Ready all. The 2016 rowing season has begun.
There was a definite feel of anticipation in Varese, Italy for the first international race of the 2016 season - World Rowing Cup I. Some of these athletes would be heading to the Rio Olympic Games later this year and they wanted to test how their 'off season' training had set them up for this season.
A gentle breeze with almost mill-pond water and temperatures in the teens (Celsius) made for fabulous rowing conditions.
Women's Pair (W2-) - Heats
This full field opened with 16 entries spread over three heats. The goal of these rowers was to finish in a top two position for a direct path to the semi-finals. All other boats would have to return for this afternoon's repechages.
In Heat One Germany's Kerstin Hartmann and Kathrin Marchand got to the half way point in first. This duo qualified their boat for the Olympics when they raced last year at the World Rowing Championships. A comparably small German team in Varese must mean that the coach thought Hartmann and Marchand could do with some extra racing. Coming into the final sprint the Germans took their stroke rate to 38 to stay in front of Russia who were flying to the line. Russia managed to pull into the second qualifying spot, pushing Poland into the repechage.
South Africa's Kate Christowitz and Lee-Ann Persse had a flyer of a start in Heat Two with Spain in hot pursuit. Persse finished fifth at the World Rowing Championships last year in this boat class, but with a different partner. Christowitz and Persse still had the lead coming into the second half of the race with Spain slipping back. But Spain had done enough to shake off the rest of the field and remained in the second qualifying spot. The rest of the field seemed to give up by the third 500m mark and South Africa and Spain easily qualified. South Africa recorded the fastest qualifying time.
It was the Italians who got away the quickest in Heat Three. Allesandra Patelli and Sara Bertolasi of Italy are looking to qualify for the Olympics next month and this regatta enabled them to test their speed. They pushed away from Serbia who are also hoping to qualify for Rio in May. Canada gave it their best shot to try and overtake Serbia, but the Serbian crew of Jovana Arsic and Ivana Filipovic managed to hold them off. But then Canada did a mighty finish to take the race to a photo finish. Italy crossed first and then Serbia was given the green light, beating Canada by just 0.04 of a second.
Qualifiers: GER, RUS, RSA, ESP, ITA SRB
Men's Pair (M2-) - Heats
The top two boats in each of the three heats secured a direct path to tomorrow's semi-finals. In Heat One South Africa and Italy shot out together with Lawrence Brittain and Shaun Keeling getting a very slight edge over the experienced Niccolo Mornati and Vincenzo Capelli of Italy. The Italians then managed to gain the advantage. But Brittain, who has come back to rowing after beating cancer, and Keeling were not giving up. South Africa got back into the lead and held it to the end.
Heat Two had Roel Braas and Mitchel Steenman from the Netherlands leading at the start over Spain. The Dutch combination is the same as last year with Braas known for his strong scores on the indoor rowing machine. They pulled away from Spain as the Spanish tried to hold off a flying Russia One. There was nothing in it at the line between Spain and Russia with the Spanish ending on the qualifying side of the line first. The Netherlands recorded the fastest qualifying time.
Great Britain's Matthew Tarrant and Nathaniel Reilly-O'Donnell took gold in the men's coxed pair at last year's World Rowing Championships and today they raced at the head of the field in Heat Three. Serbian 2015 world bronze medallists, Milos Vasic and Nenad Bedik kept the heat on the British, but just could not close the gap to get into first. This leading tussle moved these two boats away from the rest of the field and into the two qualifying spots. Great Britain crossed the line rating a high 37.
Qualifiers: RSA, ITA, NED, ESP, GBR, SRB
Women's Single Sculls (W1x) - Heats
There were 22 crews contesting this boat class and they were divided into four heats with the top boat only in each heat getting a direct path to tomorrow's semifinals. All other boats would return for an afternoon's repechage race.
Heat One had a tussle going on between Olympic Champion Mirka Knapkova of the Czech Republic and Sanita Purspure of Ireland. Knapkova was the silver medallist at the 2015 World Rowing Championships and must be hoping to work her way up to another Olympic gold later this year. But despite leading for the majority of the race, Knapkova was overtaken by Purspure. Purspure was 11th at last year's World Rowing Championships which means she still needs to try and qualify for the Rio Olympics.
The second Heat opened with Denmark's Olympic medallist from 2012, Fie Udby Erichsen in the lead. Erichsen took time off after the London Olympics to have a baby. She used last season to find form and this season she proved to be off to a great start. Erichsen led for the entire race despite pressure from 2015 bronze medallist Jingli Duan. Erichsen was the sole qualifier.
