PHOTOS AND STORY BY ED MORAN
West Windsor, N.J. – Gevvie Stone and Kristina Wagner had very different initial reactions to the Pandemic postponement of the Tokyo Olympics.
Stone, who was just finishing up preparing for life as an emergency room doctor, had put the start of her career on hold to train for the possibility of rowing in a third Olympics in 2020. She was preparing to go to Olympic trials and vie for a spot in the women’s single but trials were canceled followed by the eventual postponement of the Tokyo Games.
She spent weeks after the delay was announced wondering if she had another year of training in her, or if she should be content with having rowed in London in 2012 and winning a silver medal in Rio.
Wagner, by comparison, was a year out of Yale University and just getting started trying to earn a spot sculling on the U.S. national team. She rowed in an ARION quad at the Henley Royal Regatta, and then in a U.S. quad at World Cup III both in the spring of 2019, but her training for an international career was just beginning.
Her reaction to the Olympic delay was to think of it as a chance to train for an additional year.
“I saw it being either disheartening, as in, ‘oh another,’ or, ‘OK, another year,’ and using it as an opportunity rather than a roadblock.”
So, Wagner remained in Saratoga, New York training with the ARION sculling group there. She stayed safe and healthy and went to the 2021 Olympic Trials I in Sarasota in February, where she had the kind of performance that drew attention to how much she had developed, finishing third in the final.
Stone, who had come around to the idea that she could be a doctor the rest of her adult life, but that she had probably one year left before she would have to retire from competitive rowing, and decided to continue. She also went to the Sarasota trials, where she finished second to Kara Kohler.
It had always been Stone’s plan to go to the second Olympic trials if she did not win in the single, to race for the women’s double spot in Tokyo that she and Cicely Madden had qualified at the 2019 World Rowing Championships. But when her Cambridge Boat Club group went back to Boston to hold a selection camp, Wagner was invited to join in. And, during selection, Stone and Wagner emerged as a double.
Thursday, Stone and Wagner, reached the goal they set for themselves, winning the women’s double at Olympic Trials II on Mercer Lake in West Windsor, N.J., and became the second crew to be named to the U.S. team that will row in Tokyo.
“I really didn’t know what I wanted to do,” Stone said. “But I’m glad I stuck with it. It’s been a long road, a long turnpike as I say, and the tolls have been paid for an extra year. It’s been really fun to hop in the double the last six weeks and to have it come together.”
The women’s double was one of three events contested on Mercer Lake Thursday. In the two other events, the men’s quad and the men’s pair, crews won the right to go to the Final Olympic Qualification Regatta in Lucerne, Switzerland next month and compete for a spot in Tokyo.
While the women’s double was already qualified for the U.S. in 2019, the quad and the pair were not.
Olympians Tom Peszek and Michael DiSanto rowed uncontested in the men’s pair and will represent the U.S. in Lucerne. For the quad, the U.S. will be represented by the Penn AC Athletic Club and the Schuylkill Navy composite crew of Charles Anderson, Justin Keen, Eliot Putnam, and Sorin Koszyk.
The four-day event, originally scheduled to run a full five days, was shortened by forecasted rain and wind for Friday, but despite the races being shifted around, the regatta was run successfully.
Three Paralympic crews — the men’s and women’s PR1 single and the mixed PR2 double — were named to the para Tokyo team in finals racing Wednesday, and the field of 16 doubles and six quads were raced down to the finals lineups.
In all but the Monday time trials, Stone and Wagner finished first and established themselves as the favored crew for Thursday.
Also making it to the final were 2016 Olympians Meghan O’Leary and Ellen Tomek from New York Athletic Club, the lightweight women’s double winners from Olympic Trials I, Michelle Sechser and Molly Reckford, and Jenifer Forbes and Sophia Vitas from the U.S. women’s Princeton Training Center, all crews that had rowed fast times all week.
But it was Stone and Wagner who controlled the race Thursday, finishing first in 7:07.21. Sechser and Reckford were second in 7:11.09. Tomek and O’Leary were third in 7:11.94, with Forbes and Vitas following in fourth in 7:12.83.
“We had a little bit more of a race plan today because we knew it was going to be four boats across,” said Wagner. “We had a little bit more of an internal race plan. We had a few moves that we executed pretty well.”
For Stone, the result has earned her a third Olympics and a satisfying way to continue her final year in international competition.
“I wasn’t thinking about number three,” Stone said. “I was thinking about getting to the Olympics again as its own separate experience. Tokyo was always in the back of my mind.
