For nearly 400 athletes their Olympic dreams will be made or shattered on the waters of the Rotsee in Lucerne next weekend. The European and Final Olympic Qualifying Regatta or the “Regatta of Death” as it’s known, is the last chance saloon for boats to qualify for this year’s Olympic Games in Rio.
For the majority of those competing this will mark the end of their Olympiad, four years of hard graft comes down to racing to win one of the precious qualifying places. For those who miss out there is no consolation medal, no more chances, it will, effectively be the end of their season. But for those who are the lucky ones it will guarantee their place at the biggest show on earth. Whatever else happens it does promise some brutal, heart-wrenching racing.
So onto the preview…..
Qualifying places available: 3
Belgium’s Hanes Obreno comes into the regatta with some strong early season form. He won his first senior medal when he took bronze at the Varese World Cup and followed that up with an excellent 4th place finish at the European Championships last weekend.
France’s Cedric Berrest is the most experienced man in the field attempting to compete at his 4th Olympic Games. He won bronze in the Quad in Beijing but hasn’t won a medal since a bronze in the M2X at the Lucerne World Cup in 2012. After spending 2014 and 2015 in the French M8 he’s returned to sculling, at the European Championships he missed out on a spot in the A-Final but did win the B-Final.
One of the more intriguing entries in this event is Slovakia’s Lukas Babac. He won the LM1X at the European Championships and also won at the final World Cup last year. It’s not uncommon for lightweight scullers to try and qualify in the heavyweight division if they have no suitable partner to get a quick LM2X. Babac raced the heavyweight event in Varese finishing 13th, but with the right conditions in Lucerne he cannot be ruled out to get close to qualifying.
19 year old Philipp Syring of Germany is definitely one to watch for the future. The surprise winner of the M1X title at the German National Championships he was Junior World Champion in 2013 and 2014 and an A-Finalist at the U23’s last year at just 18. He also made his senior debut last season with an excellent 8th place at the Varese World Cup. At the European’s he found the going a little tougher finishing at the back of the B-Final. But he’s a talented sculler and an Olympic spot would be a fabulous achievement (and invaluable experience for the Tokyo Olympiad).
Denmark’s Sverri Neilsen will also be in with a shout for one of the three qualifying places. He was 6th in Brandenburg and made the B-Final at the World Championships last year.
Finland’s Robert Ven had made a good start to the 2016 campaign reaching his first ever A-Final at Varese and just missing the medals, he followed this up with an 8th place at the Europeans. If he manages to qualify for Rio he’ll be the first Fin to do so in the M1X since Tomas Soederblom at Atlanta ’96.
Israel’s Dani Fridman had a good World Cup in Varese reaching his first A-Final since the European Championships in 2013. He looks to be coming into a good patch of form and will be a serious challenger. Outside of the European’s Australia have entered Rhys Grant, returning to the national team for the first time since finishing 15th in the M4X at the 2014 World Championships. It may be a stretch for him to take a qualifying spot. The US have entered the very experienced Ken Jurkowski. The 34 year old is bidding to compete at his 3rd Olympic Games. His best ever performance in the M1X was a bronze medal at the 2nd World Cup in 2011.
My picks for the qualifiers: Obreno of Belgium, Berrest of France and Ven of Finland.
2 Qualifying places available
The Hungarians, Adrian Juhasz and Bela Simon Jr were, perhaps, the surprise winners of the European title last weekend. Their form over the last couple of years certainly didn’t give an indication that they would be medal contenders, let alone champions! 21st at last year’s world championships, their previous best performance had been silver at the 1st World Cup in 2015. But they raced a brilliant race in Brandenburg and if they can carry that sort of performance into Lucerne and prove that Brandenburg was not a one-off, then they will be one of the favourites to qualify.
Argentina have a strong pedigree in this event and Rodrigo Murillo and Martin Lassere are a well-established pairing. A little disappointing in their first race of the season, finishing 10th in Varese, they were 9th at the Amsterdam World Championships and have a best ever finish of 5th at the Aiguebelette World Cup in 2014. On their day they would be strong contenders for one of the two spots.
For Germany the M2- is their lowest ranked boat and the pairing of Peter Kluge and Clemens Ernsting finished 9th in Brandenburg. But, as with all German sweep oarsmen there is a good deal of pedigree in this boat. Ernsting won a silver medal in the M2+ last year and was U23 world champion in 2012. For his part, Kluge is also a World medallist with a bronze in the M2+ from 2014 and an U23 silver medallist from 2012. As a pair they’ve yet to really fire but there is undoubted talent in that boat and can’t be ignored.
The Czech’s Jakub Podrazil and Lukas Helesic seem to save their best performances for the European Championships. They were 4th in 2015 and again this year. Podrazil has experienced the regatta of death before having successfully negotiated qualifying in the M4- in 2012. At just 20, Lukas Helesic’s best performance was a gold in the JM2- in 2014 and he followed that up with a silver at the Youth Olympic Games. As with the Hungarians, if they can carry their European Championships form into Lucerne they could be strong challengers.