Canada's Carling Zeeman finished sixth to qualify for the Rio Olympics from the 2015 World Rowing Championships and today she led the way in Heat Three. The rest of the field looked to let the Canadian have it and even Sweden, in second, was not willing to come up and challenge the leader. Zeeman easily qualified for Saturday's semifinals.
She was fifth at the 2015 World Rowing Championships and after an 'off season' which included training in New Zealand Jeannine Gmelin of Switzerland led the way in Heat Four. Austria tried to keep up, but faded in the second half of the race as uber-rower, Ekaterina Karsten who will turn 44 this year, showed her pedigree and pushed into the lead. Gmelin did not have the stamina to react back to the amazing Belarusian. Karsten qualified for the semifinals.
Qualifiers: IRL, DEN, CAN, BLR
Men's Single Sculls (M1x) - Heats
This boat class attracted a full field of 24 entries. They were divided into four heats with the top boat only in each heat getting to go directly to the Saturday semifinals. Heat One had Dutch sculler Stefan Broenink leading the way with Poland and Argentina in hot pursuit. By the middle of the race Broenink had shaken off Argentina and by the third 500 he had shaken off Poland's Olympic qualifier, Natan Wegrzycki-Szymczyk.
Heat Two opened with Slovenia's Gasper Fistravec in the lead. But then Robert Ven of Finland got his nose in front, albeit not for long. It was then the big Cuban's turn with Angel Fournier Rodriguez pushing out in front. As Fistravec faded, Ven kept the pressure on Fournier and these two boats charged to the line side-by-side. Fournier got there first - although only just and by less than a second. Fournier will go directly to the semifinals.
It was no surprise to see 2015 A-finalist, Damir Martin of Croatia in the lead. Martin had a great 2015 season adding a European Championship title in the single to his name. Martin led over Switzerland's Markus Kessler, who held his own, but was not fast enough to catch Martin.
Hannes Obreno of Belgium was the first to show in Heat Four, getting away ahead of Stanislau Shcharbachenia of Belarus. Shcharbachenia is known to be quite handy in the single when he has a good race and Obreno was aware of this. But the Belgian continued to push on and managed to get more than a boat length between himself and Shcharbachenia. The Belarusian then decided not to sprint the finish and Obreno earned the qualifying spot.
Qualifiers: NED, CUB, CRO, BEL
Lightweight Women's Double Sculls (LW2x) - Heats
The athletes in the three heats in the lightweight women's double sculls had the task of finishing first or second if they wanted to go directly to Saturday's semifinals. All other boats had to return this afternoon for a repechage.
China's Wenyi Huang and Feihong Pan had the fastest start in Heat One and by the half way point they had a relatively comfortable four second lead over Italy's Laura Miliani and Elisabetta Sancassani who had moved into second. But then China's number two boat did a big push coming into the final 500m and overhauled the Italians. At the line China had finished first and second to be the two boats that would go on to the semifinals. This result looks like China must be having a tough time picking their combination that will race at the Rio Olympic Games.
It was the new Swiss combination of Frederique Rol and Patricia Merz that had the lead in Heat Two. By the middle of the race Rol and Merz were still in the lead, but only just. Ireland's Clair Lambe and Sinead Jennings were pushing the Swiss with every stroke. With 500m left to row, these two countries were neck-and-neck. Then Canada's Patricia Obee and Lindsay Jennerich joined in on the sprint to the line. In one of the most exciting finishes of the morning, Switzerland held onto first as Canada came flying through to the second-place spot, relegating Ireland into third and into the repechage.
Three boats flew out of the start together in Heat Three - Great Britain, the Netherlands and South Africa. Of these boats Kirsten McCann and Ursula Grobler of South Africa had the best 2015 marks with a bronze medal from the 2015 World Rowing Championships. By the middle of the race McCann and Grobler had a slight leading edge over the British with the Dutch still very much on the pace. The tight battle remained to the line. South Africa got there first and Great Britain's Elanor Piggott and Emily Craig were second.
Qualifiers: CHN1, CHN2, SUI, CAN, RSA, GBR
Lightweight Men's Double Sculls (LM2x) - Heats
The top two boats in each of the three heats would get to go directly to the semifinals and the Olympic Champions, Mads Rasmussen and Rasmus Quist of Denmark made the best of it in Heat One. They led from start to finish despite being pushed hard for the entire race by Switzerland. These two boats became the qualifying boats. It looks like the Danes maybe back after having a sub-par 2015 season.
