Saturday, August 29, 2015

2015 World Rowing Championships Preview: Crews to Watch in France

No shortage of boats at the course at Lac d'Aiguebelette (Photo by Cam Girdlestone)

The 2015 World Rowing Championships are nearly upon us at Lac d'Aiguebelette, France, and the conditions couldn't be nicer for a contest between the world's best rowing athletes. This being an Olympic qualification year, there's still more at stake, and we're expecting a host of impressive performances as rowing federations jostle for position with a view toward Rio.

While Sean Wolf of Rowing Illustrated has already published his picks, and Daniel Spring his own exhaustive list of predictions for both the men's and women's Olympic events, here, we offer you a quick(ish) look at who we think will rise above the rest.

Women's Events

W1x
The field in the women's single this year will be without the reigning world champion, as Emma Twigg has taken a year out of the New Zealand system to pursue an academic course in England. Without her main rival to contend with, we are expecting Australia's Kim Crow to bring home the gold this year, though she will likely face a very tough challenge from Olympic champion Mirka Knapkova—our pick for silver. The bronze medal, however, will likely be very much up for grabs. There are a host of talented and experienced scullers that will be vying for an A-Final appearance, but we're expecting it to come down to a battle between Gevvie Stone, Carling Zeeman, and Sanita Puspure. Stone is having a fantastic year, Puspure was ever-so-close last year, and Zeeman has looked strong through the summer so far.

W2x
New Zealand will enter as defending champions, though with a new-look crew for 2015. The duo of Zoe Stevenson and Eve Macfarlane have already enjoyed considerable international success, however, winning the second and third World Rowing Cups this year. Like many out there, the Kiwis are our pick for gold, but the rest of the podium will be anybody's guess—we like the Aussie duo of Sally Kehoe and Olympia Aldersley for the silver, and Americans Meghan O'Leary and Ellen Tomek for the bronze, though they'll have to battle their way past formidable combinations from Belarus (which includes arguably the most talented single sculler ever in Ekaterina Karsten), Great BritainLithuania, and Poland to get there.

Also of interest will be the Greek duo that features junior phenom Sofia Asoumanaki, who crushed it at Crash-Bs earlier this year, recording a 6:30.2 (roughly 13 seconds faster than the women's open winner in Boston).

W2-
Because the Kiwi combination of Grace Prendergast and Kerri Gowler are doubling up in the eight, we're taking Great Britain's Helen Glover and Heather Stanning to win. (If that weren't the case...it would be very interesting indeed.) And, while they perhaps didn't have quite as strong a regatta in Varese as they might have wanted, we like the U.S. duo of Elle Logan and Felice Mueller to take silver this year in Aiguebelette—Logan is just too good an athlete, and has two Olympic gold medals already, while Mueller set U23 World Best Times en route to golds in the BW2- in 2010 and 2011. So that's Great Britain, followed by the U.S., and then New Zealand, likely with the Netherlands making things interesting down the stretch.

LW2x
Our picks for the podium are the defending champions, New Zealand's Sophie MacKenzie and Julia Edward, but they will have their work cut out for them holding off a very talented duo from Great Britain in the form of 2012 Olympic champion Kat Copeland and partner Charlotte Taylor. (GB placed a close fourth in Lucerne, but beware of the GB crew that narrowly misses the podium at World Rowing Cup III.) Also in the hunt for the medals will be South Africa's Ursula Grobler and Kirsten McCann—they were roughly half a second from edging the Kiwis in Lucerne and appear to be finding good speed as a combination heading into the championships. A bit of a question mark will be the North American crews—Canada brings a very experienced boat but one that has struggled so far in 2015, and the U.S. will be hoping that Devery Karz and Michelle Sechser can repeat their strong performance from Lucerne.

W4x
The German combination of Annektrain Thiele, Carina Baer, Marie-Catherine Arnold, and Lisa Schmidla is looking strong, having won each of the last two World Rowing Cups, and are our gold-medal pick for worlds. But Australia and New Zealand haven't been far off, and the USRowing lineup that was recently revealed includes some top-tier talent and experience in this boat class, including 2012 bronze medalist in this event, Megan Kalmoe. The Germans typically find a way to get it done in the quad, but the aforementioned crews, plus a relative unknown in China could push them very hard.

W8+
The U.S. has owned this event, and this year's lineup looks just as strong as previous years' incarnations of the eight. But Canada has perhaps never been more determined to topple their North American rivals, and they've been knocking on the door for some time.


Still, given the program's history and the track record that Tom Terhaar's crews have, even when pressed very hard by the field, of coming through when it matters most, we're taking USA to extend their unbeaten streak, with Canada taking the silver. Bronze could get very interesting, with the Kiwis battling the Russians and Romanians for the bronze.


Men's Events

M1x
This year will be a real test for Mahé Drysdale, who will likely get his toughest competition from a familiar rival in Ondrej Synek, as well as from Cuban sculler Angel Fournier Rodriguez, who has had an outstanding season so far—and one that began with a dominant performance at Crash-Bs in March. Also battling it out for the A Final will likely be Damir Martin of the Croatia, Mindaugas Griskonis of Lithuania, and a resurgent Alan Campbell of Great Britain. Could this be the year that Fournier Rodriguez pulls it off?

