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Wait and Hurry Up to Medal at the Final Olympic Qualifier

PHOTOS AND STORY BY ED MORAN

The pandemic-delayed 2021 Final Olympic Qualification Regatta took so long to get scheduled and arranged that it seemed almost amusing that the final two days were suddenly crammed into one morning of frantic racing and overflowing emotions.

It was supposed to run for three days. But Swiss weather in Spring can be untenable for outdoor sports. Systems of moisture rising up and over the snowcapped mountain peaks that fill the horizon around the Rotsee racecourse in Lucerne come down the other side and into the valley toward Lake Lucerne as rain and wind.

And it was all so fitting. 

The sudden predicted weather changes that forced World Rowing to cancel Monday finals and jam two days of racing into one somewhat matched the uncertainness of which countries had cooked up a team that could come and claim one of the last 29 spots on the Tokyo Olympic schedule.

Most of the crews were new. Many of the combinations in the team boats were largely untested. None of the athletes had raced in an international regatta of this consequence since the World Rowing Championships in 2019.

Covid forced the entire year to be pushed back, and stranded Olympic dreams on the shore.

But it finally happened. And when it did, four hundred athletes from 49 countries brought their hopes and Olympic dreams and raced over two compacted days for the last remaining Olympic slots.

And there was plenty of disappointment and joy, in the end, to go around.

Joy particularly for 34-year-old U.S. lightweight sculler Michelle Sechser and her 27-year-old new partner in the lightweight double, Molly Reckford. They cruised through the regatta, won their event, and now go home to pack Olympic bags.

“I am so happy to have achieved this, and to have done it with Molly,” said Sechser. “I couldn’t ask for a better way to achieve this thing. It was a really hard race and the amount of competition, the amount of people watching, because when the Olympics are on the line everyone just throws everything that they can.

“It was really awesome to feel the power of our boat respond to the attacks the field was launching without any sort of nervousness or hesitation, and that’s how I know I have a great partner calling the shots.”

Two years ago Reckford was a recreational masters rower in California who reenergized an Olympic dream that began at the feet of her two-time Olympian grandfather, William Spencer, who passed in December of 2020. Reckford races in his memory and believes she is being watched over and powered by him.

“This means the world to me,” Reckford said. “I could not be more proud of Michelle, or the race we put together. This journey has really helped me process the death of my grandpa, and I know he was there with us pushing us towards the line. We put in a lot of hard work in the last 15 months, and I am so thankful that we pulled it off.” 

“This means the world to me,” Reckford said. “I could not be more proud of Michelle, or the race we put together. This journey has really helped me process the death of my grandpa, and I know he was there with us pushing us towards the line. We put in a lot of hard work in the last 15 months, and I am so thankful that we pulled it off.” 

-Molly Reckford

It’s hard to say which athletes were either positively or negatively impacted by the schedule changes, but every one of them that made it through the early semifinals to the later morning finals had to make some kind of mental and physical adjustment.

“It was interesting having only two hours between the semi and the final,” said Canadian men’s single sculler Trevor Jones, who finished second and grabbed a place at the Games. “Yesterday’s heat was good to get the jitters out. I’ve put in lots of miles this winter, and I’m really relying on that”

Jones was one of three Canadian men’s crews that earned their place in the postponed 2020 Games. As he crossed the line, his teammates from the men’s four rose from their seats in the medals waiting area and enthusiastically called to Jones to join them on the dock as he sprinted to the finish and powered through Poland’s Natan Wegrzycki-Szymczyk, a favorite to place in the top two.

After the race Jones sat in his shell, looking, it seemed, like he was too exhausted to raise his arms in triumph, relying on a brief smile and a thumbs up to his mates. A few minutes later, Canada claimed the win in the lightweight men’s double and added a third crew to the party. 

It was that kind of weekend in Lucerne. Different countries stacked the deck sending multiple crews and took home what Olympic slots they could. Canada sent three and grabbed three.

China sent 8 and got two — the women’s eight and four. New Zealand sent one — the men’s eight — and that was enough for them. They won the event and along the way helped Kiwi rowing legend Hamish Bond become a four-time Olympian.

“Yea, that just makes me feel old,” Bond said at the medals stand. “This was definitely what we came here to achieve. I believe in the guys that we have in our crew. I really think our final place is only limited by how well we can execute our potential,” he said. 

“I think we have all the potential that we need. We just have to maximize in the big show.” 

The big show is now just weeks away, but because New Zealand is an island nation that has controlled the pandemic by shutting its borders, Bond and his teammates are heading into a two-week quarantine and missing valuable training time.

“We were disappointed that World Rowing decided to have this regatta during a pandemic and somewhat unnecessarily make crews from the other side of the world come over,” he said. “We have to go back to New Zealand and spend two weeks in a hotel when we’re just weeks out from the Olympics. It’s not ideal but that’s the card we’ve been dealt, and we’ll have to make the most of it.”

Besides Sechser and Reckford, the U.S. sent six crews, five of them men’s crews, four of them sculling boats. 

Of those entries, the only men’s crew to make the Sunday schedule was the men’s pair of Tom Peszek and Michael DiSanto, both Olympians with experience enough to carry them through the morning semifinals.

DiSanto and Peszek made a massive push through the sprint to get into a qualifying top-two position but finished third behind the Netherlands’ Guillaume Krommenhoek and Nicolas Van Sprang and Denmark’s Joachim Sutton and Frederic Vystavel.

“I am so happy that we managed to qualify,” said Krommenhoek. “It was a tough morning with two races. It was the most important race of my life and we are so happy,” he said.

“We’ve been told yesterday the schedule was going to change,” Vystavel added. “It is about keeping in focus and taking it easy as the races were coming. We had our plan and we stuck to it. It was a really good race.”

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