The 2014 World Champions, James Thompson and John Smith of South Africa set the pace in Heat Two. By the middle of the race they had a boat length lead over Belgium who had managed to overtake Spain and were now sitting in second. Belgium then did a second half push and closed the gap on Thompson and Smith with the Netherlands Muda twins chasing hard. It would take a sprint to the line to decide the top two positions. Belgium wanted it more than the Muda's. At the line Thompson and Smith held on to first with Niels van Zandweghe and Tim Brys of Belgium in second. Thompson and Smith recorded the fastest qualifying time overall.
The Dutch number two crew gave it a better go in Heat Three. There, Berend Mortier and Ivo de Graaf of the Netherlands led at the start and led through the middle of the race. Then Ireland's Gary and Paul O'Donovan started to show their stamina. They overtook Poland and then overtook the Dutch. Also showing second-half speed was Zak Lee-Green and Jamie Kirkwood of Great Britain. As Ireland continued to gain momentum, Lee-Green and Kirkwood came through to take second.
Qualifiers: DEN, SUI, RSA, BEL, IRL, GBR
Lightweight Men's Four (LM4-) - Heats
The three heats in the lightweight men's four asked athletes to finish first or second if they wanted to miss racing in the repechage and go straight to tomorrow's semifinals. Heat One began with the Netherlands having a slight edge over Japan and China. Then China gave a second 500m push which earned them the lead. The Netherlands held on tight. The Dutch have made one change to the line-up that finished fifth at the 2015 World Rowing Championships. China, however, was looking good and coming into the final sprint they remained in the lead now with nearly a boat length lead. At the line China and the Netherlands qualified for the semifinals.
World Champions, Switzerland lined up in Heat Two and very early on showed why they are the reigning World Champions. The Swiss crew of Tramer, Schuerch, Niepmann and Gyr got away the quickest and had nearly a boat length lead going through the middle of the race over the Czech Republic. Then Germany began to put on the pressure. They overtook the Czechs and tried to close on the Swiss. Switzerland proved to be too good and remained in the lead right to the finish line. Germany, with a new line-up for 2016, came through in second.
Heat Three had the United States take off in the lead with two Italian crews in hot pursuit. This three-boat fight remained in place through the middle of the race as the United States continued to hold a very tenuous lead. The tussle at the head of the field saw the three leading boats break away from the rest of the pack, but with only two qualifying spots the fight would have to remain until the end of the race. Along the shore of the Lake Varese the Italian spectators were taking notice. Italy Two then did an almighty closing sprint. Not only did they beat Italy One, but they won this heat and clocked the fastest overall qualifying time. The United States came through 0.45 seconds later to take the second and final qualifying spot. Italy One will now have to contest a repechage.
Qualifiers: CHN, NED, SUI, GER, ITA2, USA
Lightweight Women's Single Sculls (LW1x) - Heats
The first of the international boat classes (non-Olympic boat classes), the lightweight women's single sculls had two heats. The idea here was to finish first or second as that would earn the sculler a direct path to Sunday's final. In Heat One Federica Cesarini of Italy had the fastest start. But everyone knows that it is all about who is in the lead 1900m later and by the middle of the race Cesarini had fallen behind Marieke Keijser of the Netherlands. Once in the lead Keijser looked to be loving it as she pulled away from the rest of the field. At the line Keijser's time of 7:40 was faster than many of the open-weight women's single scullers who raced earlier in the morning. Cesarini held on to second to go directly to the final.
Ladina Meier of Switzerland was the leading boat in Heat Two. By the middle of the race however, Meier was under pressure from both Canada and the Netherlands. Canada's Katherine Sauks then did a big push to get into the lead as Meier began to fade. Sauks kept up the pace to cross the line first with Mirte Kraaijkamp of the Netherlands earning the second qualifying spot.
Qualifiers: NED2, ITA, CAN, NED1
Lightweight Men's Single Sculls (LM1x) - Heats
The two heats in this boat class required the scullers to finish either first or second if they wanted a direct path to the final on Sunday. Slovenia's Rajko Hrvat led the way. Hrvat is the 2015 silver medallist and is known for his devastating sprints. Today Hrvat paced himself at the head of the field and in the process moved away from the closest challenges of Algeria and Norway. At the line Hrvat earned an easy win with Ask Jarl Tjoem of Norway taking the second qualifying spot. Hrvat also earned the fastest overall qualifying time.
Heat Two opened with Luka Radonic of Croatia at the front with a virtual line of three boats following him. By the half way point Radonic squeezed away to nearly a boat length lead over Switzerland's Daniel Wiederkehr who then slotted into second. Wiederkehr then attempted to close the gap on Radonic as these two boats moved clean away from the rest of the field.
