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The Breakdown: Olympic Preview Event-by-Event

BY ED MORAN
PHOTOS BY ED MORAN, PETER SPURRIER
, ZACH FRANZEN

Sweep Events

There are six sweep crews among the 14 Olympic events. They include the men’s and women’s pair, the men’s and women’s fours, and the men’s and women’s eights. The U.S. will have crews in five of the events: women’s pair, men’s and women’s four, and men’s and women’s eights.

13 Crews | Men’s Pair

The reigning world champions, Croatian brothers Martin and Valent Sinkovic, are without question the favored crew. They have been the gold standard in the event since switching out of the double after winning gold in that boat in Rio in 2016. They have not won every World Cup they have raced since 2016 but they have won most, three of the four last European championships, and this spring in World Rowing Cup I and World Rowing Cup III.

The top finishers behind the Sinkovic brothers from 2019 are New Zealand, Australia, Italy, Spain, and France.

13 Crews | Women’s Pair

Tracy Eisser and Megan Kalmoe qualified the boat class for the U.S. with a fourth-place finish in 2019. When the boat was placed in the trials-selection process, Eisser and Kalmoe claimed the spot, finishing first in a four-boat U.S. field at Olympic Trials III. 

This is Eisser’s second Olympics and Kalmoe’s fourth. Eisser and Kalmoe rowed in the quad together in 2015, where they won a world championship, and in 2016 in Rio, finishing fifth. Kalmoe rowed to a fifth-place finish in the double in 2008 and won bronze in the quad in 2012. 

Following Rio, Eisser and Kalmoe began rowing the pair and won silver in the 2017 world championships and bronze in the 2019 World Cup II. This crew should be seen as a legitimate contender to medal in Tokyo, but they will be racing in a very fast event with experienced athletes, most notably New Zealand’s reigning world champions, Grace Prendergast and Kerri Gowler. 

All six crews from the A final in 2019 will be in the mix, including New Zealand, Australia, Canada, Spain, Italy, and the U.S. Add to those the two crews that qualified at the final qualifier in Lucerne in May: Russia and Denmark.

Following the win at U.S. trials, Kalmoe said she was excited to be rounding out her Olympic career in the pair and racing among these crews:

“The women’s-pair field is, to me, one of the most exciting fields in rowing right now. For sure, the three returning medalists from the world championships in 2019 are all incredible. And for me, having the opportunity to be in the event where I think some of the top female rowing athletes are is the best.

“Racing against the very best people is the best way for me to know where I am and to have a lot of accountability and ownership over the performance that we put up. We can just see how we compare to the fastest people out there, which is awesome.

“I’m excited,” Kalmoe said. “I’ve been racing against Kerri and Grace from New Zealand for a long time at this point and I consider them my friends. So I am happy if all goes according to plan and everything works out and we all get there in one piece and I get to race them one more time.”

The U.S. lineup is (S) Eisser (B) Kalmoe.

10 Crews | Men’s Four

The top finishing crews from the 2019 World Rowing Championships were Poland, Romania, Great Britain, Italy, the U.S., Australia, The Netherlands and Switzerland. 

South Africa and Canada filled out the field, qualifying in Lucerne.

The British are the defending Olympic champions. They were third in Linz and this season won European championships and World Cup II. While Poland has struggled this spring, finishing fifth at Europeans and sixth at World Cup II, they reached the podium twice, finishing second at World Cup I and third at World Cup III. 

Romania and Italy have been in the medals this spring at the European championships and World Cups. The U.S. team, like Australia, did not race internationally this year and is untested. 

The U.S. crew named from selection camp will return two from the 2019 fifth-place boat, including Clark Dean and Andrew Reed. New to the boat is 2016 Olympian Anders Weiss and Michael Grady. Dean, Reed and Grady are first time Olympians. 

The U.S. lineup is (S) Dean (3) Grady (2) Weiss (B) Reed.

