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First 2021 U.S. Olympian Will Be Named Friday at Trials

BY ED MORAN
PHOTOS BY LISA WORTHY

After finishing second to Kara Kohler in the 2019 world championship singles trial, Gevvie Stone left Sarasota, Fla. disappointed in the way she had rowed the final.

She was racing to regain her spot on the national team after taking the time off she needed to focus back on getting her medical career going following her silver medal win in the 2016 Olympics.

But she did not feel she had enough time in training to reach the level of fitness, or technical skill she knew was capable of and could not find her best performance when it mattered the most.

And that race has stuck with her since.

Stone will get another chance Friday morning, nearly two full years later. Both she and Kohler rowed to what looked like comfortable finishes in the semifinals of the 2021 Olympic Trials I and will line up next to each other right back on the same course in Sarasota, Fla.

Stone and Kohler were among the four women that fought their way through these trials and now find themselves on the verge of becoming the first U.S. athlete to be named to the team that will compete in the Tokyo Olympics this summer.

And following racing Thursday morning, Stone did not shy from reflecting on the 2019 race.

“I had been fortunate up until that point in my career that when I ended things, I ended with a great race,” Stone said. “In London in 2012, that was the best race I had in my life at that point. In 2016 in Rio it was close to the best race, I would argue that Lucerne (World Rowing Cup II, silver) was better, but it was a great race.

“I walked away from 2019 not with that same sensation and when everything was canceled last year, I was pretty devastated because I wanted another chance to run down the course in the single and to prove to myself that I have a better race in me,” she said.

Both Stone and Kohler came into these trials as the favorites to gain the Olympic slot that Kohler secured for the U.S. with her 2019 bronze medal performance in the 2019 World Rowing Championships. And they have rowed that way in each stage of the event.

Thursday morning Kohler advanced from the first semifinal. She established a lead from the start and rowed in front the length of the course. There was some entertaining racing in both semis, but they happened behind the leaders.

Thursday morning Kohler advanced from the first semifinal. She established a lead from the start and rowed in front the length of the course. There was some entertaining racing in both semis, but they happened behind the leaders.

Watching the race, it appeared that Kohler was well in control almost from the start. But she said it did not feel that way to her, at least until the second thousand.

“I figured everyone would put out a fast first thousand and then the second thousand I kind of held my rhythm and rowed to the line. It feels very good. It’s a relief for sure, and now I’ll lay it all on the line and put together a race that’s as fast as I can go.”

Like Stone, Kohler remembers the 2019 match up and said that she is excited for the race but still knows she is going up against a tough competitor. “I guess it’s really no different,” Kohler said. “I know she’s fast and I know she’s incredibly fierce when it comes to racing. So I have the same nerves, and I know I have to bring my A game to win. It would be pretty incredible if I did.”

This is the second time Kohler has been close to making the Olympic team. The difference now is she was named to the 2012 quad from selection. This time it is all on her and now comes down to one race.

“Big boat selection is drawn out over a longer period of time and I feel like there is less riding on one single moment,” she said. “I guess in a way it’s more stressful, but not really because you still want to make the Olympic team, and that’s stressful no matter what. You work so long and hard for it.”

With the semi behind her, Kohler is now focused on getting rest and waking up on time. “It’s been pretty hard getting to sleep all week. I just make sure all my alarms are set and go off properly, even though I’ve been waking up before my alarm all week, which is pretty impressive for me.”

Once the alarms are sounded, Kohler will then start to focus on the steps between the beginning and end of racing. “I’m mostly trying to think as little as possible and focus on each step until I get to the finish line.

“My warm up, the quality of my strokes, my breathing, rhythm and trying to be calm and quiet all the other thoughts that want to creep in, all the doubts and whatever else there is.”

Behind Kohler in the first semi, ARION’s Kristina Wagner, who had won her spot in the semi in the Wednesday reps, looked to be left behind after fading in the first 500-meters and was having a much different race experience.

Wagner trailed the four-boat heat through the first thousand meters in what seemed like a distance that could not be made up.

Ahead of her were Cicely Madden from Cambridge Boat Club and Craftsbury’s Jennifer Forbes. Wagner was more than five seconds behind third-place Forbes at that point.

“I was not planning on being quite so far behind, I thought I had a pretty good start and then I just shifted a bit more than the rest of the field,” Wagner said.

