Lake Bled; same waters, different era
Through four World Rowing Championships spanning 45 years, the Lake Bled rowing course in Bled, Slovenia has remained remarkably unchanged.
To make the 2000m buoyed course on a natural lake that is just over 2000m long has meant starting at the town end of the lake and ending very close to a far end inlet. It requires the lanes to track through the middle of the lake, passing Bled Island at the 1800m mark. For the athletes it means through the middle of the race it is almost peaceful and serene as they row far away from the noise on the lake’s shore.
Melchior Buergin of Switzerland won the men’s double sculls on Lake Bled in 1966 and he has returned as a boatbuilder for Stampfli. Buergin comments, “In 1966 the start was blocked off, now it’s quite open and you can watch from the street. Everybody was always very happy to be in Bled, because it is such a beautiful place. I would say you could also still feel the Tito regime (in 1966) – something like a strong, leading hand.”
For Great Britain’s Martin Cross, 2011 is his third time here. Cross raced in both 1979 (men’s four) and 1989 (men’s quadruple sculls). This year he returns as a media correspondent. Cross says, “I was aware it was a special place in rowing and it was the first time I went to a communist country to compete. It was also very different, for example the discipline in the hotels and overall was more strict than you would expect somewhere else. At that time, I had no understanding of Slovenia being a different country; this was Yugoslavia.
“Politically speaking I was much more aware in 1989 that it was a different place and it gave me a new light from 1979; I understood at that time that European countries would be dislocated and remodeled. I saw Slovenia more like Austria and Switzerland.”
Members of the 1966 Australian men’s four and the 1979 women’s coxed four for Australia have met up for a reunion at Lake Bled. Susie Palfreyman was the coxswain of the 1979 boat and she says, “We came back to Bled to do all the things we were not able to do when we were here as athletes.”
“And we came back for the Kremsnita (vanilla slice), the slivovice (plum brandy) and the tiger milk,” says Verna Westwood who rowed in the coxed four.
“Yes, we actually went hunting for the tiger milk, which is a great mixed drink made out of rum, cognac and milk and which was very popular twenty years ago. But times change, and apparently it’s not that popular anymore – we had trouble finding it. But we finally found an older waitress who remembered and mixed it for us,” adds Palfreyman.
“Overall not much has changed, the course is the same, the finish is at the same spot. A major change from back then was that we only rowed 1000m in ‘79 and had the start at the island,” says Westwood.
Racing continues today on Lake Bled with athletes aiming to advance to the finals. For the athletes it is still 2000m of sheer stamina and fortitude.