There were plenty of fireworks as the Olympic rowing resumed on Monday after an unscheduled day off due to wind and rough water on the Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas, with several dominating performances and more than a few surprises.
It was also a big day for the U.S., with nine of eleven Olympic crews in action today.
The U.S. women’s eight left no doubts about their intentions in Rio, absolutely annihilating their competitors to open their Olympic regatta. In a sport where margins typically come down to fractions of seconds, the U.S. crew won their opening heat by eights seconds over the Netherlands, with Romania and Australia trailing.
Great Britain won the second heat to qualify for the final, but was a full three seconds slower on the clock than the U.S. The GB topped New Zealand and Canada to advance.
The Canadian women’s rowing eight was led by 56-year-old coxswain Lesley Thompson-Willie, who is making her eighth Olympic appearance. The oldest Canadian athlete in Rio, Thompson-Willie first qualified for the 1980 Moscow Games – which she missed when Canada boycotted the Olympics.
Thompson-Willie has taken home five Olympic medals, including silver in London, and would become Canada’s most decorated summer Olympian if she reaches the podium in Rio. She was named to the Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame in 1994 – before some of her Rio teammates were born.
The U.S. combination of Felice Mueller and Grace Luczak rowed themselves solidly into the favorites circle today, winning their opening heat with the largest margin of the event. Mueller and Luczak have a history together, winning the world under-23 championship in 2011. That experience showed on the Olympic course as the pair seemed absolutely in control all the way.
"We were supposed to race yesterday, and both Felice and I were itching to go," Luczak told U.S. Rowing. "Today was an amazing day for Team USA, with nine boats out on the water. So we were inspired by everyone else's performances. We were ready to handle whatever came, and we were relaxed and ready to go."
Reigning world- and Olympic champions and gold-medal favorites Great Britain, the pair of Heather Stanning and Helen Glover, had a much tougher time of it today, falling behind the brand-new combination of Hedvig Rasmussen and Anne Andersen from Denmark before catching their competitors just before the finish line for the win.
The top contenders in this event, the reigning world champs Great Britain and 2012 Olympic champs Germany performed to expectations, each taking their respective heats with little difficulty. The U.S. men’s eight performed well in their heat against Germany, but could not get closer than one boatlength to the defending champs.
The U.S. crew will race again in the repechage on Wednesday for a second chance at the final.
"We are just going to go race the boat next to us and go as fast as we can from the start all the way to the finish, just keep it simple," Stephen Kasprzyk said to U.S. Rowing. "The Olympics are spread out, so going to the rep is not necessarily a disadvantage. Either way, we'd be doing work on Wednesday, and now we are lining up against boats we'll be racing later on, hopefully. It's just more practice, and there's nothing wrong with that."
Likewise, the men’s lightweight double sculls saw a fade from a few established teams. Gary and Paul O’Dononvan brothers from Ireland dropped an early marker by defeating the reigning Olympic champs Rasmus Quist and Mads Rasmussen from Denmark by a significant margin.
The U.S. crew of Andrew Campbell and Josh Konieczny took care of business today, qualifying for the semifinals in second place behind a strong Norway duo.
"We're always trying to take it one race at a time," Campbell said to U.S. Rowing. "And so the goal for today was to just advance. It was also to kind of test ourselves in a racing environment. The last time we raced was about a month and a half ago, so this is a good chance to ramp up without the pressure of needing to capture a spot from a close situation. All-in-all, just a good chance to get warmed up for the semis."
Australia, Italy and Great Britain all made their bids for medal contention in the preliminaries, with each crew winning their preliminary heat. Great Britain has had a strangehold on this event, winning each of the past four Olympic gold medals going back to Sydney 2000.
The U.S. team of Seth Weil, Matt Miller and London 2012 bronze medalists Charlie Cole and Henrik Rummel qualified for the semifinals with a third-place finish today, behind Italy and Canada.
Easily shaking out as the most unpredictable rowing event at these Olympics thus far, both the reigning world champions New Zealand and the defending Olympic champs Great Britain found themselves finishing behind unheralded crews to open the racing in the women’s lightweight double sculls.
Topping the gold-medal favorites New Zealand was the crew from the Netherlands, Ilse Paulis and Maaike Head, who’ve now established themselves as the team to beat.
The U.S. crew of Kate Bertko and Devery Karz finished third behind China and Denmark, and will race in Tuesday’s repechage for a chance to advance to the semifinals.
After a subpar opening row on Saturday, the U.S. women's double sculls of Ellen Tomek and Meghan O'Leary made amends today, rowing powerfully over the second half of the course to qualify for the semifinal in second place behind Germany.
The U.S. women’s quadruple sculls of Adrienne Martelli, Megan Kalmoe, Tracy Eisser and Grace Latz squeaked into the final by the skin of their teeth, finishing fourth and taking the final qualifying spot by just .06 seconds ahead of Australia.
"It was awesome. That's what we come here to do, to race really really hard,” Kalmoe told WorldRowing. “The athletes are all so talented we've seen the field be really really close last year and this season as well. We expected a really close race and that's what we got today so we're happy that we executed well today."
The U.S. men’s pair of Nareg Guregian and Anders Weiss took care of business in their repechage, securing the vital third-place spot to move on to Tuesday’s semifinals.
"In trials leading up to the Olympics, our goal in every single thing was to win it, and I think in the heats we went out to qualify, and that was probably our biggest mistake there," Anders Weiss said to U.S. Rowing. "Today, we just went out there to win it. We didn't win it, but we put down a very solid race, because we were going for it."
Germany and Great Britain qualified for the final in the men’s quadruple sculls. The result was all the more remarkable for the GB crew’s performance, as the crew had to replace Graeme Thomas due to illness after the British rowing team had already arrived in Rio. Super-sub Jack Beaumont was flown in from England, and the crew has not seemed to miss a beat.