The World Championships part one: the single sculls
The World Championships are always the highlight of any season, the culmination of the efforts for thousands of athletes from across the rowing world. But, the world Championships in the year before an Olympics assume extra special significance, they offer countries the first (and main) opportunity to qualify boats for the Olympic regatta. Get a spot now and you can focus on preparing for Tokyo, get it wrong and there are precious few chances left to grab the remaining places. So, as a result you’ll see crews finishing 5th, 6thor even 11thcelebrating like they’ve won a medal, and for those who do reach the podium, the medal is almost something of a bonus (at least in the Olympic events). This year’s World Championships are being held on the Linz-Ottensheim course in Austria. It last hosted a FISA event in 2018 when it played host to the 2ndWorld Rowing Cup.
This year’s Worlds has attracted a huge entry with over 1200 athletes from 80 nations including crews from Benin, Qatar, Iran and Trinidad & Tobago. So, without further ado, here’s my take on the ones to watch in each boat class….
Olympic qualifying places: 9
2018 champion: Kjetil Borch (Norway)
Reigning champion, Kjetil Borch from Norway is back to defend his title. But he’s not had the best of seasons, injury to his knee at the start of the season meant he was not fully race fit and that was reflected in a 9thplace finish at the European Championships. However, as the season has progressed he’s been getting back up to speed culminating in a 2ndplace at the final World Cup.
The breakout performance this season has come from Sverri Nielsen of Denmark. Prior to this season he’d never won a medal and had only a couple of World Cup A-Final appearances to his name and in 2018 he finished 7that the World Championships. All that changed this season. He opened with an excellent 4thplace at the European Championships and then won gold at both the Poznan and Rotterdam World Cups, making him the on-form sculler of the season.
The athlete who was, perhaps, expected to dominate this season is Ollie Zeidler of Germany. He won medals throughout his debut World Cup season in 2018 and reached the A-Final at the World Championships. 2019 looked good with a win at the European Championships and at Henley, but he slipped back to 5that the Poznan World Cup and then in Rotterdam really struggled in the wind and bumpy water, ending up 13thoverall – and he was not happy about it
If the conditions are benign in Linz he will be a major contender. But, with Tokyo looking like it could provide “challenging” conditions, the big German needs to get used to racing on rough water and in strong winds.
Ondrej Synek of the Czech Republic is the most experienced member of the field. He’s been competing internationally since 2001 and 2019 marks his 15thseason in the single scull. He’s looking to qualify for his 5thOlympic Games. He’s also the most decorated athlete in the event with five world Championship titles to his credit as well as a further seven silver and bronze world Championship medals and three Olympic medals. Last season he took silver behind Borch and so far this season he’s not raced much with a 6thplace at the European Championships and a 4that the Rotterdam World Cup. Should he miss the podium in Linz, it will be the first time he’s failed to win a medal in his career in the M1X.
Another sculler who hasn’t quite delivered this season as expected, is Robbie Manson of New Zealand. He’s the holder of the World Best Time and won the 2ndand 3rdWorld Cups last year before slipping to 5that the World Championships. During the New Zealand summer season he beat Olympic Champion, Mahe Drysdale, for the M1X spot, but so far this season his results have been disappointing, a 7thplace in Poznan was followed up by 5that Rotterdam. As a single sculler he’s never finished higher than 5that the World Championships, whilst a similar result in Linz will at least guarantee the boat for Tokyo, questions will still be asked about who will be the best bet to defend the title won by Mahe Drysdale in Rio?
Continuing the theme of scullers underperforming is Damir Martin of Croatia. The Olympic silver medallist struggled throughout 2017 and 2018. 2019 has, so far, shown some signs of his 2016 speed. Gold in Plovdiv was followed by 5that the Europeans and then bronze at the Rotterdam World Cup (albeit over 6 seconds behind Borch in silver). I think Martin’s focus will be on securing an A-final placing and ensuring his place on the plane to Tokyo.
Cuba’s Angel Fournier Rodriguez is one of the most enigmatic athletes on the circuit, often entering an event but then withdrawing. When he does race he’s usually at the sharp end of things. Silver at the Worlds in 2017 was followed by A-final appearances at both the 1stand 2nd2018 World Cups. He missed the 2018 Worlds and has only raced once so far this season taking a bronze medal in Poznan.
Tom Barras, the 2017 bronze medallist, won the selection battle for the Great Britain M1X slot after outperforming the 2018 European bronze medallist Harry Leask. Barras had a slightly frustrating 2018 season as part of the GB M4X winning gold at the 1stand 3rdWorld Cups but missing the A-Final at the 2ndWorld Cup and again at the World Championships. He moved back into the single at the start of the 2019 season and after a disappointing 7that the Europeans he produced a strong performance in Poznan to finish 4th. He was another athlete who struggled with the conditions at Rotterdam and found himself back in the C-Final. If he performs to his ability then qualification for Tokyo should be straightforward and he could even challenge for a medal.