One of the other main challengers will be the Russians, Ivan Podshivalov and Georgij Efremenko. 7th in Brandenburg and 5th in Varese they were both part of the M8 that finished 5th at last year’s World Championships (and therefore qualified for Rio) but have lost their seats in that boat and have to try again in the pair.
My pick to qualify: Hungary and Russia.
Qualifying places available: 2
The story in this event is in the Norwegian boat. Olaf Tufte qualified the M1X last year but has been moved into the M2X as it’s believed they would have a better chance of medalling than in the single. If Tufte is successful in Lucerne then he will be set to compete at his 6th Olympic Games – an incredible story of longevity in such a physically demanding sport as rowing. He’s joined by the 2013 M2X World Champion, Kjetil Borch. Since forming a new partnership Tufte and Borch have shown some good speed, 4th in Varese and 5th in Brandenburg they will certainly go into the FOQR as favourites to secure a top 2 finish.
The Argentinians, Ariel Suarez and Cristian Rosso also struggle to put consistent performance together. At their best they are pushing for medals, 4th at the Olympics and 5th in 2013, since then they have struggled, 17th in 2014 they missed 2015 due to injury to Rosso. At Varese they missed the A-Final and ended up 8th overall. If they can get anywhere near their 2012-13 form they should be comfortable qualifiers.
Another crew which has made a good start to their 2016 season are the Poles, Dawid Grabowski and Dominik Czaja. They finished in the C-Final at last year’s World Championships, but in Varese they took silver, just 2 seconds adrift of the Croatians (and two places ahead of the Norwegians). Interestingly they raced separate events at the Europeans, with Grabowski finishing 7th in the M4X and Czaja 8th in the M2X partnered by Adam Wicenciak. If they continue as they left off in Varese they could well be favourites to qualify.
The USA have a new combination of Stephen Whelpley and Will Cowles. Whelpley was part of the US M4X that took bronze at Lucerne World Cup in 2014 and finished 8th at the Amsterdam World Championships. Cowles raced in the M1X for the USA at the Varese World Cup last year finishing 11th. They earned their shot at Olympic glory by winning the US Olympic trials so they are clearly a quick combination, it remains to be seen if they have the pace to compete with the rest of the world.
My picks for qualifying: Norway and Poland.
Qualifying places available: 2
France look to be one of the form crews this season. The crew of Valentin Onfroy, Benjamin Lang, Mickael Marteau & Theo Onfroy won the bronze medal in Brandenburg. Lang was part of the French M8 that missed out on qualifying at this stage in 2012 and went on to win a consolation silver medal in the M2+ at that year’s World Championships. He returned to the M8 along with crewmate Valentin Onfroy for this Olympiad but after a disappointing finish in 2015 the crew was disbanded and the M4- put together as the no.2 ranked French sweep boat.
The Kiwis set out a target to qualify for all 14 boat classes at the Rio Games. So far they have 9. On the men’s side it is the M4- where they run the most risk of missing out. They are a young crew, stroked by 20 year old U23 silver medallist Drikus Conraide. In the middle of the boat are Patrick McInnes and Axel Dickinson who raced as a pair at the World Cups last year, finishing 15th at both Varese and Lucerne. Bowman Anthony Allen is the only survivor from the 2015 M4- that finished 16th. Whilst one should never write off a Kiwi crew, on paper it does look as though this crew has its work cut out to finish in the top 2 in Lucerne.
One of the main challengers for a top 2 spot are the South Africans. The crew of David Hunt, Jonathan Smith, Vincent Breet and Jake Green finished 6th in the A-Final in Varese in a race where all the other finalists have already qualified for Rio. This was a good step forward for the crew, 2 of whom were in the crew that finished a disappointing 13th last year.
The final two crews to mention are the Spanish and Serbians. The Spanish finished 8th in Brandenburg and retain 3 of the crew that finished 12th in the world last year.
Serbia are led by the 41 year old Nikola Stojic. He’s trying for his 5th Olympic Games to bring the curtain down on a superb career which stretches back to the Junior World Championships in 1992. This season they raced at the Varese World Cup (with one change) and finished 9th.
My picks: France and South Africa
Qualifying places available: 2
This has the makings of an absolute stormer of a race. 4 of these crews raced in Varese with the Russians giving everyone a wakeup call by taking the win. Their race plan doesn’t look too subtle….go out hard and try to hang-on. In Varese this worked, but at the Europeans they ran out of steam in the final 250m and ended up in bronze. The question is, are they a “one-trick pony”? If they go out hard in Lucerne will they be able to hold off the competition in the desperate sprint for the line? The other suspicion that unfortunately will arise with any Russian team, is whether or not they are clean. Given the recent revelations about widespread organised doping by the Russians at Sochi the cloud of suspicion is raised against any Russian team. There does seem to have been a remarkable step up in performance for the Russian quad this season. Half of the crew raced in Aiguebelette and finished 13th and the previous year they finished 11th. Russian rowing doesn’t have the best of reputations when it comes to doping so perhaps it is understandable that eyebrows have been raised at this leap in performance.
