The final World Rowing Cup of the summer has begun in Switzerland, and there are a number of crews we'll be keeping our eyes on as the regatta season builds toward the dramatic finale in a fittingly dramatic location – Bled, Slovenia. Lucerne and Bled will also be extremely important regattas for the US men's squad, as the team suffered some difficult losses last November in Karapiro, and has yet to fully find its competitive edge under (relatively) new head coach Tim McLaren. The US women, on the other hand, will look to continue a stretch of dominance that goes back to the previous Olympiad – so far, so good.
Some of the most highly anticipated match-ups will be coming this weekend in the small boats. The men's pair will feature a showdown between the two top crews from last year's World Championship final, GB's Andrew Triggs-Hodge and Peter Reed v. Hamish Bond and Eric Murray of New Zealand. Hodge and Reed fell to the Kiwi duo last year by the narrowest of margins, having led most of the way down the course in New Zealand. The first scheduled match-up between the two crews fell through due to the GB squad's concerns with the E. coli outbreak in Hamburg. Anticipation has been building as Bond and Murray absolutely dominated the field at World Cup II, while Triggs-Hodge and Reed looked to be faster than ever at a record breaking Henley Royal Regatta last week. It will also be interesting to see where the 2008 silver medalists from Canada (Calder and Frandsen) wind up this weekend, given that they've been somewhat overlooked but will certainly be on top form (though Bond and Murray were well away in the heat this morning). The Canadian pair won the quarterfinal in the afternoon and will look to make waves in the semis. Some familiar faces in the two Serbian pairs, which include varsity oarsmen from the University of California (Goran Todorovic is in the bow seat of Serbia 1, with Jovan Popovic stroking Serbia 2).
The women's pair was billed on the World Rowing website as another showdown between Great Britain and New Zealand, but we think that the US combinations of Taylor Ritzel and Caroline Lind (USA 1) and Susan Francia and Meghan Musnicki (USA 2) will have some thoughts on the issue. USA 1 posted the fastest time in the heats this morning, winning Heat 3, while New Zealand and GB won their heats. USA 2 finished a close second to Romania and in position to qualify for the A/B semi.
The deepest field in Lucerne might be the men's double. The pedigree in this event is impressive, with reigning Olympic champions David Crawshay and Scott Brennan of Australia, reigning World Champions Nathan Cohen and Joseph Sullivan of New Zealand, last year's World silver medalists and (perhaps) emerging favorites Marcus Bateman and Matt Wells of GB, and perennial competitors and 2000 Olympic champions Itzok Cop and Luka Spik (back in the double together), not to mention France's strong duo of Julien Bahain and Cedric Berrest. GB's Wells and Bateman are riding high following a great showing at Henley, where they defeated the reigning Olympic Champions. The GB double won the first heat this morning over Spik and Cop (Slovenia), while Cohen and Sullivan also bested the Aussie double in their heat. France and New Zealand won their heats to earn the other spots in the A/B semi earlier today. Slovenia and Australia both won their reps in the afternoon, and will join the above crews in the A/B semi, along with a resurgent US crew (Miller and Ochal).
In the women's 1x, everyone will be chasing Mirka Knapkova, who has been excellent and who is coming off a win at Henley last weekend, and Ekaterina Karsten. The Diamond Sculls champ from last weekend, Alan Campbell, won't get a shot at the top competition until the World Championships, however, as he is suffering from what the press is calling 'a sore throat.' The top story in the men's 1x will be the seemingly inevitable contest between Mahé Drysdale of New Zealand and Ondrej Synek, with a rejuvenated Marcel Hacker in the mix this year and very capable of making it interesting. While we're at it, it's never safe to ignore Olaf Tufte, who had a solid day, winning the first heat, and 2008 US Olympian Kenneth Jurkowski just ended his Friday with a bang, winning his quarterfinal race over Mindaugas Griskonis and Mahé Drysdale to set himself up nicely for the weekend. Given his talent, we wouldn't be surprised to see Jurkowski make the A final in Lucerne.
The US men's squad may have its best shot at a medal this year in the eight. In the heat, the US men finished just 0.4 of a second behind what has been an absolutely dominant German 'achter' this year. The Dutch and the British had an epic battle and photo finish to take the top two spots in the second heat, with The Netherlands winning by 0.01 to claim the direct qualifying spot for the A/B semi. The US also has two very strong fours, featuring several Beijing Olympians (USA 2 includes David Banks, as well as 2009 Cambridge Blue Boat stern pair and RR interviewees Silas Stafford and Ryan Monaghan). Both USA fours won their reps this afternoon to earn spots in the A/B semis. Drew Ginn and Australia also won their rep, with Serbia winning repechage 1.
On the women's side, the US women's eight should crush this regatta, building on a huge victory last year in Karapiro, and with (though it may be hard to believe) an even deeper squad than before heading into the final year of this quadrennium. By way of example, the US women took two trophies at Henley, with Cal standout Kara Kohler in the women's quad. While she is unquestionably a fantastic athlete, Kohler has only been rowing for two seasons, in a sweep-oriented program at Cal. When/how did she learn to scull at an elite level? US head coach Tom Terhaar has done a great job developing talent, and we're looking forward to seeing that talent on display in the coming weeks. We'll also be looking for strong performances from The Netherlands (the other heat winner), Romania and Team GB.
More to come as the weekend in Lucerne progresses! For complete results and image galleries from today's racing, visit the official site of World Rowing.