Another sculler who’s had an “up-and-down” couple of years is Mindaugus Griskonis of Lithuania. He’s aiming to qualify for his fourth Olympic Games and won a silver medal in the M2X in Rio. He’s also got a number of European and World Championship medals to his credit. He started 2018 with a 20thplace at the Belgrade World Cup, but ended it taking bronze at the World Championships in Florida. 2019 hasn’t been the best of seasons so far, he’s raced twice, with a 16thplace at the Europeans and 8that the Poznan World Cup. He will need to recover his form of 2018 or may miss out on qualification this year.
If Griskonis is having a disappointing year, the same can’t be said of Pilip Pavukou of Belarus. Heading into the 2019 season his best performance had been a 5thplace in the M2X at the 2017 Lucerne World Cup. However, for 2019 he’s moved into the M1X and has emerged as a serious contender. He won silver at both the first and 2ndWorld Cups and also finished on the podium at the European Championships.
Poland’s Natan Wegrzycki-Szymczyk finished 7that the Rio Olympics, and has spent the last few years balancing racing the single scull internationally with racing in the M8 for the University of California, Berkeley. After graduating from Cal in 2018 he joined Cambridge University and stroked the winning Blue Boat in the 2019 University Boat Race. Now with his Cambridge studies completed his focus can return to the challenge of qualifying for Tokyo. He raced at the Europeans finishing 13thbut has gradually improved throughout the rest of the season, taking 9thin Poznan and 6thin Rotterdam. A medal in Linz is probably a bit of a stretch, but he will be targeting an A-Final place to secure his spot.
It’s a mark of the strength of the single scull field that of the 11 world class scullers mentioned above, 2 of them will miss out on Olympic qualification.
It’s excellent to see the depth of the field in this event, with scullers from the Bahamas (former Cambridge University Boat Club President, Dara Alizadeh), Benin, India, Nigeria, Paraguay and Vanuatu.
So, who do I think will take the honours? If conditions are favourable I could see Ziedler backing up his European victory with the World title. Borch in silver with Nielsen of Denmark in bronze. I’ll also go out on a limb and try and predict the Olympic qualifiers (in no particular order).. GER, NOR, DEN, NZL, CZE, BLR, CUB, GBR, CRO
Olympic qualifying places: 9
2018 champion: Sanita Puspure (Ireland)
This is a ridiculously talented field, with no fewer than five W1X World Champions taking part, and some very experienced scullers and world championship medallists are going to miss out on the all-important Olympic qualifying places.
Defending champion, Sanita Puspure of Ireland, missed the entire World Cup season through a mixture of illness and funding constraints. Her one appearance was at the European Championships where she took gold. 2018 was a massive “break-though” year for the 37 year old. Prior to the 2018 season her best results had been a couple of European Championship bronze medals, but 2018 saw her pick up 2 World Cup silver medals before taking the big one at the World Championships. The gold medal at the 2019 Europeans showed that the 2018 performances weren’t a “fluke” as she beat Jeannine Gmelin, the 2017 World Champion, by 1 second.
If 2018 was Puspure’s “Break-Through” season, then 2017 belonged to Jeannine Gmelin of Switzerland. After finishing 5that the Rio Olympics, Gmelin worked with British coach Robin Dowell and totally dominated the 2017 season, going unbeaten throughout 2017 and into 2018. However, disagreements between the Swiss team management and her coach disrupted her preparation for the World Championships and almost led to her quitting the team. But, heading into 2019 she has an agreement with the Swiss team to allow her to continue to be coached by Dowell, and she’s taken silver medals at both the European Championships and the Rotterdam World Cup.
The big news in this event for 2019 has been the return to competition of New Zealand’s Emma Twigg. The 2014 World Champion took time away from the sport after finishing 4that the Rio Olympics, but she’s back for 2019 and has made an instant impact. The New Zealand team raced at both the 2ndand 3rdWorld Cups, with Twigg taking the gold medal both times. She also won her 2ndPrincess Royal title at Henley Royal Regatta (10 years after winning her first). She will be heading into Linz as the favourite to take the title.
One of the most experienced competitors in the field is Mirka Knapkova Topinkova of the Czech Republic. She’s been a fixture of the W1X scene since making her senior debut in 2001. She was the 2011 World Champion and the 2012 Olympic Champion and is looking to qualify for her 5thOlympics. She took a year out after Rio and had a family, but she returned in 2018 and raced in the W4X (the first time she’d raced in that boat class) ending 14that the World championships. For 2019 she’s back in her usual W1X and is back to medal-winning ways, taking bronze at the Plovdiv World Cup and another bronze at the European Championships. She also raced at the Rotterdam World Cup where she reached the A-Final. She’s perhaps not quite the force she has been in the past, but she should be able to secure qualification for Tokyo.