The Canadians have been steadily building their quad project over the past couple of years. After a disappointing World Championships last year they made an encouraging start to 2016 with a silver medal in Varese. They are a highly experienced crew with 4 Olympic appearances between them. They will be confident that they have the speed to get one of the top 2 spots.
The Kiwis went into the World Championships in 2015 with high hopes of a medal let alone securing an Olympic qualifying spot, at Lucerne they had won an excellent silver medal behind the Germans. But at Aiguebelette they had a very disappointing championships. Edged out in their semi-final by just 2/10th second by the British they then finished 3rd in the B-final behind the Poles and Ukrainians and 9th overall with only the top 8 qualifying for Rio. The FOQR is their first race of the season and they’ve made one change to their 2015 crew with Nathan Flannery replacing Karl Manson. The Kiwis will take heart from the knowledge that they’ve beaten most of their main opposition for an Olympic spot so will be confident of securing their place in Rio.
The USA have three of the crew that raced well in 2014, Peter and John Graves and Benjamin Dann. They pushed the GB quad very hard at Henley and followed that up with an excellent bronze medal at Lucerne. Unfortunately at the Worlds they slipped back a little ending up 8th. They’ve made a bold decision by bringing 19 year old British born Ben Davison – winner of the M1X B-Final at the U23 World Championships last year. There’s talent in this boat, and their performance in 2014 shows that one their day they can challenge most of the “big names”, but will next weekend be “their day”. For me they are an outside bet.
The Chinese are a young and relatively inexperienced crew who I don’t think will be in the hunt – although you never quite know what you’re going to get with Chinese crews.
The Norwegians have also struggled to find the sort of speed that will see them qualify, despite the presence of 2013 World Champion, Nils Jacob Hoff. In Varese they finished 6th of 6, 13 seconds behind the Russians.
My picks….Canada and New Zealand (I reckon they’ll pip the Russians on the line)
Qualifying places available: 2
For many people this is the one that really matters, and for the US and Australia to find themselves in the dogfight for qualification is a big hit to the national pride, especially the US which has such a strong tradition in this boat.
Australia have a wealth of talent on-board including double Olympian James Chapman in the bow seat and fellow Olympian Nick Purnell at 5. But they have made some wholesale changes from the crew that missed out on direct qualification last year with just Chapman, Scott Laidler and Josh Hicks remaining. The heart of the crew is based around the 2014 silver medal U23 crew, Charles Risbey, Tim Masters and James Medway. This looks an exciting crew but it remains to be seen if they can transmit that talent into boat speed.
The US have also made wholesale changes to their 2015 crew. Just 3 retain their seats, Sam Dommer, Alex Karwoski and Austin Hack. Coming into the boat are University Of Washington’s Hans Struzyna, (he’s made three appearances for the US senior team all of them in the quad), London 2012 Olympian Stephen Kasprzyk, former Oxford Blue Mike Di Santo, Robert Munn from the 2014 M8 and Glenn Ochal who was in the no.1 US boat the M4- in 2015. The American pride was seriously dented with the failure to qualify direct last year and if they fail in Lucerne it’ll be the first Olympics the M8 has missed since Montreal in 1976 (excluding the 1980 boycott)…no pressure guys!
The Italians were the unlucky ones last year finishing in 6th when only the top 5 qualified. They have made 2 changes from that crew with Mario Paonessa and Simone Vernier joining from the M4X. They made a good start to the 2016 season with a strong silver medal at Varese behind the Dutch. Italian rowing could do with a boost having had the disappointment of two high profile athletes being suspended for doping violations. The pressure is on the Italian Federation to prove that these were isolated cases. Based on current form the Italians will probably start as marginal favourites, but it is only marginal.
Poland’s biggest problem appears to be one of consistency. When they get it right they can be up among the medals, but too often they slip back to the tail end of the A-Final. In Varese they took bronze behind the Dutch and Italians. At the Europeans they ended up 5th beaten into 4th by the Belarussians but ahead of the Dutch. For me they are always a crew who are there or thereabouts, but for the Olympic Qualifying I think they will find the competition a little too hot and will miss out.
The Spanish are the final crew striving for an Olympic spot. 11th in Aiguebelette last year they raced at the European Championships last week finishing 7th. It’s great to see a Spanish 8 racing but I think they will find the competition too fierce.
My picks……hmmm…Italy and………Australia