The campaign for control in the men's single
"This year the single field is really tight." These were the words of Olympic Champion, Mahe Drysdale of New Zealand as he stepped out of his boat after the final in the men's single sculls at World Rowing Cup II in Varese, Italy.
Drysdale, despite his impressive pedigree of five World Championship titles and Olympic gold, knows to win this year will take a gladiatorial effort. Since the London 2012 Olympic Games when Drysdale won gold, the field has seen two-time Olympic silver medallist Ondrej Synek of the Czech Republic step up to win gold at the 2013 and 2014 World Championships.
“My biggest motivation is to win the Olympic Games,” says Synek. “I was twice silver, so now the gold is my biggest goal. I am doing everything to focus on Rio. Now, I am preparing for the qualification which is the World Championships. If I succeed there, I will be halfway on my way to Rio.”
Synek beat his biggest rival, Drysdale, at the 2014 World Rowing Championships. “During the race, I thought of nothing, I just focussed." says Synek. "Before the final, I knew I would win, the feeling was very strong. I knew Mahe would be strong in the last 750m, I pushed more than normal in the third quarter and then the finish was just unbelievable."
While Synek identifies Drysdale as his toughest competitor, some new (and old) faces on the scene in 2015 have been shaking this view up. Debuting internationally in the men’s single at the first World Rowing Cup in Bled, Slovenia was Croatia’s Damir Martin. Martin is well-known for his performance in Croatia's men's quadruple sculls that won silver at the London Olympic Games and gold at the 2013 World Rowing Championships. However, a back injury took Martin out for the entire 2014 season and dissolved the Croatian quad.
Martin has been the fastest single sculler in Croatia for the last five years and always wanted to see how he could measure up at the international level. “But we were always focused on the quad,” he says. “Then the injury happened and I had to take time off. The (Sinkovic) brothers naturally went into the double and they are very fast.” Martin and the fourth member of the quad, David Sain, understand the Sinkovic’s decision to stay in the double.
“We are not mad at them for not wanting to be in the quad because under six minutes in the double is really something outstanding. I had to take the single because we can’t do two doubles. David (Sain) is still looking for a crew, but we are still a team, we hope that all four of us can go to the Olympics,” Martin says.
Also mixing in with the top scullers is Cuba’s Angel Fournier Rodriguez. Fournier won at the first World Rowing Cup in Bled with Martin taking second. Then Martin, against Synek at the European Rowing Championships, won.
“I heard that everyone was surprised,” says Martin, “but I think I was more surprised than everybody. I just rowed my race, I didn’t look left or right, I just watched the markers go by 500, 1000, 1500. I knew I could do it, I knew I could be good.”
The second World Rowing Cup brought more international scullers onto the race course and Drysdale raced with winning form. Drysdale's win, however, did not come easy. He had to hold off a powerful challenge from Fournier. “It was a very tough race,” said Drysdale after the final, "so I am very happy to have won here.”
Consistently on the podium over the last few years, Fournier has systematically and consistently inched closer and closer to the top scullers. From 2009 until 2012 he improved each year and then in 2013 Fournier earned Cuba their first ever World Championship medal in rowing - a silver. Following his race in Varese this year, Fournier said, “The first objective is to qualify for Rio and then I want to be in the top three. Brazil is a brother nation, so I will be very happy to participate there again.”
Stanislau Shcharbachenia of Belarus has rowed internationally in just about every boat class and coming into the single last year was a bold, but encouraging move as he was soon pressing into the A-final. At World Rowing Cup II a bronze medal to Shcharbachenia announced his entrance into the single sculling elite. The Varese World Cup also saw the return to international competition of Great Britain's Olympic medallist Alan Campbell. Campbell's fifth-place finish indicated his successful return from illness that cut his 2014 season short.
The World Rowing Cup in Lucerne, Switzerland (10-12 July 2015) will bring these scullers together for the next round of racing on the path to the 2015 World Rowing Championships.
The loneliest boat class, demanding concentration, determination, immense self-belief, self-motivation and an intense competitive attitude is going to be tight, really tight.