Whilst Knapkova is one the most experienced athletes in the field, she’s a mere novice compared to Ekaterina Karsten of Belarus. The 47 year-old is striving to qualify for an unprecedented eighth Olympic Games. She made her international debut before most of her competition were out of nappies. Her longevity is quite remarkable, and there is no-one in World Rowing as experienced as she is. A few stats – Olympic gold in Atlanta and Sydney, with silver in Athens and bronze in Barcelona and Beijing, 6 World Championship gold medals, 4 silvers and 6 bronze. She’ll certainly have huge support in her efforts to secure a top 9 finish. She may no longer be challenging the top of the podium, but her results in 2018 and 2019 certainly show she’s still more than capable of qualifying for her 8thOlympic Games.
Magdalena Lobnig of Austria has been one of the most consistent performers on the international stage. Since starting her single sculling career in 2013 she’s only missed qualifying for the A-Final on 2 occasions. She’s a regular on the podium and the highlight of her career to date was a gold medal at the European Championships in 2017. She won bronze at the World Championships last year and so far in 2019 she has a 4thplace at the European Championships and a silver at the Poznan World Cup. Her’s would be one of the first names on a list of potential Olympic qualifiers.
2018 was a very disappointing year for Great Britain’s Vicky Thornley. The Rio W2X silver medallist won the European Championship and silver at Worlds in the W1X in 2017 and looked as though she was going to emerge as one of the major contenders for 2018. A-Final appearances at the 1stand 2ndWorld Cups were encouraging, but over-training meant she became injured and had to miss the rest of the season. She made a relatively low-key return to competition at the 2019 Europeans, taking 7th. But, she’s been getting better and better as the season progressed with a 5thplace in Poznan and 4thin Rotterdam (missing the bronze medal by 6/100thof a second. If she continues improving the way she has then a podium finish isn’t out of the question, and Olympic qualification should be a given.
The USA haven’t won a medal in this event at the World Championships since Michelle Guerette took bronze in 2007 (and before anyone shouts at me, yes, I know Gevvie Stone won Olympic silver in Rio, but I’m talking specifically about the Worlds!) Their single sculler for the last couple of seasons has been Kara Kohler, an Olympic bronze medallist in the W4X in London, she started in the W1X at the beginning of the 2018 season ending up just outside of the medals at the World Championships. She’s raced once so far this season, taking a 4thplace at the Poznan World Cup. In a packed and stacked field she will be expecting an A-Final placing at the very least.
Another strong North American sculler is Carling Zeeman of Canada. She’s been racing in the single scull since 2015 and has a 10thplace finish at the Rio Olympics. She finished the 2018 season in 9thspot and will be hoping to finish no lower than that in Linz. She’s made one appearance on the World Cup circuit so far this season with a bronze medal from Poznan.
Denmark’s Fie Udby Erichsen is another seasoned campaigner on the W1X circuit. She first raced in this boat class at the 2010 European Championships and the highlight of her career came in London when she won the Olympic silver medal. She took a break after London and returned to the sport in 2014 and raced at the Rio Olympics finishing 9th. A 4thplace at the 2017 Europeans was encouraging although she missed the A-Final at the World Championships. 2018 was a much better season, culminating in a 5thplace finish at the World Championships. 2019 has seen her continue to make the A-Final with a 5thplace at the Europeans and 6thin Poznan. In such a strong field in Linz she may struggle to secure an A-Final place, but a top 9 finish overall is the minimum she should expect.
Annekatrin Thiele of Germany is a three-time Olympic medallist, including gold in the W4X from Rio. She’s also got a hatful of World and European medals to her credit. But, since moving to the W1X in 2017 she’s struggled to make the podium (her sole medal being a bronze from the European Championships in 2017). She reached the A-Final at the World Championships last season but so far in 2019 she has a 9thplace from the 2ndWorld Cup and a 5thfrom the 3rd. As with Erichsen, she may struggle to make the A-Final, but will definitely be in the mix at the sharp end of the B final, and a qualification spot.
The final sculler to mention is China’s Yan Jiang. The 30 year-old won silver in the W4X at the 2014 World Championships and followed that up with a 6thplace at the Rio Olympics. She raced in the W2X in 2018 finishing 9thand then moved to the single scull for the 2019 season. She started with a bang by taking silver at the Plovdiv World Cup but then struggled in Poznan ending up 11th. She’s another sculler who’ll be targeting a top 9 finish rather than focussing too much on getting among the medals.
Among the rest of the field, the scullers to mention include Diana Dymchenko of Ukraine, 3rdat the 2018 European Championships and 11thin the World last year, this season she raced at the Europeans finishing 8th. Also should mention Aikaterina Nikolaidou of Greece, 4thin the W2X at the Rio Olympics, she was 5that the 2018 Europeans and raced in the W2X at this year’s Euro’s finishing 6th, and finally the 2017 U23 World Champion, Lovissa Claesson of Sweden.
The battle between Puspure, Twigg and Gmelin is going to be pretty special, and if Thornley and Lobnig bring their A games they could also be in the mix for a medal. I’m going for a Kiwi gold with Ireland in silver and Switzerland in bronze.
Predicted Olympic qualifiers: NZL, IRL, SUI, GBR, USA, CZE, CAN, BLR
Next up….The men’s and women’s coxless pairs.