“When you go to the start line at an Olympic trial final, you’re thinking you’re racing for Tokyo. How would you not think about that? Kristina called ‘Olympics’ in the last 10 strokes. At that point, it was clear that we were going.”
It has been an exciting past few months for Wagner, and a big payoff from her commitment to training and learning in Saratoga during the Covid shutdown.
“I’ve been working hard for four years; really hard I would say the past two years. When the Olympics were postponed I saw that as an opportunity for myself and capitalized on it. Getting in the double has been an awesome opportunity, learning from Gevvie, and I can’t wait to keep doing it. Ninety-nine days now.”
From Mercer, Stone and Wagner plan to return to Boston and the Charles River and resume training. There is a possible trip to World Cup II in Lucerne, which follows the final qualification regatta by a few days, but they have not decided on traveling yet.
Covid restrictions complicate planning and travel, something that caused the U.S. training center sweep camps to cancel early plans to send a large group to compete there as well. In an email sent last month, the athletes were informed of the decision.
“Over the past several weeks, USRowing has been in discussions with FISA, the USRowing Medical Committee, the HPC (High Performance Committee), and coaching staff in assessing the current risk and benefits of attending international events in preparation for the Olympic Games,” high performance director Matt Imes wrote in the email.
The concerns identified were restricted access to the venue in Lucerne prior to racing, rising positivity rates and the slow vaccination process in Europe, and potential impacts on athletes or staff returning home if infected overseas.
Imes also pointed out that several other countries had already announced they would not attend, including Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, all teams that would have lessened the competitive field by not attending.
“USRowing will continue to allow boats that need to compete at the Final Olympic Qualification Regatta or have selection implications to travel as necessary, and the athletes already in Lucerne for the FOQR will be allowed to remain onsite to compete in World Cup II if they so choose,” Imes wrote.
Two boats that will go to Switzerland were on Mercer Lake Thursday.
In the men’s quad trials, the four-boat race came down to a dual between the Penn A.C./Schuylkil Navy crew and the Oakland U.S. men’s training center entry with Oliver Bud, Spencer Furey, Andrew Gaard, and Michael Knippen.
Just after crossing the halfway point on the course, the Philadelphia crew made a planned move and pulled ahead. By the time they reached the last few hundred meters, they had a clear lead.
“When we came in, we knew the training center was going to be fast off the line,” said Anderson. “Our race plan was to stay with them and go at the [one-thousand-meter mark]. We executed that pretty well and we just did what we have been doing the past two months together. Just training that second half, moving together,” he said.
“This is what we have been training for the past year, all through the Pandemic. And we just did it .”
Everyone in the crew felt that having the training center entry racing elevated the competition level of the field and helped push their development with the qualification regatta coming up.
“It was a real mental challenge this week,” said Putman. “We knew we were good enough to win this regatta but having the training center here was a real mental challenge more than anything. It was really satisfying to beat them.
“We knew that they were very strong and that they were really good racers. We had a lot of respect for them,” he said. “But we knew ultimately that our best could beat them so we just wanted to deliver what we knew we were capable of.”
The crew is making tentative plans to travel to Europe and compete in World Cup I, April 30 to May 2, in Zagreb, Croatia, to gain needed international race experience before the qualification regatta.
“We’re halfway there,” said Keen. “We know the next test is probably going to be harder. Couple of fast crews. We know that New Zealand is probably not going to be there, but we still have to beat Ukraine or Estonia, or Lithuania. It’s going to be tight but we’re looking forward to the challenge.”
As for the men’s pair, Peszek said he and DiSanto have been training in Boston and would continue training there until they leave for Switzerland.
“We’ll probably stay in Boston,” Peszek said. “There is a really good community there keeping as supported. Keep working hard, find a little bit of speed, and have a little fun.”
Peszek, who rowed in the pair in London, and DiSanto, a member of the 2016 men’s eight, had been part of the Oakland group hoping for a spot in the eight or four but opted for the pair because they felt it was a good opportunity.
“For both of us, it just felt like the right opportunity,” he said. “We like what we do in the pair, and we would love to represent that for America and get that done. So, it’s been great.”
Peszek said the lack of any other entries surprised them.
“A little bit. But there is a challenge to this boat, Lucerne looms large,” he said. “So, it is by no means a given. We expected somebody else to show in, and that would have been nice, but at the same time, we are happy to go down the course and challenge ourselves.”
Looking forward to Lucerne, Peszek said he and DiSanto are focused on themselves. “You never know who is going to show up, and that’s not key to our mentality,” he said.
“You can’t control what happens in the other lane, so for us, it’s we’re going to go for A to B as quickly as we can, and if anybody else can hang with us, good for them. But, that’s what we’re going to do.”