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Empty Stands But an Ocean of Support

PHOTOS AND STORY BY ED MORAN

TOKYO, Japan – Gevvie Stone strolled into the media mix zone at the Sea Forrest Waterway Olympic rowing venue Sunday, eating a frozen Pedialyte freezer pop, and wearing an ice vest to help recover from the Tokyo heat she and Kristina Wagner had just raced in.

Wagner was there too, and they were about to settle into an interview session with reporters covering the rowing events at the Tokyo Olympic Games. Stone has been through this sort of thing multiple times over the course of three Olympic cycles. Wagner is just getting used to it, though she rightly pointed out that she was not the only first time Olympian on the U.S. squad.

Still, there was a noticeable difference between the two. As athlete teammates, there is not. They row the double together and just a little over an hour before had raced in the semifinals and advanced to the Wednesday final in third place.

Wagner was standing while taking questions and Stone was chewing on her frozen Pedialyte pop, leaning on the social distancing metal pen fencing being used in this Covid-era Olympics to keep the press and the athletes at least somewhat apart.

Stone was taking questions in the friendly manner she always does, and always has for as long as she has been rowing in international competition. She was a little more wide-eyed back in 2010 when she was rowing in some sort of selection event talking about how much she wanted to row in the 2012 Olympics in London.

The questions Sunday were, as they almost always are, about rowing, the race she and Wagner were just in, what parts were good, which could use improvement. Most of the media asking questions at this stage of a large and important international regatta are being asked by writers who cover rowing.

Win an Olympic medal, and there will be a press conference with lots of writers who don’t focus on rowing specific questions. Stone and Wagner’s last race got them to the final, not to the medal stand just yet.

So, for now, the rowers answer the rowing questions the rowing media ask. But sometimes the questions can be more personal. In the case of Stone Sunday afternoon, she was asked by an Associated Press reporter from Austin, Texas, if she had reflected on her journey to this point.

He mentioned something about having just a few more finish lines to cross.

By this, what the AP guy was referring to was the fact that Gevvie Stone, who in the last years of her career had become Dr. Stone, would retire after the Wednesday final from her three-time Olympic career, one that included winning a silver medal in Rio, 2016, and focus on being Dr. Stone.

That was when the cool, Pedialyte recovery pop-eating veteran’s eye filled with the hint of tears, and talking became emotionally strained.

“There is one finish line in front of me,” Stone said. “Just one.”

Stone and Wagner have been locked into this quest to win an Olympic medal since the spring, and have been laser-focused. But it was clear that the question hit a link to an emotion Stone said she has not been thinking about.

And she started reflecting on her journey and the people who helped get her there, which include a group of masters rowers from her home club, the Cambridge Boat Club back home in Boston.

Stone comes from a rowing family. Her mom was an Olympian and coaches high school rowing now. Her dad was an elite sculler and national teamer, and he is also her coach, has been through all of this. 

And from the time Stone left Princeton University where she rowed as an undergraduate and began chasing a dream of being a single sculler on the national team, and rowing in the Olympics, she has had this group of masters men who would go out with her, pace her daily training, and send her emails whenever she competed.

She has been talking about the emails in interviews since that event in 2010 like they were all a bunch of Zen masters, sort of rowing Yodas.

And she talked about it again Sunday.

“One of the guys we row with sent an email and said the semi-final is like the Wednesday of the workweek. And it’s kind of true. It’s really hard and it’s not like a fun race because you have to get through it to get to the fun part on the other side.”

She is grateful, and part of what made her nearly begin to cry was that gratitude and the fact that she was moving on with her life and would soon become a master’s rower just like them. So, she talked about them and what they have meant to her.

And the fact that as she faced the tough decision to continue rowing for another year after the Pandemic forced Tokyo2020 to delay for a year, but that this was it.

“Another guy I row with sent me an email and said this is it, which is kind of crazy, this is it, one more race. So today, I was thinking it’s hard, but enjoy every stroke, you don’t get to do this very often.

“Last one. I’ve done a lot of them.”

Then she detailed how — despite the lack of spectators and family and friends — some of those very master rowers who have pushed her along, who could not be in Tokyo have, in fact, been there. Social media and modern communication technology allowed them to be.

