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A Final Celebration for a New Olympian

BY ED MORAN
PHOTOS BY LISA WORTHY

Getting sleep has been hard for Kara Kohler since she got to Sarasota, Fla., and started racing in the Olympic rowing trials. Up for grabs was the women’s single slot on the Olympic team that she had secured for the U.S. with her bronze medal performance at the 2019 World Rowing Championships in Linz, Austria.

Her plan was to fill that seat last year. But the pandemic put that off. One full year of waiting and training and wondering if she could reach her second Olympic team was coming down to a single week, and then a single day. And the tension made falling asleep and turning off her mind difficult.

Thirty-five women had come to Nathan Benderson Park to challenge for that same Olympic spot.

And, there were more than a few who, with a special week, could have stopped Kohler, including the 2016 Rio silver medalist Gevvie Stone. For certain, Stone was trying, moving through the three races to the Friday final with as much speed and confidence as Kohler.

But it was not until Friday morning that the two favorites were matched head to head, and lined up next to each other.

Not even before they had crossed through the first 500-meters, Kohler and Stone had pushed away from the two other finalists — Margaret Fellows and Kristina Wagner — and were practically in a race of their own.

Kohler and Stone battled down the course, but it was Kohler who inched into the lead through the first 500-meters, and then methodically moved closer to the finish ahead of Stone. She finally reached the finish nearly four seconds in front, and when the horn sounded, Kohler shot her arms into the air, and then covered her face and let all that emotion out in tears of joy and relief.

“You could say I was a bit of an emotional wreck,” Kohler said of the toll of competing to reach a goal she had set long ago. “That was just the emotion from the past four years, all the ups and downs coming out a little bit. But it was also excitement and relief. And there was definitely joy in that.

“All through the week, just thinking about it, I would start crying.”

If Kohler was nervous, and she was, she talked about it in nearly every interview she did before Friday. But, she went to the line focused and ready and when the race started she went to work, handling every stage with determination.

Friday, Kohler said she did what she had visualized she would do, how she would prepare, how she would take each stroke, how she would control her breathing, and how she would race against Stone, who she knew was going to be fast and would push her.

“It was about the race I visualized. I knew she was going to push me very, very hard and I would have to work the whole 2000-meters to get the lead I wanted. She pushed me hard, and at times it was scary, but I was focused on what I had done in training all year, and on all my teammates cheering for me, and that helped me accomplish my goal today.”

Her focus and determination was well developed through this year of uncertainty.

There was no point where it was assured that the event could be held – even right up to the start of racing. Last year’s trials were canceled while athletes were already on the venue training. And when the Olympics were postponed, finding motivation to continue in the single was straining.

“It’s just a reminder that you can only control the day,” Kohler said. “You obviously aim for your goals, but you never know what’s going to come. It was a difficult year, but I think it helped me refocus and test how badly I wanted to race in the single.

“It’s not always easy training in the single,” she said. “It can be pretty brutal at times. It was a good test of how badly I wanted to race the single.”

There are still months to go before the 2021 Olympics begin, and questions to answer, not the least of which is: will there be an Olympics? Regardless, Kohler will be preparing, just like she did before trials. She will fly back to California, where the U.S. women’s and men’s sweep teams are camped in a bubble situation through next month.

“I will relax this afternoon. But I am going back to Chula Vista tomorrow to continue training.”

For Stone, the result was disappointing, but not as disappointing as in 2019 when Kohler beat her to become the 2019 single sculler, she didn’t feel she had her best race that day. Friday, Stone raced the best she had in her and credited Kohler for being as fast as she is.

“I knew headed into this that Kara was fast, and Kara is fast, and I also know that I was going fast heading into this, faster than I was five years ago, and that I had a good race. Quoting a coach and friend, Larry Gluckman, Stone said, ‘You can have a good race, and it doesn’t guarantee the outcome you want.’

“I fought every stroke of the way. My goal coming into this was to be able to end my singles career, if it were going to be the end, with a great race. And, I had one. Conditions weren’t super-fast and we went fast.”

While Stone will not row in Tokyo in the single, her quest for a third Olympics is not over. Like she did in 2019 when she lost the first time to Kohler, Stone will return to Boston with the other women she had been racing and training with, and begin working to find the right double combination to race in the next set of trials in April.

Stone paired up with Cicely Madden, in 2019 and won those trials, and together they finished a close fifth in Linz to qualify the boat class for Tokyo. She said the details are not yet worked out, but that is the direction she will be taking.

“I will be driving the trailer back to Boston with my boyfriend, and then getting into a double.”

Men’s Single

While Kohler has won a guaranteed place on the U.S. squad should they take place this summer, nothing is yet set with the pandemic still looming behind everything, Stone will be racing for the second guaranteed spot on the team.

That is not the situation for the winners of the other four events contested in Sarasota – the men’s single, men’s double, and lightweight men’s and women’s double. None of those boat classes were qualified in 2019. The decision each of the winning crews now must make is if they want to travel to Lucerne in May to the Final Olympic Qualification Regatta and try for the remaining two spots left up for grabs for each crew there.