“It’s been a bit of a slow grind getting to the end of selection,” said Dean. “But it’s definitely a weight off my shoulders and now a nice transition going from having to worry every day what I should be doing, what I should not be doing, to prep to be at my peak that week, compared to knowing I can now just put my head down and train up to the Games.

“There are so many great guys, and there was no one who was just crushing everybody. It wasn’t clear who the best was, who was out of it, who was in it. There was a ton of really good guys and the skill level of everybody was super high, with no one significantly off the pace. It was super close and competitive the whole time.”

About the boat’s prospects and potential, Dean said, “It’s good. I’m optimistic. We have a pretty good mix of experience from a couple of the older guys, and then me and Michael Grady are the younger two in it. And we get along pretty well. We’re all pretty gung-ho about listening and leaving no stone unturned in terms of our preparation,” he said.

“We definitely keep up with the race results and keep up with as much information as we can [on the rest of the field], but I don’t think it necessarily changes the training in any specific way to get an idea where we will be at the regatta and what we can expect from the other crews.”

10 Crews | Women’s Four

This is a new Olympic boat class for women. It was added to achieve gender balance and takes the place in the Games of the men’s lightweight four that was removed after 2016.

The U.S. historically has been strong in the women’s four the years it was raced in world-championship competition. But it was a focus development boat for the U.S. those years, and not always a focus for other countries with smaller women’s squads.

Qualifying through the 2019 world championships were Australia, The Netherlands, Denmark, Poland, Romania, the U.S., Great Britain, and Canada. Ireland and China claimed the final two spots in Lucerne. 

In racing this season, the Dutch have been the gold standard, winning the European championships and both World Cups II and III. No fours were entered in World Cup I. Also performing well this year in Europe have been Great Britain, Ireland, and Romania. 

Australia and the U.S. did not race internationally.

Of the four athletes named to the U.S. crew from selection, only Madeleine Wanamaker returns from the 2019 crew. Three–Wanamaker, Kendall Chase. and Claire Collins—are first-time Olympians. Joining the crew, stroking the boat, and making her return to the national team is 2016 Olympian Grace Luczak, who rowed in the pair in Rio and finished fourth.

“It’s such an honor to be able to represent your country, and it’s been such a strange year for everyone, across the world, across the U.S.,” Luczak said. “It’s exciting that we finally get to go and compete. We’re super thankful that Japan is still hosting the Olympics, and (the U.S.) have got some fast boats that are ready to show some good speed.”

About the possible competition, Luczak said; “As it always goes, the biggest competition is yourself, so I think staying internal is important. We’re literally forced to do that with no World Cups, and no international races for the last two years now. So we’ve got to stay internal. You’ve always got to try to make your boat go as fast as possible and use the competition to help you. That’s really being driven home this year. It’s just us.”

The U.S. lineup is (S) Luczak (3) Chase (2) Collins (B) Wanamaker.

7 Crews | Men’s eight

Since finishing second to Great Britain at the 2016 Games, the German men’s eight has won the men’s event the past three world championships. But this season, it has been the British at the top of the podium ahead of the Germans at the European championships and World Cup II. 

Germany won the final World Cup last month in Sabaudia, Italy, but the British were not there. Both Romania and the Dutch were on the podium this season at the European championships and World Cup II.

The U.S. finished just out of the medals in Rio, a very close fourth to the Dutch. Of that crew, only Austin Hack was named to the Tokyo boat from the Oakland, Calif., selection camp. 

Hack was also in the boat that qualified fifth in 2019. Of the eight rowers and coxswain, there are six returning athletes from 2019, including Hack, coxswain Julian Venonsky, Conor Harrity, Alexander Richards, Ben Davison, and Nick Mead. New to the crew and rowing for the first time on the senior team are Justin Best, Liam Corrigan and Alex Miklasevich. 

The U.S. lineup is (C) Venonsky (S) Corrigan (7) Harrity (6) Mead (5) Richards (4) Hack
(3) Miklasevich (2) Best (B) Davison.

