PHOTOS AND STORY BY ED MORAN
West Windsor, N.J. — With the weather forcing scheduling changes for Olympic Trials II, Blake Haxton wasn’t sure if he was going to get to West Windsor, New Jersey, in time to clear his Covid-19 pre-race test requirement.
The para finals being contested on Mercer Lake were originally scheduled for Thursday and because Haxton was rowing the PR1 men’s single uncontested, he wanted to spend as little time as possible traveling and spending time in a hotel while the threat of infection is still very high in the United States. He planned to make the trip from his home in Ohio on Wednesday.
But when the forecast called for wind and rain Thursday, the Para finals were moved to Wednesday.
“The change was confirmed late and we got in the van and made the eight-hour trip out Tuesday,” Haxton said. “And, we just made it here in time to get the test done before it was sent off to the lab.”
With that difficulty avoided, Haxton was on the venue yesterday morning to make his official run down the course and cement a place on his second Paralympic team. Haxton, who rowed in Rio in 2016, had qualified the boat class for the U.S. at the 2019 World Rowing Championships and needed only to race at trials to be named to the 2021 Games.
“Feels great to just be out and doing things like normal again, and being back to rowing and back to competing, it’s just good,” Haxton said before heading back home.
Haxton was one of three crews named to the Tokyo Paralympics along with PR1 women’s single sculler Hallie Smith, and the PR2 mixed double crew of Russell Gernaat and Laura Goodkind. Like Haxton, Smith rowed unopposed and had also qualified her boat for Tokyo in 2019.
Wednesday’s day three racing also featured the semifinals of the women’s double and the repechage of the men’s quad. As had happened earlier in the week, the weather forecast changed again and the finals for the remaining three events — the women’s double, the men’s quad, and the men’s pair — will all be run Thursday morning.
At the conclusion of the Thursday finals, the winners of the women’s double will become the second crew to be named to the U.S. squad that will row this summer in Tokyo. The men’s quad and men’s pair will determine which crews will earn the chance to go to the Final Olympic Qualification Regatta in Lucerne, Switzerland in May and compete for a slot in Tokyo.
Rowing in the men’s pair are Tom Peszek and Michael DiSanto. They are uncontested and will claim the spot for Lucerne Thursday morning.
While the semifinal for the women’s double was a featured event Wednesday, the para finals were the most consequential of the day. Haxton led the field, in the same place he began his career as the U.S. men’s para single, on Mercer Lake.
That fact did not escape his thoughts yesterday.
“It is good to get another row in here,” Haxton said. “I remember the first time, in 2014. We didn’t know what we were doing, we were fish out of water, but it worked out. And here we are seven years later, still doing it. It’s just special. It’s exciting.”
Haxton is planning on putting in a lot of hard work before Tokyo, and not just for rowing. He began competing in canoe sprint racing and rowed in the 2019 Canoe Sprint World Championships in Hungry before rowing in the World Rowing Championships in Austria the next week.
Haxton had hoped to qualify for the canoe sprint team for Tokyo, but just missed out and will now travel to Hungry next month to race in the last chance qualification regatta for that event.
“I leave for Hungry in May, for the last chance regatta for canoe,” Haxton said. “That’s job number one. I’m on the bubble there. So that’s the focus for the next three weeks, get the canoe in the water and get after that.”
That will not be the case for Smith, who rowed just after Haxton Wednesday and is now going to represent the U.S. in the women’s para single in Tokyo.
“I am beyond psyched,” Smith said after racing. “I started rowing in January of 2016, and I have been aiming for this ever since. I felt good today. I knew my race plan. My coach and I had gone over it, and I think I rowed it well.
“I am beyond psyched,” Smith said after racing. “I started rowing in January of 2016, and I have been aiming for this ever since. I felt good today. I knew my race plan. My coach and I had gone over it, and I think I rowed it well.”
“I would have liked some competition, of course, because that always pushes you. But it was still a nice race and a beautiful day to row,” she said. “Next is a whole lot of training. My coach said when I got in, now comes the hard stuff. But, I’m looking forward to those hours on the river, and in the gym, as hard as they are going to be.”