That is arguably a much bigger task than the one they faced this week at the U.S. Trials. In all but the men’s double, there is a second choice – match up with some of the other athletes that were racing in either the double or men’s single event and race in a quad at the next set of trials in April.

John Graves has done that, he lost out at trials in 2019 and raced with a quad from Penn A.C. Rowing Association at the world championship. That boat also did not qualify. When he came back home, Graves went back into the single and made his goal winning these trials and racing the single at the FOQR.

That is a hard place to win a spot in the Olympics, and Graves knows that. He was in the Craftsbury quad in 2012 that won trials, then went to Lucerne and missed.

Friday, Graves checked off the first goal in his quest to close out his long national team career with a trials win. Lining up against Craftsbury teammate Lucas Bellows, Malta Boat Club’s Lenny Futterman, and Riverside Boat Club’s Kevin Meador, Graves wasted little time getting into the lead and holding through the finish line.

“It feels great,” Graves said. “Trials are emotionally draining and stressful. It just feels great to have crossed the line and be able to set my sights on Lucerne and the main goal.”

Graves has had a good week in Sarasota, winning the time trial, heat, and semifinal. Friday, his intention was to finish the job.

“I wanted to just get back into my rhythm and build off (Thursday’s semifinal) and try to put myself in a position where I could control the race and I was able to do that. Then when you get into the back half, especially at trials, you’re just thinking, alright, no mistakes, get it across. I was happy to do that.

“It’s really stressful and I was really thankful to get it done.”

One note that should not be passed up on was the performance of his brother Peter, who came to trials and raced a double with brother Thomas. The brothers raced through the time trial and heats, and then scratched the entry just before the reps.

But when John was coming down the course, brother Peter was on the coaches’ path running and pacing John the entire way while wearing a back pack. It’s not unusual to see coaches following a race, but it’s usually done on bikes or roller blades.

“I’m not surprised,” John said. “I didn’t know he was going to do that. I didn’t see him, but I heard him. He’s a total piece of work.”

Men’s Double

The men’s double is one of the events that will see athletes spill over into groups forming to build a fast quad for the April trials in West Windsor, N.J. Even before this event began, before the three double combinations from the Penn A.C. group were decided, one of the primary goals for coach Sean Hall was race experience after the year off, and quad selection.

Penn A.C. had two crews in the final, and both were in the fight. Throughout the racing, three different crews held the lead at one point on the course, and eventual winners, Kevin Cardo and Jonathan Kirkegaard from Vesper Boat Club and the Oklahoma City High-Performance Center trailed in fourth in the first 500-meters.

They also had a scare that could have ended their day when Cardo clipped the buoy line in the final strokes before the line and momentarily lost an oar It did not stop the crew.

“Everyone just kept pushing through the middle one thousand, so it really did come down to that last little bit,” said Cardo. “I felt like there was always a calmness in the boat, until the last 10 strokes.”

“Everyone just kept pushing through the middle one thousand, so it really did come down to that last little bit,” said Cardo. “I felt like there was always a calmness in the boat, until the last 10 strokes.”

-Kevin Cardno

Like most of the athletes in Sarasota this week, the Covid shutdown has been a severe interruption, but Cardo said he and Kirkegaard decided just after last year’s trials were called off to stick with their plan.

“This win validates all the work we have done through entire year,” Cardo said. “We were leaving for trials in 2020 when they decided to cancel the event due to Covid, and I was thinking to myself then, either figure something else out to do or stay and train this and double down on it.”

It did not hurt that they also decided to train in Oklahoma, which opened up earlier than most locations from the shutdown restrictions.

“We were lucky that the state of Oklahoma made it through (the lockdown) to being reopened rather quickly, and we were able to row and had a lot of time in the boat, a lot of miles.”

Those miles gave them confidence in themselves and are why they have decided not to try and find a quad to row in, but stay together as a double and go to Lucerne and see what they can do.

“There is no easy way through Lucerne,” said Kirkegaard, “quad, double, single, so it comes down to miles in the boat. That is what is going to give you a few more pluses in the column. So, more miles in the boat means a better chance.

“The trickle-down trials system doesn’t allow Americans to do the best they possibly can. It’s a mountain and no matter how you climb it, in the quad, or the double, it’s going to be really, really difficult. We’re thinking we already have miles in this boat, let’s add more to it rather than start over,” he said.

Women’s Lightweight Double

All week, the racing has been hard-fought between three crews of women, many of whom have deep experience in the event and include two athletes, Michelle Sechser and Christine Cavallo, that raced together at the 2019 world championships but could not push through to qualify the boat for the U.S.

Both found different partners for these trials. Sechser, from Cambridge Boat Club, teamed up with former Dartmouth rower Molly Reckford who has been training with Sarasota Crew. Cavallo paired with former Wisconsin lightweight Grace Joyce and came to Sarasota from Craftsbury’s Green Racing Project.