“It’s an incredible feeling to have made the team,” said Davison. “This past couple of years, but particularly these past couple of months, have been quite intense. We’ve been doing a lot of racing, and it takes a lot out of you. You’re racing against some of your best friends, and there are some great guys and great athletes who didn’t make a boat, and we knew that before.

“There were 18 of us and there was only going to be 13 of us going. It was definitely tough physically, but also tough emotionally, so it is nice to be done.

“It felt brilliant [to be named to the crew],” he said. “There have been a lot of doubting moments where you don’t know if you’re going to make it, and it’s been a fantastic feeling realizing that we’re done, and we can sort of switch the focus to going fast in six weeks.”

Of the coming competition, Davison said, “We expect everyone to be fast. The British are on form, and the Germans are always going fast. All the boats, every eight there, we expect to be fast, and it’s going to be tight. It always comes down to a second here and a split second there. It will be a huge race just to make the A final, but I have a lot of confidence in what we have.”

13 Crews | Women’s eight

It’s hard to imagine a more difficult event to handicap this year than the women’s eight. Of the top qualifying crews from the 2019 world championships–New Zealand, Australia, the U.S., Canada, and Great Britain—only the British have raced internationally. Every other national federation opted to remain at home to avoid possible Covid exposure and the complications of traveling during the pandemic. 

Great Britain raced in the European championships and finished fourth. The previously unqualified Romanian eight won Europeans and then went to the Final Olympic Qualification Regatta, where they qualified for Tokyo behind China. So this one is anyone’s guess.

The U.S. is defending a three-Olympic championship run, having won in 2008, 2012 and 2016. Since then, the U.S. has reached the top of the podium in a world championship in 2018. It finished fourth in 2017, and third in 2019. 

Of the crew that was named to the U.S. eight last month, there are two returning Olympians—Meghan Musnicki, and coxswain Katelin Guregian. And of the 2019 crew, there are five returning athletes. Besides Musnicki and Guregian, returning are Kristine O’Brien, Olivia Coffey (2016 Rio alternate), and Gia Doonan. 

New to the crew are Brooke Mooney, Regina Salmons, Charlotte Buck, and Jessica Thoennes.  

This is a relatively young crew, and one of the most internationally inexperienced ever to race in an Olympics for the U.S. women.

Buck, a walk-on at Columbia, is making her debut on the national team in Tokyo, as is Mooney, who rowed at Washington and set a world record on the erg this year. Salmons rowed on the under-23 team and was an alternate on the 2018 senior team.

The U.S. lineup is (C) Guregian (S) Coffey (7) Buck (6) Musnicki (5) Mooney (4) Doonan (3) O’Brien (2) Thoennes (b) Salmons.

While there are only two returning Olympians, Coffey is one of the more experienced veterans of the new crew. She has rowed on five senior national teams. In 2015, she was in the women’s quad that won the world championship, but missed out on selection in 2016. She went to Cambridge University and stroked the Cambridge women’s eight in the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race, and then returned and made the U.S. eight that won gold in 2018 and bronze in 2019 at the World Rowing Championships.

“This feels pretty good right now,” Coffey said. “I didn’t really think about what happened in 2016 so much when I was training. I just tried to move forward, be better.” Coffey was one of the group of women from the training center who contracted the virus in the early weeks of the pandemic. She went home to New York, recovered, and resumed training.

“Covid was actually a good opportunity to reset and let my body recover and then  come back with more energy. I wasn’t quite as fit when I got back into it, but it allowed me to get faster because I took a big break. 

“This is where I wanted to be. That was one of the goals I set for myself. I wanted to PR on the erg, stroke the eight, and now my next goal is to win the race. So everything that I have done up to this point has been to help me reach those goals, and that is what is going to continue forward.”

