PHOTOS AND STORY BY ED MORAN
Tom Peszek has been an athlete of few words since he and Mike DiSanto earned the chance to race for a spot in the Tokyo Olympics in the men’s pair when they rowed unopposed in U.S. Olympic Trials II.
In the days before racing began at the 2021 Final Olympic Qualification Regatta in Lucerne, Switzerland, Peszek was asked what he felt about the upcoming regatta and how the training was going.
Peszek answered the email query with this one sentence: “We are ready to go.” Attached with the answer was a video clip of an interview between Marshawn Lynch and Dion Sanders at media day before the 2014 Superbowl in which Lynch answers a similar type of question with this one-liner — “I’m just about that action, boss.”
“We are ready to go.”
Saturday, just after advancing directly to the semi-final and getting one step closer to the Olympic action in Tokyo, Peszek was still in quick response mode, responding to a media question for comment on the race, saying, “All boats pulled hard today.”
That was certainly the case in nearly every event contested Saturday in the 14-event final Olympic qualification event before the Tokyo Games. But the results by evening were not all the same. Of the six U.S. crews hoping to find a place in Tokyo, only two have advanced and remain in contention, including Peszek and DiSanto and the women’s lightweight double with Michelle Sechser and Molly Reckford.
Leaving all talk on the water, Peszek and DiSanto finished in the second of three qualifying spots behind Denmark and ahead of Chile in their heat.
Joining them and avoiding rowing in what can be an exhausting extra race on the way to the final was Sechser and Reckford, who rowed in the second of three heats and not only advanced with a win but posted the fastest time of the 14 crews that are racing in their event.
Sechser and Reckford have been a dominating force in their boat since beginning the 2021 Olympic campaign at the first U.S. rowing trials in February. After the Saturday morning race, Reckford also kept her remarks brief, and to the point: “I think we executed our race plan well, and we have technical changes that we are excited to keep improving on. This is a competitive boat class, and so we are taking nothing for granted. One race at a time — one 250 at a time.”
Her partner, Sechser, was slightly more expansive: “It was a good first international race together as a crew,” she said. “Molly handled everything like champ.
“Every time we get another race together, we learn more about ourselves as a crew and definitely identified areas we want to execute better tomorrow. The huge schedule change was a bit of a surprise, but a great lesson in being able to roll with punches and keep our eyes fixed on the goal.”
The rest of the six crews competing in the final chance Olympic qualifier for the U.S. had a tougher go, which was been made even more difficult by the “huge schedule change,” Sechser mention. A predicted bad weather Monday with forecasts calling for “unrowable and unfair conditions,” that included wind and rain, forced event officials to condense the schedule and cancel racing on Monday.
Instead of rowing some of the reps, and all semi-finals on Sunday and holding Monday finals, the new schedule set the stage for an afternoon bout of expediated reps on Saturday, followed by semifinals and finals Sunday.
And, the Friday repechages were not kind to several of the U.S. crews including, men’s single sculler John Graves, men’s double crew of Kevin Cardno and Johathan Kirkegaard, the lightweight men’s double of Jasper Liu and Zach Heese, and the men’s quad crew of Charles Anderson, Justin Keen, Eliot Putnam, and Sorin Koszyk.
The first to be disappointed Saturday afternoon were Cardno and Kirkegaard. After being forced into one of the scheduled Friday reps for the men’s double event after finishing third in their heat, Cardno and Kirkegaard finished fourth in their rep and were eliminated from Olympic qualifying contention.
They were followed by John Graves, who has said since taking on this challenge that this season would be his final in international competition. Graves finished second in his morning heat to Poland’s Natan Wegrzycki-Szymczyk.
Late Saturday afternoon, Graves finished fourth in the rep and is done.
“A very tough one to swallow and definitely blindsided by the result today,” Graves said. “I’m not sure what to say other than something is clearly off at the moment. Possibly related to timing coming down from altitude, but difficult to say for sure.
“Frustrating to not be able to put out my best stuff today, but it is what it is and I take full responsibility for the outcome. I will see what I can learn from it and see if I can put together some better racing at WC2. Obviously, there was a harsh reality coming off the water today knowing that my hopes were no longer alive for Tokyo, but I’m trying not to dwell on that too much. This has been an awesome year of growth and learning, and despite this result, I am really proud of the quality of the work I’ve put in.
“I knew the potential risks of doing an altitude camp leading into this event, and ultimately that was a risk I was willing to take and one I totally own,” he said. “Yes, I’m disappointed I won’t be in Tokyo, and that I couldn’t show what I’m capable of this weekend. But hey, it’s been an awesome ride. No regrets whatsoever.”
In the men’s lightweight double, Jasper Liu and Zach Heese hiccupped at the start, fell into fifth in the first 500-meters of the heat, and never got back in. Heese appeared to jam his hands together rolling up to the catch and nearly lost his port oar. His hand slipped down to the top of the shaft, just below the grip, and it took a few strokes for him to get it back under control.
That blip sent them to the second-chance race where they finished fourth.
“That was truly a heartbreaking loss,” Liu said. “Especially since we were leading GB until the last ten strokes. We had hoped to earn a better result, obviously, so not making it out of reps feels pretty bad. But there are definitely some silver linings, especially considering where Zach and I started only three or four years ago. We will take lessons from this year into the next cycle – with the goal of avoiding FOQR in 2024.”
In the final race that featured a U.S. men’s hopeful crew, the Philadelphia based quad of Charles Anderson, Justin Keen, Eliot Putnam, and Sorin Koszyk, was pushed into a Saturday afternoon rep that had been scheduled to take place Sunday morning when they finished third in their opening heat behind Estonia and Ukraine.
In the late rep, they finished sixth.
“First off, we are obviously very disappointed things didn’t go the way we had hoped they would,” said coach Sean Hall. “I’m sure we all had some expectations — I know I did — as all indicators at various stages were so positive, it was hard not to think we were sure to at least be in the final, if not fighting it out with Estonia for the win.
“But this is racing at the highest level. We have to remember most everyone we raced against has a shopping list of accomplishments, lots of international race experience, and medals. By contrast, these guys are brand new to this, with only Justin Keen having a few years racing at this level.
“They raced like they’ve been at it a while. And let’s be honest, this was only their 3rd full race together.
I think COVID is what got us this far. It gave the guys time to grow and mature as athletes, and I think that showed in the racing, starting with trials.
“But it was an unusual circumstance which will not happen again, and I hope the guys will realize this and use the time they have and continue to pursue their goals,” Hall said. “I also hope this will draw more talent to the group, and to the discipline. The most important thing is to keep it going.”
Click here for complete Saturday results and the full Sunday schedule.