“I will say that family and friends have been great about reaching out. It would be a lot harder if we didn’t have the social media that we have. To be able to call on someone. Even though they are across the world, they are awake and ready.

“Right now, every time I read those emails from my guys, they’ve been with me through it since 2010. Now I have teammates who are female, and my age, but the master’s group has been there every step of the way, and that really is something.

“Not many people make it through three quads,” she said. “They’ve put in their time when they were elite rowers, and they’re putting it in again.”

Someone asked what happened when she started beating them in training.

“They got in doubles. Now [since she is rowing in a double with Wagner] they’re in quads. They still have the upper hand.”

There is something about an Olympics that brings out that kind of dedication and support, and the lack of fans in-person, in Tokyo, because of Covid does not eliminate that. Which is why Stone’s story was so poignant and touching.

There are a bunch of young men and women just like Stone here in Tokyo with the U.S. squad, seven crews of women, two crews of men, and they are all racing here this week.

Some are just beginning their journeys, and some are ending it here. Medal or not.

A few of them raced today. Megan Kalmoe is a four-time Olympian, a rare accomplishment. She and her young partner, Tracy Eisser, now a two-time Olympian raced the women’s pair and advanced to the semifinal of their event.

Michelle Sechser and her young partner, Molly Reckford did the same, overcoming a slight oar drop in their opening heat that forced them into a second chance, win, or forget the medal situation. Sechser will end her career finally reaching the dream goal of rowing in an Olympics. She still has finish lines ahead. Two, she is hoping.

Three-time Olympian Ellen Tomek and two-time Olympian Meghan O’Leary raced with two young teammates, and first-time Olymians Cicely Madden and Ali Rusher. They did not advance. Tomek has already said this is her last event. 

Kara Kohler, also a London Olympian and bronze medalist in the quad, raced today in the quarterfinal, advanced, and is looking very much like a contender to reach the podium.

All of them have these goals in common. They dedicated a significant portion of their lives to being here, and while there are no fans in the stands or family and friends here to support them, they all have a huge group of base support who has supported them every step of the way.

A Few Details About Those Other Races Today

Despite a morning of success for the United States in the women’s pair, lightweight double, double, and single, not every American crew that raced this morning was happy with the results.

The women’s quad finished last in the women’s quad repechage sending the crew to the B final. 

“Today we came up a little short and we were definitely disappointed. We had pretty high expectations coming into this regatta,” Tomek said. “We had some really good selection pieces and pieces as a crew and then just haven’t been able to put it together. As my third Olympics, I had pretty high expectations and the plan is that this is my last chance at a medal and didn’t even make it for a shot there, so just a lot of disappointment.”

Similarly, in the women’s four, the United States came up short placing fifth and will move on to the B final.   

More Schedule Changes Due to Weather

Having to run an Olympic Games in the middle of a pandemic that is still not under a semblance of control in Japan, laying down multiple layers of Covid mitigation and testing structures, the Tokyo2020 organizers are having to deal with Tropical Storm Nepartak.

On Monday afternoon, the World Rowing Executive Committee along with Olympic organizers made the decision to cancel Tuesday racing due to the approaching storm.

“Based on the weather forecasts received from the Tokyo2020 Olympic Games weather services, adverse weather is expected on Tuesday 27 July 2021 which would bring high winds and strong gusts creating unequal and potentially unrowable racing conditions,” reads the official communication. “The World Rowing Executive Committee has reviewed the options in Rule 63 and following consultations with IOC, Tokyo2020 Organising Committee and OBS have decided to make the following changes, which have now been approved.” 

The races will now be spread out as follows:

1. Final As and Final Bs for M4x and W4x have been moved from Tuesday 27 July to Wednesday 28 July. 

2. Semifinals for LM2x, LW2x, M2- and W2- have been moved from Tuesday 27 July to Wednesday 28 July. 

3. Semifinals CD for M1x and W1x, Final C for LM2x and LW2x have been moved from Tuesday 27 July to Thursday 29 July. 

4. Semifinals for W1x and M1x have been moved from Wednesday 28 July to Thursday 29 July. 

5. Finals D, E and F for W1x and M1x have been moved from Thursday 29 July to Friday 30 July.


* Rowing News Olympic coverage brought to you by Gemini.

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