The most senior veteran on the squad is now three-time Olympian Musnicki, 38, who has two Olympic gold medals from 2012 and 2016 in the eight.

“It’s awesome,” Musnicki said of making her third team. “I’ve gotten to experience so many different groups of women. And this one is very special. They are all special, and all different in their own ways, and it is a privilege to be part of something from each of the groups, whether they are older or younger. 

“In this particular group there is no one older, but there are lot who are younger, and there is a lot for me to learn from them,” she said. “It’s young, it’s fresh, it’s exciting. There are a lot of unknowns. and that just means we have huge opportunities.”


Sculling Events

There are eight sculling events in the Olympics, including the men’s and women’s single, men’s and women’s double, men’s and women’s lightweight doubles, and the men’s and women’s quad. The U.S. women are qualified in all events. There will be no U.S. men’s sculling crews at this Games. It is the first time in an Olympics with no U.S. men since 1912.

32 Crews | Men’s single

There was not a lot of daylight between the six boats that crossed the finish line at the 2019 world championships. Not much has changed in the past two years. The same names, led by the same man—Germany’s Oliver Zeidler—have continued to dominate the men’s single scene. 

One of the past legends will not be in Tokyo. Gone is 2012 and 2016 Rio champion Mahe Drysdale, who did not make the cut in New Zealand, and announced his retirement last month. But Damir Martin, the guy who chased him to the line in Rio, will be there, as will bronze medalist Ondrei Synek of the Czech Republic. So, as it was in Rio, the men’s single will be one of the most intense and entertaining events at the 2021 Games.

Look for Zeidler to win, but don’t count out any of the top scullers who qualified at the world championships in Linz, Austria. When racing resumed in Europe after the pandemic shutdown, Zeidler finished out of the medals at the 2020 European championships. 

But he has regained his pace this season, winning the European championship, and two of the three World Cups. Zeidler finished third at World Cup III in June, behind 2019 world bronze medalist Kjetil Borch, and 2019 silver medalist Sverri Nielsen.

32 Crews | Women’s single

Much like the men’s contest, the women’s single will be a must-watch event, and U.S. single sculler and 2012 Olympian Kara Kohler has a very good chance to reach the podium.

Kohler finished third at the 2019 world championships behind Ireland’s Sanita Puspure and New Zealand’s Emma Twigg. Any of the A finalists from 2019 should compete for medals in Tokyo, and those who have raced in Europe this season have shown they are on form. Of the 2019 top six, Twigg and Canada’s Carling Zeeman have not raced internationally since 2019. 

World Cup II in Lucerne, Switzerland, featured the deepest field so far, and Kohler finished second there behind Hanna Prakatsen from Russia, who qualified for Tokyo at the European qualifier. Puspure was third, followed by Austria’s Magdalena Lobnig, Victoria Thornley of Great Britain, and Switzerland’s Jeanine Gmelin.

Kohler won a bronze medal in the quad in London, missed out on the 2016 Games, and then switched to the single. 

“It’s pretty different,” she said of her experience leading into these Games. “London was nine years ago. I was very new to the sport, pretty wide-eyed, not really sure what was going on. Luckily, I had a group of experienced teammates to lead me. But I’m feeling much more experienced now and confident in my skill and rowing, and definitely ready to make the most of every stroke.

“I’m just excited that it is finally happening.” 

In racing the field in 2019 and then this year at World Cup II, Kohler said: “I learned it’s going to be anybody’s race. There is no clear favorite, which is pretty exciting. There are five or six boats that are probably going to be really close, and so I’m ready to be
in that.”

13 Crews | Men’s double

The top three qualifying crews from the 2019 world championships—China, Ireland, and Poland—can all be considered top contenders in Tokyo. In racing this season so far, China and Ireland finished first and second respectively at World Rowing Cup II. 

Poland was seventh at World Cup II but won World Cup III. This is one of the stronger and faster events in men’s sculling, and none of the qualifying finishers from the 2019 Worlds, or the final qualifier in Lucerne, should be counted out. 

