STORY AND PHOTOS BY ED MORAN
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TOKYO, Japan — For most of the last two years, the men and women of the United States training centers have focused on themselves — on getting stronger, improving technique, and not wondering about what they would be like together racing against international competition.
There was no need. There has been nowhere to race since Covid-19 caused the cancelation of every regatta they could go to. And they were not alone. Just about every national rowing team around the world was doing the same thing.
So, they rowed in singles, lifted weights, did rowing machine workouts, and when they could get into team boats, they rowed in multiple lineups, and competed on the water against each other, doing anything to keep the work fresh and exciting.
And when the postponed 2020 Tokyo Olympics became the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, and racing on the Sea Forest Waterway at the Olympic rowing venue began Friday, they found the answers to what they could be together.
The results have been impressive so far.
The women’s eight won their heat and advanced directly into the final, setting up a possible fourth consecutive Olympic victory.
The men’s four jumped into a lead off the line and held the front until a more experienced Australian crew caught up and passed them, but they still advanced to the final in second.
And the men’s eight threw a scare into the defending world champion German eight and nearly pulled off a direct advancement in a heat that only offered a single slot to the final.
It was all just like they had all been racing together for the last two seasons, even though all three crews are comprised of mostly young, first-time Olympians. Between the three boats, there are only four returning Olympians.
“It was so much fun to actually race internationally,” said Brooke Mooney, one of those first-time Olympians. “It’s been almost two years for myself, and I was so excited to line up on the line and race down with these ladies. I was just thinking look at the person in front of me, and listen to (coxswain) Katelin’s voice, and just do that all the way down the racecourse.”
The performances came with what could have been stress-inducing schedule changes that might have left them off-kilter. With a Monday storm predicted to make racing impossible, the men’s and women’s eights heats were moved up a full day and the racing schedule was rearranged to accommodate all the scheduled Monday events.
It didn’t bother them.
In the jam-packed day, five U.S. crews raced. Two advanced including the men’s four and women’s eight. The women’s four and pair, and lightweight women’s double also raced but missed advancing. All three will row in Sunday reps.
Starting the day for the U.S. were Megan Kalmoe and Tracy Eisser who finished fourth in their pair heat.
They were followed by Michelle Sechser and Molly Reckford in the women’s light double. Sechser and Reckford, fell into fourth off the line, fought their way into third, but missed advancing.
“It was an awesome race to be in,” Reckford said. “I think that is one of the reasons that the lightweight boats are so exciting is because you trade bow-balls all the time and you’ll get two, three, four boats across the line within two seconds of each other,” she said.
“Being able to trade seats, being able to respond, I think that was one of the most exciting parts of the race for me in the boat was looking across, realizing we were down, calling a move, and [then] moving. When the boat responds like that, it’s really exciting and really a good sign.”
The next up was the women’s four, who finished fourth and also missed advancing.
The very next event was the men’s four, one of those young and relatively untested lineups that were a mystery until Saturday, when they blasted into the lead and forced the Australian crew to chase them into the last 500 meters.
While they could not hold the lead, they were second and that was more than enough to gain the final.
“We came well prepared for the wind, for the heat, for the water, and then kind of knowing the opponent, knowing the kind of fingerprint of each other boats and what we had to do to get that top two spot, which was obviously the goal,” said Clark Dean. “And we got it. We were ready for anything.”
While the men’s eight did not advance, they served notice that they have the capacity to make the final and contend for a medal. The early race favorites were the Germans. But the U.S. crew inched into the lead in the first 500 meters and extended it into the final 500.
The German’s managed to catch and pass them in the final quarter and forced the U.S. into the Wednesday repechage. But not before they made a statement.
“I thought it was a strong piece,” said Austin Hack, the only returning Olympian in the crew. “We have a pretty young lineup, so I think to run neck-and-neck with the best in the world from the last world championships for almost all that race was a pretty impressive effort. I think we’re looking to just sharpen up that last few percent for the next piece,” he said.
“We’ll just dial in a few more training sessions. I’m sure Coach [Mike] Teti will have some words of wisdom and some things to focus on that will make up that small margin we have to go.”
When each of those crews was asked if the schedule change had any effect on them, the answer was no.
“That’s easy for us,” said Liam Corrigan. “We practice during pretty unpredictable times. Where we row, there’s current and wind, so we’ll change our practices to adjust to all of that. So a day here, a day there, we can race whenever they tell us to.”
It is the same for the women’s eight. For two years, the crews have been adjusting to changes, big and small.
That crew has two returning Olympians, coxswain Katelin Guregian, who won gold in Rio, and Meghan Musnicki, who has been in the crew for both the London and Rio wins. Asked what she tells the younger member of the crew, Musnicki answered, just be present and enjoy the experience.
“These women are young, and it’s like watching them grow into their feet. Basically, it’s like watching a Saint Bernard puppy learn to walk and find that, wow, I am that strong and powerful and I can be even more strong and powerful. And it’s so exciting to watch it and experience it and to get to be a part of it” she said.
“I was a new athlete years, and years, and years ago, and it’s fun to watch the new younger girls come up and just begin to scratch the surface of their potential. It’s just awesome.
“It’s kind of just being in the present moment, right. We have never lined up in any lineup in two years to race someone side by side. So, it’s a really exciting opportunity and I tell them what I remind myself, be present for every moment, every stroke. It’s an incredible opportunity and we are so grateful to be here because who knew. A year ago, we didn’t think this was going to happen.”