“With about 1250 to go, I thought, OK, this could either be a really awesome finish or a really bad race,” Wagner said. “So, I just tried to keep chipping one split away on my GPS, and then I could see one boat out of my periphery and I just tried to close in on that boat. That kind of led me to another boat.

“I started sprinting with 500 to go. I was pretty surprised. Not every sprint is successful so I just was excited and happy it had worked out. I just heard Kara’s beep (at the finish line) and then I thought this next one is for me.”

“I started sprinting with 500 to go. I was pretty surprised. Not every sprint is successful so I just was excited and happy it had worked out. I just heard Kara’s beep (at the finish line) and then I thought this next one is for me.”

-Kristina Wagner

With the second-place finish, Wagner will race in the final tomorrow.

In the second semi, it was more of the same, Cambridge Boat Club’s Stone pulled away early and then just controlled the race from the front of the pack.

Behind her Boston teammate Margaret Fellows trailed in fourth and it seemed that Sophia Vitas from the U.S. women’s Princeton Training Center was going to take the second qualifying spot.

But Fellows had not given up the thought that she had the experience and fitness to push through.

“I was just focusing on rowing my best race,” she said. “I knew that I had more experience in the single than (Vitas) does and I knew that she was going to be fast. But I also believed if I had the best race that I could have, I could beat her.

“I’m incredibly impressed by the regatta (Vitas) has put together since this is the first time she has ever raced in the single, but I also have a lot of confidence in my own ability.”

Fellows inched back into the race and caught Vitas near the finish. “I just kind of sensed the line and started going when I needed to and it panned out.”

That finish set the lineup for Friday’s final and Stone’s chance to find her best possible race.

“As much as we race to beat other people, one of the best things about rowing is you are racing yourself, the goal is to get from the start to the finish as fast as possible, and yes, I want to win tomorrow. But my bigger goal is to have my best race of the week tomorrow.”

Men’s Single

Malta Boat Club’s Lenny Futterman and Craftsbury’s John Graves have both been clear that this regatta will be the last year of their careers and have put everything into their training with that goal in mind. Neither has a direct path to Tokyo. Of the five events being contested, only the women’s single has a spot for 2021. The men’s single, double, and men’s and women’s lightweight doubles all have to race in Lucerne at the Final Olympic Qualification Regatta in May and hope to finish either first or second to get to Tokyo.

But trials is the first step and both have been leading the field through the week. Friday, they will face each other in the final having won their respective semifinals Thursday.

Futterman was the first to race and was involved in one of the fiercest battles of the day. Futterman gained the lead off the start, with Kevin Meador of Riverside rowing in second in the first 500-meters.

Behind the leaders, Penn A.C. Rowing Association sculler Thomas Phifer rowed in fourth place behind Michael Clougher. None of those positions held and by the time the race had reached halfway, Clougher had a slight lead on Futterman.

Futterman managed to get the lead back and win. He was rowing with a comfortable advantage while behind him, Meador and Phifer fought each other, and then through Clougher.

“I knew what I needed to do,” Futterman said. “I was moving along thinking this is fine, no alarm bells were going off and I got up, and was able to paddle across the line a little bit,” he said. “Semis are always going to be competitive; this is a very deep field so I’m just taking this one race at a time. It’s the stock answer, but it’s true.”

Meanwhile, Meador kept adjusting and managed to sprint to the second qualifying position deep in the last quarter of the race.

“It was a barn burner from start to finish,” Meador said. “I don’t think there was anyone point in that race where I felt I could settle in and get comfortable. I was just clawing my way down the whole course. Everyone was fast today and I feel myself to be pretty fortunate to have made it through.

“Every time I looked, maybe someone was up, maybe someone was moving, and it was time to go again,” he said. “I knew someone was going to have a really good second thousand, and that someone would fade, I just had to make sure it wasn’t me.”

In the second semi, Graves made sure he stayed clear of anything like what had happened in the first race. He gained the lead early and stayed in front. Behind him, Craftsbury teammates Lucas Bellows and William Legenzowski, and Maritime’s Casey Fuller, battled to advance in second.

“I was just trying to progress because, obviously, the important race is tomorrow, so there was nothing fancy,” Graves said. “This is what we have prepared and trained for, so just looking forward to it being the day we marked on the calendar, and then having my best row tomorrow.