The last para final was the two boat PR2 mixed double event, which Gernaat and Goodkind locked up early, finishing easily in front of Community Rowing’s Patrick Ward and Jennifer Fitz-Roy.
“We’ve got some hard work ahead,” said Gernaat. “We’ve got about four months to go and we’ve already got a plan in place. We’re going to be spending some key time together down in Chula Vista (California) to really get the boat to move better. We’ve got a lot of potential, so we’re going to be working hard at it,” he said.
“The boat is really picking up and getting smoother and faster each time we train together,” added Goodkind. “This was a great opportunity to row down the buoyed course, and have some contenders here.
“The boat is really picking up and getting smoother and faster each time we train together,” added Goodkind. “This was a great opportunity to row down the buoyed course, and have some contenders here.”
“We’ve been partnered together for a little more than two years now and the goal has always been Tokyo,” she said. “This is a stepping stone towards that. It’s great to be on this journey together and be able to train for our next step, which is Tokyo.”
Just prior to the para events, the two semifinals for the women’s double were contested, setting the four-boat final for Thursday morning.
The first semifinal was a three-boat battle that came down to a photo finish at the line between Jenifer Forbes and Sophia Vitas from the U.S. Princeton women’s training center and Michelle Sechser and Molly Reckford, the winners of the lightweight women’s double from Olympic Trials I in February.
Sechser and Reckford are using the regatta as a training and race experience opportunity while they prepare to race in the final Olympic qualifier next month in Lucerne. And they have been among the fastest crews in this regatta.
Coming into the final meters of the Mercer Lake course Wednesday, it was difficult to predict which of the three crews — Forbes and Vitas, Sechser and Reckford, and the Boston Rowing Federation’s Margaret Fellows and Cicely Madden — were going to advance into the final. They were all in contention.
In the final sprint, Forbes and Vitas crossed first in 7:02.52 with Sechser and Reckford a hair behind them in 7:02.75.
“We’re having a blast,” said Sechser. “This has been even better of an experience than I expected it to be in terms of getting to race, what we’re learning, progressing through the heat, the rep, the semi. We definitely needed this to keep building towards Switzerland, and the women’s double field this year is great. There is so much depth. Having sixteen boats is awesome,” she said.
“We definitely needed this to keep building towards Switzerland, and the women’s double field this year is great. There is so much depth. Having sixteen boats is awesome.”
“It really drew out the progression, so we can keep lining up, and keep lining up, and keep lining up. And it’s been fun. I feel like I am a kid waking up on Christmas morning. It’s so much fun getting to do this again. When you don’t get to do it for a year, you realize how much it means to you.”
In the second semifinal two crews that have three Olympians between them, moved one step closer to another Games. For Gevvie Stone, who is rowing with new partner Kristina Wagner, it would be her third Olympics.
And for Meghan O’Leary and Ellen Tomek, it would be their second. Stone rowed the single in London and Rio, where she won a silver medal. Tomek and O’Leary rowed the double to a finals appearance in Rio.
Stone and Wagner crossed first in 7:04.18 with O’Leary and Tomek following in 7:06.36.
“We haven’t had many races together,” said Stone. “I think a lot of these combos out here are new. And every time down the track is an opportunity to improve, and our goal is to keep improving, keep having fun, and that in turn means going fast. It’s really fun to have so many competitive boats out here. It’s a race for Tokyo, and it’s exciting,” she said.
For O’Leary and Tomek, it has been almost two full seasons since they last raced and both are looking forward to the morning final.
“Ellen and I are looking forward to racing in tomorrow’s final,” said O’Leary. “We’ve taken each race this week as a stepping stone to learn and advance, with the ultimate goal of earning the opportunity to compete in the final.
“We got the job done this morning in a really competitive field of women’s scullers. It is exciting to have so many fast boats here.”
In the men’s quad rep, the final Olympic class event to race Wednesday, both the Green Racing Project entry of Matt O’Leary, Jacob Plihal, Lucas Bellows, and Travis Taaffe, and the Penn AC/Maritime Rowing Club composite entry of Christopher Shirley, Thaddeus Babiec, Casey Fuller, and David Judah advanced into their Thursday morning final.