STORY BY CHIP DAVIS | PHOTOS BY LISA WORTHY
The Netherlands led all nations at the 2023 World Rowing Championships in Belgrade, Serbia, in early September, winning six golds and three silvers. Great Britain also won six golds, as well as one silver and two bronze medals. Italy was third-best with three golds, four silvers, and a bronze.
U.S. National Team crews won five silver and two bronze medals, led by the strong performances of the women’s eight, lightweight double, and para PR3 mixed double. The men’s four and para four both raced to impressive silver-medal performances behind defending world-champion British crews.
The U.S. women’s eight found themselves in last place in the early part of the final. Romania had sprinted off the line at 49 strokes per minute but still trailed Australia, rowing a 40. Canada made a move across the 1,000 to inch into third, but by the end of the third 500, the U.S. women were level with the British and then sprinted through the Aussies to win silver behind the world-championship best-time setters Romania (6:01). Canada secured the last Olympic spot in the event by finishing fifth.
“It means so much,” said Charlotte Buck, stroke of the eight. “I’ve been in the eight the last two years, and it’s been so tough coming in fourth. We worked really, really hard to get out of that position. It’s amazing.”
The U.S. women’s double of Kristi Wagner and Sophia Vitas and lightweight single sculler Sophia Luwis won bronze medals.
“It feels good,” Vitas said. “It feels like we are reaping some of the rewards of putting so much work into it.”
Out of the medals but still impressive in the grand finals—and qualifying for the Olympics—were single sculler Kara Kohler and the new men’s pair of Evan Olsen and Bill Bender.
“They did a really great job,” said USRowing’s chief coach, Josy Verdonkschot.
Kara Kohler looked stronger and more confident throughout the year. “She had a solid preparation,” said Verdonkschot. “She’s definitely back to where she was around 2019” when she won worlds bronze in the single.
World Rowing data showed that Kohler had the highest stroke rate but slowest boat speed in the first 500. She moved up to fourth by halfway and, getting more run out of every stroke, pushed Australia’s Tara Rigney for third, behind the dominant defending world champion Karolien Florijn and silver medalist and defending Olympic champion Emma Twigg.
“It’s always great to be able to get in the medals. Kara Kohler is such an impressive athlete; she really kept me honest going through the middle K and kept pushing me on,” said Rigney, who thought this year’s worlds was faster than last year’s.
“It’s definitely a step up. I was coming down the course two points higher than I did last year. It’s more intense racing.”
Oli Zeidler’s victory in the men’s single marked Germany’s only win in the 29 events of these world championships. Germany’s women’s eight failed to qualify for the Olympics, and the women’s quad—winners of eight of the 12 Olympic golds ever awarded in the event—qualified only by winning the B final. The German men’s eight took the last Olympic qualifying spot by bumping the U.S. men by less than a second in the last race of the weeklong regatta.
“Having nine boats in the A final was for me personally really a good showing,” said USRowing’s Verdonkschot. “Then about the medals, I think four [Olympic-event] medals in a pre-Olympic year is OK. However, you can never enjoy it if we end up like that. I feel very sad for the guys that just missed out.”
The U.S. pair of Ali Rusher and Meghan Musnicki had to sprint their way into the final after a slow start in their semifinal and in so doing earned one of the 11 Olympic spots. In the final, no one had the speed to match the Dutch pair coached by Canadian Michelle Darville. Previously unbeaten in 2023, Australia finished second with a fast-closing Romania winning the bronze.
Similarly smooth and efficient, the Dutch four matched their pair with another gold medal for The Netherlands. They made it look easy, especially relative to the frantically high strokes of the Romanian crew, which sprinted in the high 40s to nab silver ahead of the favored British. The U.S. finished a length back in fourth—good enough for Olympic qualification and not without hope for an Olympic medal in Paris, but empty-handed for this year.
Great Britain’s Imogen Grant and Emily Craig forged an open-water lead by the halfway mark of the lightweight double final, despite the cross-headwind that compresses fields. The new U.S. combination of Mary Jones and Michelle Sechser moved into a clear second place in the third 500 to win silver. Romania outsprinted Canada’s Jill Moffatt and Jennifer Casson for the bronze.
With the top three within a second across the 1,000-meter mark, the men’s four was the race of the day on Saturday for the U.S. The fluidly-rowing British slipped away in the third 500, and the American quartet sprinted away from the Kiwis to win silver.
Overall, USRowing qualified 10 boats for Paris—eight boats for the 2024 Olympics, and two for the Paralympic Games. Before the regatta, at a training camp in Italy, Verdonkschot had expressed higher ambitions.
“The official target is eight. My ambition is nine, and I would be happy if it would be more than nine.”
The success of U.S. Paralympic crews was a highlight of the regatta for USRowing. The U.S. has a history of silver medals in the para four, but this year’s crew, featuring collegiate athletes, was new and young. The PR3 mixed double of Todd Vogt and Gemma Wollenschlaeger entered the regatta also with less experience than many of their competitors but performed well to win silver.
“The maximum expectation, we aimed for two qualified boats with one medal,” said Verdonkschot. “This is great, and it shows that there is enough talent.”
Having qualified for the Paralympics by virtue of making the A final, the new young U.S. para four led for a bit early in the race, crossed the 1,000-meter mark in second, and went on to win silver, a length behind the visibly smoother-rowing British crew.
Great Britain qualified four boats for the Paralympic Games regatta, and its program continues to have its way in Para rowing, having won half of all Paralympic rowing medals awarded since the category’s inception in 2008 and continuing its decade-long world-champion streak in the four. World Rowing’s British commentator Martin Cross stated the simple reason: “They’re full-time. They’ve got money to support their athletes.”
For USRowing, the results at this year’s worlds were an improvement over last year. While they met the modest goals for Paris qualification, however, they fell far short of the performance level of which the U.S. rowing community is capable—and has achieved in prior Olympic cycles. The U.S. has not won a senior world championship in any event since 2019 and had the worst Olympics ever at Tokyo 2020 in 2021, when they qualified nine crews.
It was even worse for Canada, winners of zero medals and whose men’s eight also failed to qualify for the Olympics. The U.S. was 11th on the medals table, behind No. 5 Switzerland (population 8.7 million), No. 6 Ireland, (5 million), and No. 7 Ukraine.
“It’s just what you want to see, and the women’s eight is back on the podium,” said Verdonkschot, who defended the progress of the U.S. National Team he was hired to lead relatively late in the current Olympic cycle.
“Qualifying 14 boats is not an objective. Being able at the Olympics to race in the final, to race for medals, that’s the objective.
“We had a good campaign this year, and I do think we made steps in the right direction. We got a men’s sweep medal. We got a women’s sweep medal. We got a lightweight medal and a sculling medal—that’s more or less every area of attention.
“And so we have to improve on that.”