“I could have managed my exertion a little bit better, and maybe I put a little bit too much out on the course. But I thought it was a good step from the heat, and now I have to step forward again in the final.”

Men’s Double

Throughout the week, racing in the men’s double has been consistently even, no one crew has established themselves as the boat to beat. And after Thursday racing, it’s still pretty much the case.

In the first semifinal, Penn A.C.’s Charles Anderson and Finn Putnam qualified first, followed by Craftsbury’s Jacob Plihal and Mark Couwenhoven. The Craftsbury crew was the faster boat in the time trial and heats and took the lead at the start Thursday.

But Penn A.C. caught and passed them in the second thousand-meters to win and leave the second spot to Craftsbury.  

“We really just trusted our fitness and training,” said Anderson. “We’ve been down on our teammates in practice and we just wanted to stay relaxed and calm and trust our fitness as we pushed through the middle of the race. We stayed nice and relaxed at the finish to close out the race and move on.

“We’re just trying to have a better race every day, and hopefully tomorrow we will have the best race of the week. The first couple of days there was definitely some race anxiety from not having raced in over a year. I think the first couple of days shook out some nerves and we could focus on what we were doing today,” Anderson said.

Much the same happened in the second final. Penn A.C.’s Justin Keen and Sorin Koszyk took the lead from the start, but by the time the field was crossing into the second thousand-meters, the composite crew of Vesper Boat Club and Oklahoma City High-Performance crew Kevin Cardno and Jonathan Kirkegaard moved into first and held while Penn A.C. held second and advanced.

“The week has been good,” Cardno said. “We’re happy with how we executed today. So, we’re feeling pretty good. We just stayed calm and in our base and that carried us through. We figured it would be guns blazing through the first 750. We just kept our heads down and didn’t get stressed out or frantic,” he said.

“Tomorrow we just have to execute, we both realize it’s going to be a tough job. So, we’ll stay calm and trust what we’ve done up to this point.”

Lightweight Women’s Double

What makes this event particularly interesting is the number of competitors that have been racing lightweight events both with and against each other for the last several years. In the first semifinal, the 2019 crew of Michelle Sechser and Christine Cavallo that raced together in the world championship in Linz, Austria, came to Sarasota with new partners, Sechser with Molly Reckford and Cavallo with Grace Joyce.

Sechser and Reckford, rowing as a Cambridge Boat Club/Sarasota Crew composite entry have been flying through the events, winning the time trial by 17-seconds and easily taking their heat. Thursday they established an early lead and rowed comfortably through the finish.

“We’re feeling good,” Sechser said. “We’ve been trying to stay very process-oriented and just kind of take it a very simple one day at a time.  

“We’re feeling good,” Sechser said. “We’ve been trying to stay very process-oriented and just kind of take it a very simple one day at a time.  

-Michelle Sechser

“We saw that there was going to be a funny headwind this morning, and we just used the opportunity to have a nice clean start and settle into a very internal rhythm that felt aggressive but sustainable for us. We’re really looking forward to tomorrow and finally a chance as a new crew to see what we can do out there on the racecourse now that it’s time to full throttle it,” she said.

Behind them Craftsbury’s Joyce and Cavallo rowed into second and qualified for the Friday final.

“I literally cried with happiness,” Cavallo said. “This is just a massive adventure. We’re staying present. Smiling a lot and rowing the best we’ve ever rowed. Before this week, I haven’t raced a 2k since 2019 worlds.

“And Grace and I have never lined up together. But We’ve learned how to work together better than ever,” she said. “So, each race has been reintegrating what we’ve learned through work with what we know as racers.”

In the second semifinal, Cambridge Boat Club’s Mary Nabel and Emily Schmieg, who raced together in the 2017 and 2018 world championships taking bronze and silver respectively, won easily.

Crossing in the second qualifying position were Mission Rowing’s Sophie Heywood and Sophia Denison-Johnston.

“The plan was to just get out from the start and control the race from start to finish,” Schmieg said. “We wanted to work as little as possible in the semifinal to get to the final and be fresh as possible.

“It feels great,” she said of being back. “The return to racing has been very exciting, we would have liked to have had one more regatta before jumping right into trials, but it’s about making the most of it. It’s a long week, so it’s the long game and how you finish the week, and we are looking to finish strong.”

Complete results can be found here.

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