The third crew, Cambridge Boat Club’s Mary Nabel and Emily Schmieg, has raced and won bronze and silver medals in world championship competition in 2017 and 2018. Those three crews advanced through the week and were joined by Sophie Heywood and Sophia Denison-Johnston from Mission Rowing.

While there was vast international experience in the three crews, Sechser, who’s racing in the lightweight women’s double dates back to 2013, and new partner Reckford, had set the standard for the week.

They won the time trial by 17-seconds and advanced through the heats and semifinals in complete control of the field.

They went to the final as the top seed. If there is a point in a race where a crew can fall apart, or show their determination and skill, it came in the first strokes of the race when Reckford momentarily lost control of her port oar and it came out her hand.

She said she has “no idea,” how, but the oar came out of her hand. It happened so quickly neither women had time to think about it, but just before it could become a disaster, the oar bounced back around and right back to Reckford’s hand. But not before Sechser saw the coming back at her head and ducked to get out of the way. It was a teamwork save.

“I have never had such a short amount of time feel so painfully long,” Reckford said.

There is something to be said for practicing for disaster, for planning for hitting a buoy, losing an oar in the wind, and so there was a plan.

“Michelle and I had discussed things going in, we knew there a possibility we could end up on a buoy, we said if something happens, deep breath, collect yourself, build back up. It’s always terrifying, it’s always awful, but we had a plan in place, and I knew that Michelle knew what to do, and I knew what to do, so my brain went straight to get my handle back into my hand and build.”

Sechser said her reaction was a “sharp pain of frustration” that lasted about a millisecond. “When she got the oar back in her hand, I just started us back up and pushed really hard to get back in the race.

“Our mantra for the first 500 before that was breathe and push, breathe and push, so she recovered the oar and I just kept telling myself just breathe and push.”

“Our mantra for the first 500 before that was breathe and push, breathe and push, so she recovered the oar and I just kept telling myself just breath and push.”

-Michelle Sechser

The result was a charge through the pack and a chance to go to Lucerne and row a spot in Tokyo.

For both women — but for very different reasons — that opportunity is special. To Sechser, who helped qualify the boat in 2015, but did not win trials the next season, and then missed qualifying the boat in 2019, it’s a chance to change the ending.

“I feel incredibly grateful to have another chance to do this right,” she said.

For Reckford it’s a step towards a lifelong dream to be an Olympian, a dream inspired by her grandfather, Bill Spencer, a two-time Olympian in the biathlon in 1964 and 1968, who later became a coach on the team and served from 1972 to 1984. He was inducted into the U.S. Biathlon Association Hall of Fame in 2000.

Spencer passed in December 2020. He was 84.

When Reckford races, she does it with her “Grandpa” in mind. “This is otherworldly,” she said. “I grew up watching the Olympics religiously. At my Grandpa’s house, there are two Olympic torches because he took part in the Olympic torch relay twice and was a two-time Olympian.

“The Olympics were always present in my life and I always dreamed of being good enough at something to go. I know he is proud of me today. We haven’t done that yet, but to have made the trials boat, and to be one step closer to potentially going, this is a dream come true.”

Men’s Lightweight Double

Of the seven crews entered in the men’s lightweight double, three of the crews were from Philadelphia-based Vesper Boat Club, and one, the crew of Zack Heese and Jasper Liu had been setting the pace at trials all week.

When the finals were lined up all three Vesper boats were on the there and were joined by the composite Riverside/Unaffiliated composite entry Alex Twist and Hugh McAdam. As they had done all week, when the race started, Heese and Liu shot off the line and into the lead. It was what they had planned.

“Once we lined up next to those other boats that have been our training partners for the past month, year, it kind of felt like, we know how to do this,” Liu said. “We were nervous for sure. Any time you line up to race, you’re going to be nervous, but we had confidence.

“We’ve raced before, we’ve been here before, and after the start, after the first hundred meters or so, we were back into our rhythm, feeling we know what we’re doing.”

Heese, who was stroking the boat and setting the pace, said he kept the rating high to push out in front of the field, where they could keep track of what was happening behind them.

“We really just wanted to set the tone early off the start,” Heese said. “So, we took some high strokes and really waited a while to settle. That way we could really see how the race played out behind us and we could react to it. I think we went out probably in the high 40s and then we settled down to a mid-rate 42 for maybe 20 strokes, maybe, then finally brought it down to a more sustainable 38-39.”

Heese and Liu continued that pace until they crossed the line and won, and only adjusted when they felt they needed some push.

“We were up enough to where we could see the other boats in our peripheral after about the first 500. I was making our technical calls and some motivational calls, half for myself and half for Zack. We practiced this dozens of times before, so we knew what we were doing.

“I don’t want to say this is a relief, but it’s a sense of accomplishment for sure. This has been our goal for the past three years individually just coming out of college and starting to row on the elite scene. So, this is huge to have that in our pocket now,” Liu said.

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