowed on multiple national teams and just missed out on the 2012 Games at the final qualification regatta in the quad.

Graves had the best time of the time trials and was rowing in a group that included Kevin Meador, who represented the U.S. at the 2019 world championships and beat Graves in the heats of those trials.

Graves said he was not thinking about that yesterday.

“I am definitely just trying to focus on what I can control, staying internal, finding my rhythm and holding that throughout regardless of who I’m up against,” Graves said. “Kevin has a lot of speed, and ultimately, today was just the heat and I want to keep progressing and trying to step on it every day.”

But he said he was also definitely looking for a win and a day off.

“That’s important and with the four-lane progression,” Graves said. “It’s definitely key to win the heat and get the rest. I’m just going to stay internal and practice and have fun out there. Just looking to have my best practice tomorrow.”

In the men’s heavy double, the pressure was not just on winning, but placing top two. Those to crews from the three-heats advanced to the semifinals. For the largest group of scullers is competing for Philadelphia’s Penn A.C. Rowing Association. There are three doubles racing and all three have advanced.

“So far things are going well, and as expected, so I am happy about that,” said Penn A.C. coach Sean Hall. “For my doubles, today was their first 2k in these lineups, and for the entire squad, the first 2k piece since October, so I can’t complain,” he said.

“And I think they will continue to adapt and improve throughout the regatta. We have a few rough edges to smooth out, but this is exactly why we’re doing this.”

Penn A.C. finished first and second in the first heat, and second in the third behind Craftsbury’s Jacob Plihal and Mark Couwenhoven, who have been setting the pace in the event with the best overall finishing times both days of racing.

“It was great,” Plihal said. “We just wanted to go out and have a solid piece to get straight through into the semis and have an extra day to rest and practice. Conditions were pretty challenging today, pretty heavy headwind, so we learned a few more things we can work on in the coming days,” he said.

“Other than that, it was good execution and the first step on the side-by-side racing. I know those (Penn A.C.) guys are all pretty feisty racers, and they’re quick, so we’re trying to see who is the best. I think it will be fun. I’m excited for it.”

The women’s light double heats were also advancing two crews to the finals from three heats. That event is stacked with a mix of some very experienced women, some of who have been racing both with, and against, each other for years.

That experience and speed came through in the top three finishing crews, the composite Cambridge Boat Club/Sarasota Crew entry of Michelle Sechser and Molly Reckford, Cambridge Boat Club’s Mary Nabel and Emily Schmieg, and Craftsbury’s Grace Joyce and Christine Cavallo.

Sechser and Reckford ripped up the time trials, finishing 17 seconds ahead of the field and posted the best overall time in the heats Tuesday. But the other two crews rowed comparable times through the first half of the race, marking the event as a tight as possible semifinal to come.”

“We’re just taking it one race at a time,” said Schmieg who won silver in the 2018 world championships with Nabel. Nabel missed the 2019 season recovering from an injury, but the pair have been rowing together again since before the 2020 season was canceled.

But, this is the first time they have been able to race together since 2018.

“It’s been a bit since we raced the double,” said Schmieg. “Semis are always a bit of a barn burner, so one semi will have two of the top three crews. That one might be a little bit more difficult than the other. But honestly, I don’t know where anybody’s at, really. The time trial is such funny thing with conditions down here yesterday.

“It was just an interesting tail wind. Today was way more consistent, but most of the heats were just set up where you got one boat out in front and nobody is really racing the back thousand. It should be some good racing,” she said.

For Grace and Cavallo this is their first-time racing as a crew.

“It’s going to be a tough semi,” Cavallo said. “But it’s also Olympic trials. So, I would hope it’s a tough semi. Ideally this regatta produces someone who could qualify at FOQR and go onto medal at Olympics,” she said.

“At this point, it feels like we’re all cracking the whip for each other. This is the most fun I’ve had racing in a while, both because of Covid delays and beyond, so I’m happy to be happy. We are savoring the chance for two more trips down the course.”

“At this point, it feels like we’re all cracking the whip for each other. This is the most fun I’ve had racing in a while, both because of Covid delays and beyond, so I’m happy to be happy. We are savoring the chance for two more trips down the course.”

-Christine Cavallo

In the final event of the day, the men’s light double, with only seven crews entered, the winners of the two heats moved directly into the Friday final. Vesper also has three crews racing and two of them, Zachary Heese and Jasper Liu, and James McCullough and Joshua Remland, have made the final.

Heese and Liu have led the field both days.

“It was a good morning,” said Liu. “It was a slow day because of the wind out there. The weather forecasts have been pretty accurate, you could see it was windy for the women, but the water was still flat, but it was building throughout the morning.

“It was our first side by side racing since worlds in 2019 (both raced in the light quad), so it was a long-awaited race. We were confident coming in just looking at some of the past results,” he said.

“And we’ve been training next to the other Vesper boats in camp in Austin. The OKC double had come down to Austin for a week of training camp, so we kind of knew the speed of those guys. But it felt great to finally get out there and line up next to people, and put down a fast piece.

“We have nothing now till Friday. “We’re going to be pretty bored.”

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