STORY AND PHOTOS BY ED MORAN
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TOKYO, JAPAN – The battle between Britain and the United States PR3 mixed coxed fours picked up exactly where it left off five years ago in Rio—with the two crews establishing themselves as the boats to beat to the podium come finals day at the Tokyo Paralympics Sunday.
Racing in separate heats Friday, the U.S. and the U.K. crews finished ahead of the field by significant margins, trading Paralympic Games’ best times along the way. Rowing in the first heat, the U.S. finished first and set the new time standard for the Paralympic event, clocking in with a 7:19.97.
Not to disappoint expectations that the U.S. and the Brits will be vying for the title once again, the British four also won their heat and upped the U.S. time with a 7:09.44 – a new, new best time.
The U.S. four was one of four American crews that began their Tokyo2020 medal quest on the first day of racing on the Sea Forest Waterway Paralympic rowing venue Friday.
In addition to the mixed coxed four, the U.S. had athletes competing in the men’s and women’s singles and the mixed double. Of those crews, only the four advanced directly to the Sunday final.
The remaining three crews will race Saturday in the reps and attempt to gain a slot in the Sunday medal races.
“It’s encouraging to go out and put a good speed down,” said Charley Nordin, who is rowing in three-seat in the four. “We’re looking forward to the final. I think we’re pretty happy with how things went and we’re just going to stay focused, stay relaxed.
“I think it went well,” he said. “It’s a dream come true to have the opportunity to race at the Paralympics. There were a lot of fast crews out there and it was an honor to get to race against them and show our best.”
For the British, there is more than just a Paralympic title to defend. The U.K.’s para four has not been defeated in 11 years in world championship and Paralympic racing.
“The world championships we do are important, we train for them every year, and we peak for them,” said James Fox, the only returning Paralympian in the crew. “But there is nothing like the Paralympic Games, and if we get three world championships over the last four years and not get that final one, it would have felt like a loss.
“It’s ours to win,” he said. “If we win here on Sunday, it will be 11-years being unbeaten in this four. We’ve got a target on our back, we can’t ignore that. But it’s ours to win.”
Starting the day was women’s single sculler Hallie Smith, who finished in sixth in her heat and will race again Saturday. “Competing again almost felt like getting back to normal,” Smith said.
“I usually race these women once a year, so not doing so last year added to how wrong things felt. It was really great to race again after all this time,” she said. Rowing in her heat and winning the only direct slot to the finals was defending champion Birgit Skarstein, of Norway.
“You never think that you can really relax, but I figured at 1,000 meters I could take down the stroke rate,” Skarstein said. “You always have to be aware that anything can happen, and the race is never finished until you cross the finish line.”
Skarstein will get the chance to rest and recover Saturday while the rest of the field sorts itself out. In the second heat, 2016 bronze medalist Moran Samuel of Israel finished in first place. Hours later World Rowing announced that she has been relegated to last place in the heat and she will now have to row in the reps in order to reach the final.
In its official communication, World Rowing noted that race officials noticed that Samuel’s boat had “movement in the backrest of the seat,” and ruled it was an innovation to her equipment that had not been reported or inspected to determine if it was in line with rules governing PR1 fixed seat requirement.
Samuel has been notified that the seat must be altered before racing Saturday. In her place, second-place finisher Anna Sheremet of Ukraine was advanced to the Sunday final.
Next to race was men’s single sculler and 2016 Paralympian Blake Haxton. Haxton went up against defending 2016 champion Roman Polianskyi, who won and advanced into the final. Haxton will attempt to advance into the final from the rep Saturday.
“Never a great feeling to wind up fifth in the heat, but not a terrible row overall,” said Haxton. “We’ll be back in the rep tomorrow. So top to bottom, not a bad day.”
Going to the line for the U.S. after Haxton was the PR2 mixed double with Russell Gernaat and Laura Goodkind. The U.S. pair finished fifth and will also hope to advance through the Saturday reps.
“We had a plan to go out early and go to the bridge and see where everyone was sitting,” said Gernaat. “We were in the heat with Great Britain, we knew that they’re the fastest boat out there.”
“We’ve got a big race tomorrow because we want to try and make the A final and we’re looking forward to being able to do that—squeeze our way in there,” Gernaat said.
Racing begins at 9:30 a.m. JST on the Sea Forest Waterway Saturday.
Here are some photos from Friday’s heats: