PHOTOS AND STORY BY ED MORAN
TOKYO, Japan — Saying that racing on the Sea Forest Waterway has been anything short of an unpredictable roller coaster ride would be selling this whole week short.
There was one fairly tranquil day of heats last Friday and then one twist and turn after another including two days of canceled racing due to a tropical storm that forced eight days of scheduled racing to be jammed into six.
And, when racing resumed, the tropical system left in its wake an unstoppable wind that mixed with withering heat to tear up the course. It made racing more like surf racing, drove boats into buoy lines, and tested the skill and resilience of every athlete that had come to Tokyo to race in the year-long pandemic postponed, spectator-less Tokyo2020 Olympic Games.
Nearly a week after that day of somewhat tranquil heats, 10 sets of medals had been won and the schedule held one more day of racing. New champions were crowned and the medal podium filled with happy, satisfied rowers. And there have been surprises, disappointments, and overwhelming emotion enough for everyone, both present and at home watching.
Former Croatian scullers Martin and Valent Sinkovic won the pair, taking their second Olympic gold medal since their win in the double in 2016; the Italian women’s lightweight double won their country’s first-ever Olympic women’s gold medal, and Irish lightweight sculler Paul O’Donovan traded in the silver he won in Rio with his brother Gary in the lightweight men’s double for gold with new partner Fintan McCarthy.
But on the eve of the final day of racing at these Games, two defending world champions fell in the semifinals and failed to reach the medals. Single scullers Sanita Puspure of Ireland missed the chance to race for gold in the women’s first semifinal and Germany’s Oliver Zeidler followed her in the men’s second semi.
Crushing defeat was also dealt to the U.S. for the second consecutive day when Michelle Sechser and Molly Reckford raced the lightweight women’s double the length of the 2000-meter course, in a six bow balls across, boat battle that saw them finish in 6:48.54, yet place fifth behind Italy, France, The Netherlands, and Great Britain with a difference between them and the gold medalist of a mere second.
The day before, Sechser and Reckford were even faster, running the wind whipped course in 6:41.54.
“Today’s Olympic final was the hardest race of my rowing career so far,” said Sechser. “The conditions were wild, we were in an outside lane, and the six qualifying times from yesterday’s semis were within tenths of each other.
“As soon as Molly’s alarm went off this morning, I yelled we are going to do this today! I believe we can win a medal and I’m going to throttle for it, ok? Before the light turned green on the starting blocks I turned around to Molly and said ‘Courage.’
“I’m disappointed that we didn’t win a medal,” Sechser said. “But if anyone had told me in December 2020 that Molly and I were going to go 6:41 in our Olympic semifinal and then place within one second of an Olympic Medal, I don’t think I would have believed them.
“There were a lot of moments between February 2020 (when Molly and I first met each other) and now that we could have given in. I’m so proud of how far we’ve come and how courageously we fought for it.”
Similarly, U.S. women’s single sculler Kara Kohler, who for the past five years has poured heart and soul into atoning — to herself more than anyone else she has said throughout this Olympic cycle — for not making the 2016 Rio team after winning a bronze medal in London in the women’s quad, was left struggling to speak to reporters after finishing fourth in her semifinal.
“Coming in, it was anyone’s guess who could be in that A final contending for the medals,” Kohler said. “It’s a tough field and I’m proud I could be a part of it there and I’m very disappointed I can’t race for a medal tomorrow. I feel like I let people down, but that’s what racing is.
“It was a shaky start,” she said. “I struggled to get off the line cleanly this regatta. The crosswind has challenged me, and it challenged me again today. It was not a great place to start, so that was rough. But I definitely kept fighting and tried with everything I had, but it was a little short today. So I’m very disappointed. I did what I could. “
It has not been a good week for the U.S. squad overall so far.
In two finals Thursday, the women’s double and men’s four left without a podium visit. And today, the women’s pair of Megan Kalmoe and Tracy Eisser finished their Olympic campaign in fourth in the B final.
The U.S. has just two chances left to avoid leaving Tokyo without a medal. Both the men’s and women’s eights will race Friday, the final day and the last races of the regatta.
And while there was disappointment to go around Thursday, there were also triumph and celebration.
The ever joyful Croatian brothers Sinkovic did what they were expected to do and won their second Olympic medal to add to the one they won in the double in Rio in 2016.
And they did the unexpected and announced that they would never race the pair again, were taking some time off, and would likely return to the double in due time.
“Now the plan is to have a rest, we won’t row the pair anymore, that’s for sure,” said Valent. “Five years are enough, it’s been challenging especially for scullers, we went from down to up to down, we are satisfied with everything and we can close it.
“Probably for the first year we are going in the double but we will see. We were never as satisfied with the pair as with the double – I don’t think we ever reached the level of (New Zealand pair rowing legends) Murray and Bond. They are still the best ever.”
It was tight racing in that event as well with Romania and Denmark claiming second and third.
In the women’s pair, New Zealand’s Grace Pendergast and Kerri Gowler took gold in the first of their two medal finals of this week. They will race again tomorrow in the women’s eight final.
“We will be back on in the eight, just to practice for tomorrow. The other girls are so excited, so it will be another form of celebration for us.”
They were followed in second by Vasilisa Stepanova and Elena Oriabinskaia racing as ROC because of Russia’s participation ban for doping violations. Canada’s Caileigh Filmer and Hillary Janssens were third.
When the day switched to the lightweights, the racing was another example of why this event will be a loss to the rowing community when it is removed from the program following the Paris 2024 Games.
All 12 crews in both events blazed through the winds, chop, and waves, and fought endlessly to the line.
Paul O’Donovan, whose candor and humor with his brother Gary after the Rio Games made them Irish pop stars that drew comparisons to the early Beatles and ignited a rowing reconnaissance in Ireland that could be credited for their countries six entries in these Olympics, and their second medal — the women’s four took bronze Thursday — was as deadpan as ever in his postrace remarks.
His humor was matched only by the fierceness with which he and McCarthy rowed this week.
Asked if he was happy winning gold and upping the take from Rio, O’Donovan leaned forward on the metal press pen fencing and said:
“To be honest, you don’t feel much about, or think much about it. People keep asking ‘has it sank in yet?’ But I don’t think they ever do really. And sure, we do try to be happy all the time so winning gives you a bit of a boost, alright sure, but I don’t think we’re going to explode with excitement and happiness after it.’
And asked how they would celebrate, McCarthy said he was headed to the dining hall. “We have been having to weigh in all week, so it’ll be nice to go there and not have to keep an eye on what we’re eating.”
O’Donovan added, if they were back home, they would likely keep their neighbors awake, but said, “I’d say there’s not much celebrating to do out in Japan like we have to be careful with the Covid, you know, unfortunately. Otherwise, we’d go all out here. Fortunately for the Japanese, I don’t think that will be happening this year.”
But there was no mistaking the pride both shared when they talked about standing together on the podium during the playing of Amhrán na bhFiann, the Irish national anthem.
“Just a lot of pride, really,” said McCarthy about being there. “I am glad to have done it for everyone at home.’
It was the same for Valentina Rodini and Federica Cesarini, who stood tall, shoulder to shoulder and sang along with the playing of Il Canto degli Italiani, their country’s song.
“It’s a great feeling,” said Cesarini, 24, told Reuters. “It is difficult to describe, but we wanted it, we searched for it and finally we have it.”