STORY AND PHOTOS BY ED MORAN
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TOKYO, JAPAN – Israeli Paralympic single sculler Moran Samuel was preparing to rest Saturday after finishing first in her opening heat at the Tokyo2020 Paralympic Games Friday morning.
That was until later in the afternoon when she was notified that regatta officials had flagged an adjustment she had made in her PR1 singles’ fixed seat. World Rowing rules state that there can be no movement in a para singles’ seat, and the backrest on Samuel’s boat was observed to have the ability to be flexible and move.
After a hearing Friday afternoon, World Rowing relegated the 2016 bronze medalist to last place and placed her in an outside lane in the second of the PR1 women’s repechage Saturday morning.
It was not something Samuel was expecting or was prepared for. But without giving much thought to the problem other than fix the seat and get it inspected and approved for competition, Samuel went back to the start line on the Sea Forrest Waterway Paralympic racecourse and just did her race over again—winning for the second time—and advancing into the Sunday final without further question.
“In terms of my mental abilities, I think that there’s an opportunity to prepare for everything and I think that one of the most important qualities of athletes is to be able to put aside whatever is irrelevant is not going to help you perform,” Samuel said.
“So, in life and also in sport, I always try to look forward and put the past behind me. When it was announced that I cannot compete in the way I competed in the last few, and that I need to do some fixing of the chair, I accepted it for what it was, and I just have to put it behind and concentrate on what I came here to do.
“My goals and my performance,” she said. “I’m sure that maybe in 48 hours all the feelings will come. But for now, I’m just focused on my mission.”
Samuel was among 12 crews that moved from the Saturday reps and into the finals, in what will be the complete conclusion of the rowing events of Tokyo2020. Races were contested in two heats each of the men’s and women’s singles, the mixed doubles, and the coxed mixed fours.
The U.S. had three crews in the hunt Saturday, but none advanced into a medal round race and will instead contend for places 8 through 12 in the B finals Sunday morning.
As it has been for both the Olympic and Paralympic rowing events the conditions consisted of cross winds early, head winds late, and blistering heat and humidity. But it did nothing to quell the level of competition with hard-fought racing the length of the 2000-meter course.
In the case of Samuel’s heat, she was clearly in control from the start, leaving the fight to be among the women behind her for the second advancing spot. “It was a little bit easier than yesterday in terms of conditions. The wind was not as strong as it was yesterday so for me it was easier to row and just prepare myself for tomorrow. I feel good with the result, of course.”
Advancing second in that heat was 53-year-old Sylvia Pille-Steppat of Germany, a former marathon runner who was afflicted at 35 with multiple sclerosis. After losing the use of her legs, Pille-Steppat turned to rowing and has been chasing a dream of racing in the Paralympics since. This is her first Game after just missing out on qualification in 2016.
“To compete at a Paralympics is one of my biggest dreams,” Pille-Steppat said in 2018. “So, I was very upset when I missed the qualification for Rio although it was very close. I was really hoping to compete at Rio because I thought it was my last chance to do it as I have a progressive disease. But I continued training and even got faster.”
“It was good,” Pille-Steppat said about Saturday’s racing. “I was aiming to reach final-A so I’m quite happy. It was fine today. The conditions were better, and the wind was not so strong, so it was okay. I knew Israel was stronger than me, so she was first, and to keep in second place was good,” she said.
“I hope I get some rest today and I go to sleep very early so I’m fresh tomorrow. It’s a new day and a new chance, a new race.”
In the women’s single heat that led the day, Nathalie Benoit of France led off the start of the first, and within about 300 meters she had a clear lead, and by 500 meters, had open water over second-place Claudia Cicero Sabino of Brazil. The two easily landed the two finals spots available. Benoit set a new Paralympic best time in the process with a time of 10:56.23.
Rowing that rep for the U.S. was Hallie Smith, who finished fourth and will row the B final Sunday.
“I would have liked to make the A final, but I felt I rowed a better race today than yesterday and I’m looking forward to a good competition tomorrow,” Smith said.
For the men’s PR1 single, Erik Horrie, made his mark and won his repechage handily and landed a Paralympic best time of 9:20.61.
Horrie was defeated in the heat yesterday by Rene Campos Pereira but will have a chance to race the Brazilian again tomorrow.
The two will be joined by Shmuel Daniel, Benjamin Pritchard, Javier Munoz Reja, and Roman Polianskyi. Mahesh Priyamal Jayakody, who is the first-ever Paralympic rower at the Games for Sri Lanka, rounded out the second repechage in sixth.
Finishing in fourth was U.S. men’s sculler Blake Haxton, who will row in the B final, take a short break and then report back to the Sea Forrest Waterway to compete in the Paralympic Canoe Sprints.
“It never feels good to get beat, and nobody comes to the Paralympics with dreams of the B final, but all in all I rowed a pretty good piece and did about all I could out there,” Haxton said. “I don’t think there is anything I could’ve done that would have put me in contention, and am satisfied with the work I’ve put in to make it this far.”
In the first of two mixed doubles reps, it was the Dutch who led for most of the race and, in the end, won.
But the excitement in the race came from a nasty boat-stopping crab from the Polish crew which opened the door for the Australians to take briefly take the second-place spot. Poland wouldn’t be outdone, however, and finished the race in second place and earning a spot in the A final, overcoming the setback.
“We have to work for every stroke,” said Dutch bow Annika van der Meer. “And there are no guarantees for anyone in the final tomorrow. Everyone is going to go in there and want to win a medal. Everyone is going to work for it.”
In the second repechage, Ukraine and Italy took the remaining two finals spots. The U.S. entry of Laura Goodkind and Russell Gernaat finished fourth and will row in Sunday’s B final.
“Actually, it was a really good race,” said Gernaat. “I think one of the things that we’re happy about is some of those boats, like the Ukraine and Brazil, beat us in Austria at the world championships in 2019, and today it wasn’t quite that gap.
“We put down a very reasonable time on the course in the headwind and we feel like, ultimately, it could have been a little bit better, but still just really happy with how it all turned out,” he said.
“It’s great to be racing against other nations rather than our coach’s imagination and making up boats,” Goodkind added. “To have that experience live and in-person and have these Games still being held is really cool.”
In the first mixed coxed four repechage, Italy and Australia battled it out down the course with Italy leading until about the 1,750-meter mark when the Australians began sprinting and powered through the Italians.
“It felt really good,” said coxswain Renae Domaschenz. “We’re really pleased. Being able to execute our plan, being able to read the conditions well, be patient, and find the right moment to just squeeze out a little bit more than we did yesterday.
“We haven’t spent much time together this year, so our motivation is to, each day, get a little bit stronger, a little bit cleaner and I feel like we’re doing that as a crew which is awesome. “Find a little bit more speed, be a little bit stronger, a little bit cleaner. In the A final anything can happen. Let’s give it a good Aussie crack.”
In the second repechage, the French crew walked away with the first-place finish while Israel defeated the crew from Ukraine in the last 250 meters to take the second qualifying spot.