M2x
The Sinkovic Brothers are just too dominant in this event not to pick them to win—despite injuries this season, they haven't missed a beat on the water. But this is a deep event. The most intriguing crew in the field will be that of Germany, which features two super-experienced athletes coming together in what has so far been a pretty successful combination, in Marcel Hacker and Stephan Krueger (they took second behind the Sinkovic Brothers at World Rowing Cup III). And, not to be overlooked will be New Zealand's Robbie Manson and Chris Harris, as well as the Norwegian duo of Kjetil Borch and Nils Jakob Hoff. Adding further interest: the Australian duo of Alexander Belonogoff and London bronze medalist (in the quad) James McRae have shown they have the speed to make the podium, and USRowing's Ben Dann and John Graves will be determined to crack the top six. Hey, we told you it was a deep field!

M2-
Like the U.S. women's eight, the Kiwis flat-out own this event. Anything can happen—that's why they row the races—but it would take one of the biggest upsets ever in our sport to get it done. The British duo of Matt Langridge and James Foad have been excellent, even bettering the British record for the men's pair set by Pinsent and Cracknell, albeit in a loss to the Kiwi Pair at last year's world championships. South Africa’s pair features Beijing Olympic finalist Shaun Keeling, who earned a bronze in this event last year, and the Dutch combo features the very strong Roel Braas (holder of the Dutch indoor record for 2k) and Mitchel Steenman, who took bronze in this event in 2013. And, the French crew that won silver in London and again in Chungju, Dorian Mortelette and Germain Chardin, will be racing on home water—perhaps the perfect time for a return to form?

LM2x
Whew! This is a tough one! (As usual, of course.) The field is very, very deep, but we like the hometown heroes to win this one—Stany Delayre and Jérémie Azou were tantalizingly close to victory last year, only to have it snatched away by an epic sprint by South Africa's John Smith and James Thompson (they seem to do that—remember the LM4- in 2012?). Also in the mix will likely be Pedro Fraga and Nuno Mendes of Portugal, the Norwegians (who scored a bronze last year), New Zealand (with London 2012 bronze medalist Peter Taylor back onboard after two years in the LM4-), and possibly the Muda Twins of the Netherlands, Andrew Campbell and Josh Konieczny of the U.S., and Denmark's new-look combo with Henrik Stephansen.

M4-
The men's four is USRowing's top priority boat, and is favored by most to win. The crew includes three of the four athletes who took bronze in London, with (RR interviewee) Seth Weil at stroke seat the only substitute. We also like USA to win this event, but think they'll have their hands full with Australia—after a terrible bike accident sidelined Alex Lloyd, the Aussie four saw 2012 Olympic silver medalist from the four, Josh Dunkley-Smith, moved from the eight into the crew.



In addition to his experience in the boat class, Dunkley-Smith is also bringing some serious horsepower. Italy has also looked strong this year, and Canada, with 2012 silver medalists from the eight, Conlin McCabe and Will Crothers in the lineup, will also be a crew of interest in this event.

And, we gotta admit, we're curious to see if the Greek men's four, led by the veteran Ioannis Christou, can pull off something special this year after many years of knocking on the door (Christou and the Greek four finished fourth in London).

M4x
Last season, Ukraine set a new World Best Time in Amsterdam, and still only beat second-place Great Britain by 0.09 of a second. This year, we like GB to win it all, but Germany, Canada (a new-look crew that includes 2008 Olympic bronze medalist Julien Bahain), Australia (another new-look combo that has Beijing Olympic champion David Crawshay), and New Zealand (apparently, it’s the return of the Beijing Olympians—Kiwi bronze medalist from the men’s pair, George Bridgewater, has earned a spot in the quad this year) will all be strong, as will Russia, Poland, and Estonia. And don't count the defending champions out, by any stretch. Can you say barnburner?

LM4-
Our picks for the podium this year are New Zealand (a crew that features the other Bond brother, Alistair), Denmark, and Switzerland. Racing is always very tight in this event, so anything can happen, but given the Kiwis dominance so far in 2015, winning both world cups that they attended over defending world champions Denmark, it seems that the crew rocking the silver fern has the edge this year—but the Danes do know how to get it done when the medal round comes.

M8+
The Brits have a ton of horsepower and plenty of experience, with Olympic champions Pete Reed and Alex Gregory in the crew, further Olympic medalists Mohamed Sbihi, George Nash, and Will Satch, as well as Oxford golden boy Constantine Louloudis returning to the lineup in the two-seat just in time for Lucerne. So, we are making them our stone-cold lock to win the eight this year. The Germans are our pick for silver, and then things get very interesting. The Netherlands have stacked their eight with their top talent; New Zealand's U23 crew has shown that they are ready for the challenge at the senior level; the U.S. men's eight looks very competitive; Poland has had a strong season; and, perhaps the most under-the-radar podium contender is Russia—Spracklen's influence is already telling, and they may just be able to pull off a podium finish in France.



Only time will tell, and there's not much time left until the racing kicks off at Lac d'Aiguebelette! You can follow along with all the action via social media using the hashtag #WRChamps, catch up on all the results via the official website of World Rowing, and keep tabs on the banter around the course via our Twitter feed. Also, David Watts of the Aussie M4x has taken over the controls to our Instagram account once again, so stay tuned for updates there.

Allons-y!

-RR

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