Although France finished ninth overall in 2019, they won the European championships in 2021, then finished sixth at World Cup II. This is historically a very competitive event, and 2021 should be no different.

13 Crews | Women’s Double

There are 13 crews qualified to race in the women’s double. Eleven qualified in 2019, two others qualified at the Final Olympic Qualification Regatta. The U.S. was among the crews that qualified at the world championships, finishing fifth with Gevvie Stone and Cicely Madden rowing.

Stone is returning to the event, but with a different partner, Kristina Wagner. Stone and Wagner won Trials II to claim the spot. They are a new combination. and this will be Wagner’s first Olympics and her first time racing on the senior team. All six crews that rowed in the final in Linz should still be considered favorites among medal contenders, including New Zealand, Romania, and The Netherlands, which made the podium in 2019. But as with the U.S., there are new lineups and unknown speed among the field.

Stone and Wagner raced to a third-place finish at World Cup II in May, taking bronze behind Romania and the Dutch. Asked to comment on how she sees the competition ahead, now three-time Olympian Stone gave this assessment:

“The data points that we can rely on are from the World Cups from this year and the European championship, because that’s the most recent, and we were able to compete against some of those teams. We know the Romanians are very fast, and that the Lithuanians and the Dutch are very fast. 

“We expect that the Kiwis will be very fast because they won in 2019. We also expect the Canadians to be fast, but they have a new combination. So they are more of an unknown. We know nothing about Australia’s lineup, and there are teams that have de-prioritized the boat. China put their two women from the double into an eight and four to qualify their boats. And Italy put one of their women into the quad to qualify it. 

“On a very small scale, we are starting to think about the competition and how we stack up. But how we approach training on a day-to-day basis is all about what we can do to gain speed. We are focused on our boat and what we can control and what we can do.”

The U.S. lineup is (S) Stone (B) Wagner.

18 Crews | Men’s Lightweight Double

When Gary and Paul O’Donovan won silver in Rio, they lit a spark that fueled a rowing reawakening in Ireland. The Irish had three crews in Rio: the O’Donovans, a women’s light double, and a women’s single. For Tokyo, Ireland will boat six crews, and the men’s lightweight double can be seen as the favorite to win its event.

Since 2016, the field, and the Irish crew, have changed. The reigning French champions have retired, and Gary O’Donovan lost his seat to Fintan McCarthy in the 2019 selection. McCarthy and Paul O’Donovan have led since, winning in Austria, and then dominating this season at the Europeans, and World Cup II. For the entire podium, look for Germany, Norway, and Italy.

18 Crews | Women’s Lightweight Double

Another highly competitive field here. Top qualifiers from Worlds were led by New Zealand, but when Zoe McBride suddenly retired from the sport in April, the Kiwis withdrew their entry and the next highest 2019 finishing crew—Canada—was awarded the spot.

The Netherlands’ lineup of Marieke Keijer and Ilse Paulis, and third-place crew of GB’s Emily Craig and Imogen Grant picked up again this spring and showed their potential to medal in Tokyo at the European championships and World Cup events, as has Italy. The Dutch concluded their World Cup campaign by winning World Cup III and knocking four seconds from the world’s best time, finishing in 6:43.79.

The U.S. will be represented by Michelle Sechser and Molly Reckford, who won U.S. trials, then continued to build speed at the open-weight U.S. women’s double trials (they finished second), and then won at the Final Olympic Qualification Regatta in May. 

After Lucerne, Sechser and Reckford went back to Sarasota, where they have been based and are now training without the pressure of having to win trials and qualify for the Games. Based on what they have shown so far, they should be in contention to medal in Tokyo.

“We’re having a great time training now,” Sechser said. “What’s working well is that Molly and I, as athletes, push ourselves really hard every day that we are out on the water together. That worked well leading into Trials I, where we didn’t use a training group or sparring partners and were just comfortable showing up and giving it everything we have during pieces.

