The GB Rowing Trials

For all members of the Great Britain rowing squad wanting to book a seat on the Team GB plane to the Rio Olympics you have to perform at the Olympic trials on the Redgrave Pinsent Rowing Lake at Caversham. The format is a 2K time trial on Tuesday morning followed by side-by-side semi-finals in the afternoon and finals on Wednesday.

It promises to be a fascinating contest, pitting crewmates and friends against each other. For those fighting for the final spots, it’s not enough to achieve your dream, you may have to destroy the dream of someone you’ve trained with for four years or more to get it…..it’s brutal. Some athletes love it, they love the racing and the rivalry, but for others it’s the worst sort of racing they have to do.  (For a good insight read Alex Gregory’s thoughts here: http://sport-magazine.co.uk/features/alex-gregory

So what do I think….

The men’s heavyweight sculling has been shorn of one of its biggest talents with Charlie Cousins out injured. Charlie missed most of last year through injury as well so hopefully this season will see him being a bit more robust…the quad needs his power.

In his absence it’s going to be a great fight between the “Old Guard” and the “Young Guns”. Alan Campbell has been GB’s representative in the M1X for the last 10 years, but this year could see him move to a crew boat. He’s acknowledged that he faces a challenge just to make the team, let alone take the coveted single spot. His biggest challenge may well come from 23 year old Angus Groom. Groom was one of the breakthrough stars of 2015 and presents the coaches with a potential selection dilemma. Could we see a M2X of Campbell and Groom? Will they be pulled into the quad? What about the current double of Collins and Walton and also add in Jack Beaumont to the equation after his fightback from a terrible back injury last year. The selection for the men’s sculling squad is really open.

In the men’s pairs the field is outstanding. GB can put out at least 5 coxless pairs that could make the “A” Final at a World Championships even without the country’s fastest ever pair – James Foad and Matt Langridge (after Foad suffered a serious back injury that is likely to rule him out for the whole season). Leading the way will most likely be Alex Gregory and Mo Sbihi – they’ve proven themselves an outstanding partnership (and one I’d love to see race the Kiwis one day!) But they will be chased hard by Pete Reed and Stan Louloudis and the Olympic bronze medallists Will Satch and George Nash.  With his 2015 partner, James Foad injured, Matt Langridge partners Andy Hodge in what looks like a very exciting combination – could this be the stern pair of the British Olympic 8? Add into the mix combinations like Matt Gotrel and Paul Bennett, Nathaniel Reilly-O’Donnell & Matt Tarrant and Alan Sinclair & Stewart Innes the strength in depth in the heavyweight men’s sweep squad is ridiculous! In my opinion we’ve got two gold medal boats in the team and a 3rd boat that is more than capable of winning a medal.

Like the men’s sculling, the women’s trials have been somewhat neutered by the absence of one of its stars. This time it’s Katherine Grainger who has a medical exemption. In her absence it should be a relatively straightforward win for Vicky Thornley (especially as another of the top scullers, Mel Wilson has also withdrawn on medical grounds).

For the women’s sweep it’s a question of how close can the rest of the squad get to Glover and Stanning. An interesting development is to see Fran Houghton as part of the sweep squad rather than sculling. The “grand old dame” of the team is fighting for a place at her 5th Olympics, all of which have been as part of the sculling team. Her move to the sweep squad is, perhaps an acceptance that the W4X (which has yet to qualify for Rio) hasn’t worked and needs a fairly radical overhaul. She’s partnering Olivia Carnegie-Brown. The pair likely to get closest to Glover and Stanning are Polly Swann and Jess Eddie. One of the stories of the women’s squad is seeing Swann back in contention after a year dogged by injury. The battle for places in the W8 is going to be very fierce.

For the lightweight men one of the most interesting aspects is that they actually get to race in pairs for a change. Previously every trial, whether it’s for the sculling or sweep squads, has been in the singles. For the sweep squad now they get to race in the pairs, just like the heavy men and women. It’s a small field of just four pairs fighting for four seats in the Olympic boat (in what could be the last ever Olympic LM4-….don’t get me started on that again!)

The lightweight singles field is also quite small, just 8 scullers. The Olympic LM2X is pretty much a foregone conclusion with last year’s silver medal crew of Will Fletcher and Richard Chambers almost certain to continue. This means that the rest of the field are fighting for selection as lightweight spare or for the LM1X or LM4X for the non-Olympic class world Championships. Favourite for the slot as spare is likely to by last year’s trials winner, Jamie Kirkwood. He spent time in both the LM4- and LM1X last year so is in prime position to take the slot.

It’s a similar story in the lightweight women’s squad. It’s a fairly safe bet to assume that the LW2X will continue as last year with Kat Copeland joined by Charlie Taylor with Imogen Walsh left to battle the LW1X again. What Walsh will be looking for though is a trials win to get those bragging rights and give the coaches an awkward few moments!

Those are my thoughts on the racing, but what I find hugely frustrating is that Great Britain rowing fans (of which there are thousands) aren’t going to get to watch any of the racing. The Olympic trials represent the only time (and for some athletes the last time) they will race in the UK this year. For British Rowing to decide to hold the trials mid-week and behind closed doors is, frankly, an insult to all the thousands of supporters who would want to come and watch and cheer on their heroes. For the only British sport that has delivered gold medals at every summer Olympic Games since 1984 to deprive both its fans and athletes the opportunity of racing in public on home water is a travesty.

In 2012 the final Olympic trials were held at Dorney Lake and were, consequently, able to be watched by the public. I, along with 100’s of others went along to watch some brilliant racing. But even then spectators were tolerated rather than encouraged, on the way into Dorney Lake there were signs saying it was closed for a private event. There was no commentary, no race orders, no announcement of results. Since 2013 the final trials have been held in Caversham and various, frankly pathetic excuses, have been put forward for not opening them to the public, there are no facilities for spectators at Caversham etc, Dorney Lake is too expensive and so on. All of which is utter nonsense. It is merely that the senior management within British Rowing do not appear to consider the thoughts of the fans or athletes. Having spoken to a number of the squad over the years they would all love to have the public there, watching them fight for their Olympic places, cheering them on. As it is, they will race on the same water they train on day in day out, in front of their team mates and a handful of journalists. When will British Rowing realise that they are missing out on a huge opportunity to raise the profile of the sport and encourage participation by showcasing the best rowers in the world on home water. They must remember that a lot of their funding comes from the Great British public when we buy our National Lottery tickets every week. They should be actively encouraging “Joe Public” to get involved and support Britain’s most successful Olympic sport, rather than ignoring us or seeing us as an inconvenience. Get the trials at Dorney or Nottingham, get it open to the public and run it like a “proper” Olympic trials event. I can think of no other Olympic sport in Britain that treats its fans (and athletes) with such disdain.

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