Qualifiers: SLO1, NOR, CRO, SUI
Lightweight Men's Pair (LM2-) - Heats
The goal of this boat class was to finish first or second in each of the two heats. In Heat One, Italy got away the quickest and managed to lead for the first half of the race with China chasing hard. Then the Italians were overtaken by China. But Italy was not giving up and these two boats went neck-and-neck to the line with Portugal also very much on the pace. China got there first by just 0.18 of a second with Italy managing to just hold off Portugal. What a finish!
Germany had the best start in Heat Two with Sven Kessler and Julius Peschel leading the way. This is a new German combination from the one that took bronze at last year's World Rowing Championships and they must have been testing the 2016 international waters. Spain was chasing hard and continued to chase through the second half of the race. Kessler and Peschel managed to hold off the Spanish charge and earn the fastest overall qualifying time.
Qualifiers: CHN, ITA, GER, ESP
Women's Double Sculls (W2x) - Heats
This boat class attracted two heats with the top two boats in each heat earning a path directly to Sunday's final. Heat One began with Denmark in the lead. But their fast start was soon mowed down by China's Jie Wang and Xiaoxing Shen with Italy's Laura Schiavone and Giada Colombo now coming into their own. China and Italy then went head-to-head through the third 500 and in the process broke away from the rest of the field. Schiavone and Colombo then proved what they were made of in front of their home crowd to sprint through to take first. China qualified from second.
Former World Champions, Magdalena Fularczyk and Natalia Madaj of Poland led the way from start to finish in Heat Two. The Netherlands tried their best to keep up but by the end Poland had a handy lead. These are the two qualifying boats.
Qualifiers: ITA1, CHN, POL, NED
Men's Double Sculls (M2x) - Heats
The job of these athletes was to finish in first if they wanted a direct path to the final on Sunday. The boat class had been divided into two heats and the two-time World Champions, the Sinkovic brothers of Croatia featured in Heat One. Martin and Valent Sinkovic are always a treat to watch and they did not disappoint today. This heat also had the added attraction of two-time Olympic Champion from the men's single sculls, Olaf Tufte teaming up with Kjetil Borch of Norway. What could this combination do? The Sinkovic's got away the fastest and took the lead. But they did not have it all their own way as both Norway and Poland challenged the World Champions. The Croatian's, however, held off the challenges and earned the sole qualifying spot.
Heat Two saw Italian Olympic qualifiers, Francesco Fossi and Romano Battisti get off to a fast start with Switzerland in hot pursuit. By the middle of the race, Nico Stahlberg and Roman Roeoesli of Switzerland pushed into first and that is where they remained until the end of the race. Cuba had a great race in the outside lane and while both Cuba and Italy backed off in the last 500 metres, this should make for some close racing later this weekend.
Qualifiers: CRO, SUI
Men's Quadruple Sculls (M4x) - Heats
The men's quadruple sculls was divided into two heats with the top boat only getting to go directly to Sunday's final. In Heat One Russia led the way. This Russian crew is new for 2016 and they were having a great race staying ahead of Canada and Poland. Canada did manage to close the gap on Russia, but Russia's Morgachev, Kosov, Ryabcev and Fedorovtsev managed to hold them off.
Estonia finished fourth at the London Olympics and then took bronze in 2015. They are a talent and this is their nation's priority boat with the very experience Olympic medallist Tonu Endrekson sitting in the middle of the boat. Today they raced at the head of Heat Two with Italy forming a strong challenge. The Italians also have a very experienced rower in the form of Alessio Sartori who became an Olympic Champion in Sydney 2000. He also raced at the 1996 Olympics. Today the Estonians were better and by the end of the race they had built up open water over Italy.
Qualifiers: RUS, EST
Men's Four (M4-) - Heats
A top two finish was needed for a direct path to the final on Sunday and as this boat class was divided into two heats, four boats would be feeling good very shortly. In Heat One the race opened with a new South African boat leading the charge. Then the Netherlands got their nose in front with Canada chasing hard. Canada finished fourth at last year's World Rowing Championships while the Dutch were sixth. Today the Dutch had the better race and they crossed the line in first to qualify for the final. Canada qualified from second.
The United States took bronze at the London Olympics and, with two of the same members in the boat (Rummel and Cole) they are hoping to have a medal-winning crew again in Rio. Today the crew, with two new members - Miller and Weil - started off behind the World Champions, Italy. But by the middle of the race the United States were in the lead and the Italian heroes, despite their best efforts, remained in second for the rest of the race. Both boats, however, still qualified and the Italians and the United States will meet again in Sunday's final.
Qualifiers: NED, CAN, USA, ITA1