STORY AND PHOTOS BY ED MORAN
TOKYO, JAPAN – Coming into the final day of racing at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, a few storylines highlighted before and during the preliminary racing were set up to unfold in the Sunday finals.
Three of the biggest were the potential showdowns between some of the most accomplished crews in the regatta.
Another gold medal race between men’s single scullers Roman Polianskyi of Ukraine and Erik Horrie of Australia, the 10-year streak the British mixed coxed four brought with them to the Sea Forest Waterway and the challenge that had been mounted against them by the U.S. four for the last six years, and, finally, the British mixed double’s attempt to repeat as Paralympic champions were most prominent among them.
In the end, it was the reigning champions that prevailed in a show of force. The British won both their events, and the U.S. added another silver to the pile they have amassed since the first time the two crews met at the 2014 World Rowing Championships in Amsterdam.
Polianskyi held onto his crown and the U.K. double, dominant on the Paralympic scene since 2015, added a second consecutive gold medal to their trophy case.
“That’s 11 years unbeaten now for us, incredibly tough.” said James Fox, the only returning member of the 2016 PR3 mixed coxed four championship boat. “We’re incredibly tough on ourselves. We’re always pushing the standards.
“People always talk complacency with us, and it’s just not an option for us,” he said. “We’re tough on ourselves, we’re always pushing the pace. That’s part of the reason we can go out and do pieces like that.
“We’re just so happy to be a part of this. We’ve got a bit of momentum with the Paralympic four starting in 2010, and this goes out to all our ancestors I guess,” Fox said noting the streak started at the 2010 World Rowing Championships in New Zealand and carried through the London Games, then Rio, and now this current cycle.
“We’re talking London Paralympics, Rio, my crewmates there, and now we’re carrying it on. Now, may it last.”
The U.S. crew hung with the British off the start and through the first 500 meters, but the Brits began inching away, eventually compiling an open water lead and finishing more than 10 seconds ahead with a time of 7:09.08 to the United States’ 7:20.13.
While it was another silver medal for the American squad, there were no signs of regret.
“Yeah, I think we’re really happy with our performance,” said John Tanguay. “Being the only U.S. rowing Olympic or Paralympic team to medal. I’d say it’s an accomplishment in itself and we represented our country well,” he said.
“It feels good,” said Dani Hansen, who has been part of the silver streak and the only returning 2016 Paralympian in the crew. “It’s an accomplishment to bring back a medal for the U.S. We’re really pumped. We put a lot into it and we’re happy that we came out like this. It’s awesome.
“I mean, I think the one thing you can do when you come here, despite the past, is to put everything you can on the water,” she said. “And if you’re capable of doing that, which is already difficult then you can feel proud of yourself and I think all of us did that today. I’m really proud of us as a team, and I think we did really well.”
Rowing in the final before the fours was the British PR2 mixed double of Lauren Rowles and Laurence Whiteley. They are the defending world and Paralympic champions who have dominated the event since 2015. The Dutch and Chinese fought through to the final 500 meters in first and second, while the British lagged behind in third from the start, but it was the Brits who pushed through and won.
Asked later about falling behind at the start Rowles and Whiteley just shrugged it off and suggested it was part of their race plan.
“So it was a case of ‘okay, let them go. Let them race each other, then,” Whiteley said. “We’re just going to sit and do our own thing and trust it’ll come back and it did.
“It can be a very difficult thing to do so big props to Lauren for keeping the rhythm, keeping the boat where it needed to be. We knew they’d be quick out the blocks and that’s okay,” he said.
Added Rowles: “It’s not about who leads in the first 1,500-meters, to the 1,900-meters, it was about who came in first, and that was always going to be us, so we just kept building in pace.
“You know, like to the 500-meters people were probably getting a little nervous at home,” she said. “Sorry for getting everyone’s nerves up but we knew if we built through we were just going to get stronger and stronger through that field.”
While some of the biggest pre-race drama was centered on those two events, the first two finals of the morning were equally intriguing.
Birgit Skarstein of Norway has been the gold standard in the women’s PR1 single, especially since the event was changed from a 1000-meter race to a 2000-meter race, but she had not won a Paralympic medal and finished fourth in Rio.
Her biggest challenge was going to come from Israel’s Moran Samuel, who is always a favorite to reach the podium and holds a bronze medal from 2016. Samuel won her first heat, but was relegated to the rep because of an equipment infraction and had to race an extra day.
But she held close to Skarstein through half of the race before the Norwegian pulled away and won with an open water lead. Nathalie Benoit of France took bronze.
While it was not a gold medal, Samuel was later quoted saying in a radio interview that she had promised her two children that she was going to bring home a medal.
“I promised my children that mom would be coming home with a medal,” Samuel said. “It was a tough morning in the rowing site, with winds that wanted to prevent us from breaking a world record, but it was a good race with a good result.”
In the men’s single, the row-off was bound to be between Horrie and Polianskyi. The Ukraine sculler beat Horrie in Rio, but Horrie won both the 2017 and 2018 World Rowing Championships. Polianskyi, returned the favor in 2019 and won in Austria at the World Rowing Championships.
But the two had not rowed against each other until now.
Polianskyi led from the start and finished with an open water lead. But the biggest fight in the final was for silver between Horrie and Brazil’s Rene Campos Pereira.
Horrie held and reached the line first earning a silver medal but Campos Pereira held third and made the podium with bronze. Horrie later said that, like Samuel, he was planning on bringing his medal home to his children.
“I’ve got the three kids and now there’s a silver each,” Horrie was quoted saying in a news report. “This one means a little bit more to me because it’s my son’s [Luigi] ninth birthday today. “He was born when I was in London at my first Paralympics, so this one certainly means a lot. I hope this medal will show him what the sacrifice is all for, and hopefully shows the kids never to give up and to believe in yourself,” Horrie said.
For the three American crews in the B finals, it was tenth overall across the board.
In the opening race of the final day of the Games, Hallie Smith finished fourth in her final of the women’s PR1 single with a time of 13:55.87. Kim Sejeong of the Republic of Korea took the first place position in the event finishing seventh overall 1:37.04 ahead of Smith.
It was a similar case for United States two-sport Paralympian Blake Haxton who also finished fourth in the men’s PR1 single earning the tenth overall slot for the regatta. Haxton will race in the VL2 Paracanoe event in Tokyo next week.
For the PR2 mixed double entry of Russell Gernaat and Laura Goodkind, they too kept in line with Haxton and Smith and placed fourth in their B final finishing tenth overall.
“It’s a packed field, a lot of competition,” said Gernaat. “Brazil and Australia beat us by like 20 seconds [at the 2019 world championships], but not today, not yesterday. We’ve really closed that gap. So I feel good about our racing overall, we’ve come a long way and still looking for more improvement. I definitely want to go to France [for the 2024 Paralympic Games] and see if we can put a bid in for a medal.”