STORY AND PHOTOS BY ED MORAN
TOKYO, Japan — Falling behind at the start of the opening race in an Olympic campaign is not something either Gevvie Stone or Kristina Wagner wanted to happen.
But that was the situation they found themselves in Friday morning in the first heat of the women’s double at the Tokyo Olympics. New Zealand opened a lead right away, and France, China, and the Czech Republic were all ahead of Stone and Wagner.
But being behind early in racing is not foreign to either of them. They are experienced racers, and they fell back on their confidence in being able to overcome and push through the next 1500 meters.
“The advantages of having been down at the 500 before, is that we do have confidence in our basic speed and that we know that is a thing that we are good at,” said Stone. “So, we don’t freak out when we are down, and we have confidence that we can move through the field and take advantage of the next 1500 meters.”
And that is what they did.
They looked around, saw that China was near them, and began moving back through the field. By the time they reached the final 500-meters on the Sea Forest Waterway Olympic racecourse, they had passed China and France and were in a position to advance directly into the semifinal and avoid having to race in the Saturday repechage and finished second.
“I think we stayed pretty internal,” Stone said. “I think we both purposefully glanced around and knew where we were. It was nice to have China next to us and be able to move through them and to keep us connected to the rest of the field. But we know our strengths are the second half of the race, so I don’t think either of us panicked when we were at the 500 and down,” she said.
“That being said,” Wagner added, “we’re going to try a few different things because it’s not good to be down that much. We want to be in it more, and getting into the further rounds, we’re going to need to be in the race a little bit more than we were.”
Given that Friday was the first day of racing in the Tokyo Olympic Games and there are more rounds of racing to go before crews are dropped from competition, advancing without having to race an extra day is an advantage to any crew.
And of the three crews that began their campaign to reach the podium, two moved on. In the first heat of the women’s single event, Kara Kohler took an early lead and easily advanced into the quarterfinal Sunday.
“It was just so exciting to be racing — let some of that adrenaline out during the race and get some of the nerves out,” Kohler said.
The women’s quad, which raced in the next to last heat of the morning, also fell behind and into the back of the pack, but they were not able to come back and are now focusing on advancing from the repechage Sunday.
“I was just bummed that we were dropped off the start,” said Ali Rusher. “We have a lot more speed than we showed today. I’m glad that first race is over, and we can just focus on coming together with a lot of speed. Our practices have been going really well, so I think the only changes we are going to make are coming off the start a little more aggressive and a little sharper. We got dropped immediately and that wasn’t a great way to start so that’s pretty much what we are going to focus on.”
In all, 22 heats were run and saw the return to the first real international competition for many of the athletes who are racing here. The level of competition, as it always is at the start of a long, multiple-layer regatta, depended on the number of rounds in each event and the number of athletes entered.
The day began with the men’s and women’s singles, each of which has 32 competitors. Predictably, the top performers and the highest-seeded athletes in the field did just what was needed to advance.
One of the more notable single scullers, New Zealand’s Emma Twigg, was racing for the first time was out of her country for the first time since the start of the pandemic, and like Kohler, easily advanced.
“It felt pretty special [to be back on the international stage],” Twigg said. “Obviously it’s been a long time coming and we feel really privileged to be out here racing. I was just going out and doing my thing. In these early races, no one really shows their cards. Three more races to get through.”
As the day progressed and moved to the men’s and women’s doubles and then to the men’s and women’s quads, the pace and the intensity of the racing scaled up. More than one race matched the intensity of Stone and Wagner’s heat in the women’s double, including in the quads, which saw some of the most intense starts to finish battling of the day.
Each is a 10-boat field and the first two crews across the line move directly to the final. So, the stakes were higher.
In the first of the two men’s heats, Poland and Italy separated from the pack about halfway down the course and moved directly to the final.
In the second heat, The Netherlands and Australia battled to the wire. Now, each of those teams has three days to recover and regroup before racing in the Tuesday final.
“No question, it’s a tough field so we are going to have to be at our absolute best in the final,” said Australian coach Mark Prater. “It’s good to know exactly where we are at. We’ve got a bit of a gauge within the team, but you never really know until you line up against.
Today was for getting some of those nerves out of the way, and getting into the final,” he said. “That’s excellent. We don’t have to worry about rowing another race. Now we can get down to business. We’ll do a proper analysis and do some recovery the next couple of days, and they’ll be ready to go.”
Potential Adverse Weather Leads to Schedule Change
Due to potential unfair weather, Olympic racing on Monday has been shifted to Sunday, according to USRowing. Additionally, the men’s and women’s eight heats have been moved from Sunday to Saturday to accommodate the change.