“It feels similar now, in a good way. I wouldn’t say things feel more stressful or more lackadaisical just because we’ve been named to the team. But it’s surprised me a little bit that it doesn’t feel as big as I thought it would,” she said.

“Maybe that will change as we start traveling west, but it feels very natural. It’s summertime, it’s hot, we’re doing race pieces, and we’re just training as hard as we can with our heads down toward the next race.” 

The U.S. lineup is (S) Sechser (B) Reckford.

10 Crews | Men’s quad

This is pretty much a wide-open field, and it is hard to point to an absolute favorite to win in Tokyo. Germany is the defending Olympic champion and is qualified for these Games. But the Dutch are the defending 2019 world champions and were second at the 2021 European championship and won at the second World Cup. So a nod in their direction for gold.

That said, any of the top finishing crews from 2019, and the Estonian and Russian crews that qualified in Lucerne in May, can be considered to be in the mix to medal in Tokyo. 

The 2019 Dutch crew, and the Polish crew that was second in Linz, have been unchanged so far this season and have plenty of experience racing together. Don’t count out Germany, which has had two veterans of the Rio boat on the line this year, and Italy, which has been running head-to-head with The Netherlands, besting them at the 2021 European championships and finishing just behind them at World Cup II.  

10 Crews | Women’s Quad

Like the men, the women’s quad is another event that’s difficult to pin down. Germany won in Rio, and China finished sixth. At the 2019 world championships, China won, and Germany was fourth. In racing this season, the Dutch won Europeans. Great Britain and Germany finished second and third with, Norway, Italy, and Ukraine behind them.

The U.S. qualified for Tokyo in Linz, finishing seventh. But the crew that was named to the event from selection camp is completely new and carries two first-time Olympians in Cicely Madden and Alie Rusher, who is racing at the senior level for the first time in her career. 

Madden and Rusher raced at both U.S. trials this spring in the single and double. They are joined by 2016 Olympians Meghan O’Leary and Ellen Tomek, now a three-time Olympian. 

“It’s been a childhood dream to go to the Olympics,” Madden said, “and it’s been a long journey. I couldn’t be more excited, and it’s still kind of hard to digest. This past season has had some highs and lows, so to find myself in the quad, I couldn’t be more excited. I’ve seen that other countries, like China and Russia, are really strong, but I’m just focused on how we can make the boat go fast for us,” she said.

Tomek and O’Leary rowed the double together to a sixth-place finish in Rio, won bronze together at the 2018 world championships, and silver at the 2017 Worlds. They rowed together again in the double at Trials II and finished third.

“This was not my Plan A,” said Tomek. “That was the double, but that didn’t work out. We got beat by a couple of fast crews. I was really excited to be a part of this quad group and the quad camp. It was an incredibly fast group of 11 women who were invited, and it was absolutely brutal racing. I am super proud and honored to be in the quad, and now I am really excited. This boat has the potential to go really fast. We get along really well, and we’re already having too much fun. I’m excited to see what we can do.

“Honestly, I can’t believe that I am still rowing for this long. This is actually four Olympic cycles for me, and three Olympics. I missed out on the 2012 Games. It’s been a really long road, but I still feel like I am improving, learning a lot, and getting faster, so why not keep going? This is definitely my last year, my last Games. So third time’s the charm, hopefully,” Tomek said.

That is not the case for Madden and Rusher. Madden first rowed on the senior team in 2019 in the double with Stone. This is Rusher’s first senior national team.

“The quad field is always really fast—China, The Netherlands, Poland, Italy,” Tomek said. “I think it’s going to be really fast, no matter who we are up against, so we’re going to go and make sure we have our best race, and our fastest race. We have the potential to be up there with the top crews, but it’s an incredibly fast field.”

The U.S. lineup is (S) Tomek (3) O’Leary (2) Rusher (B) Madden.

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