Olympic Games Regatta
Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas, Rio de Janeiro
6-13 August 2016
Another phenomenally successful regatta saw the GB rowing team top the medal table at the Lagoa Stadium in Rio, where twelve Leander athletes won medals, including a first-ever Olympic medal for the GB women’s eight.
The Leander haul saw the club’s tally rise to 123 medals since 1908, and a banner on the clubhouse once again kept Henley residents up-to-date with the ever-increasing total.
Britain’s first rowing medal came in the women’s double scull, where Katherine Grainger and Vicky Thornley confounded their critics with a crew-best performance that earned them the silver medal behind Poland.
Leander’s Vicky Thornley, a 2012 finalist in the women’s eight, and St Andrew’s Katherine Grainger, five-times an Olympian and defending champion in the open women’s double, underperformed at the European Championships earlier in the season. With the crew at risk of disbanding weeks later, their confidence was restored at training camp and they attacked the first 1000m of the final to take control of the race.
It was a courageous effort from Thornley and Grainger and, with 250m to go, it looked like a remarkable gold medal would be their reward. However, Magdalena Fularczyk-Kozlowska and Natalia Madaj were able to produce one last push and edged through to take a narrow victory for Poland.
Thornley added: “I am so thankful to Katherine; she did everything so well in the race. It was a really great race from us and a silver medal is pretty nice I think.”
The next Leander medal came with Alex Gregory, who took his third successive Olympic gold partnering Moe Sbihi, George Nash and Constantine Louloudis in the men’s four.
As predicted GB and Australia were first to show, pulling clear of the field, but Australia upped their rate and drew level at the halfway mark. But the GB men concentrated purely on their own race and executed the plan they had put together with coach Jürgen Grobler, architect of GB success at seven successive Olympic Games.
“I didn’t know what was happening four years ago, this time I knew what was coming. On the start line it was horrible, torturous, but it was our perfect race” said Gregory.
“You don’t count the wins in the past, you always look to the next one. It was a fantastic race. They executed the plan to the tee” said proud coach Grobler.
After winning the Europeans gold in May the GB women’s eight demonstrated their medal-winning potential with an impressive victory in their heat, and lined up for the final alongside the USA, bidding for their third successive Olympic title.
With Canada making the early running the GB eight were at the back of the field after 500m, and remained in sixth place at the halfway stage.
But with total belief in themselves the eight began to cut through the field and, following a sensational third 500m, they had surged up to second place and were closing on the all-conquering United States at the front.
“With 500m to go I thought we were going to win. I just absolutely believed in every single stroke that we had what it took. The silver medal is incredible – these girls are strong, they’re sassy, they’re inspirational and I’m just so happy to row with them” said Polly Swann afterwards.
The men’s eight brought the regatta to its conclusion by winning GB’s first Olympic gold medal in this boat class since the Sydney Games sixteen years earlier.
A powerful heats victory showed they were very much back to their best and they built on that in the final by completely dominating the race from start to finish.
Stroke man Will Satch called for a big push in the second quarter and his crew-mates responded, pounding out a fierce rhythm to move clear of the chasing pack.
Germany and the Netherlands tried to respond but the British eight were able to rise to their challenge and went on to win in convincing style.
Pete Reed now joins the list of GB legends after his third successive Olympic gold medal.
“It has been a massive fight, not just in the last couple of hours, it’s been going on for months and years. We fight tooth and nail and credit to Germany and the Netherlands for making it so hard” he said.
“For us in GB we are such a strong team, having people coming up behind us and pushing us, having two double Olympic Champions in the crew. These are all the things that can come together and on race day we got to do it” added Satch.
Jack Beaumont, Sam Townsend, Angus Groom and Pete Lambert had a roller-coaster ten days lead-in to Rio with bow man Beaumont flying out to replace the poorly Graeme Thomas and Lambert moving up the boat to the stroke seat.
With such a late change to their crew it was perhaps no surprise that the four men missed qualification from their heat, earning themselves a place in the final via the repechages.
Drawn in a top quality field the GB quartet were right in the mix at the 500m mark and were moving well. Germany and Australia made the mid-race pace but Beaumont, Townsend, Groom and Lambert continued to battle away, eventually crossing the line in fifth place, matching the quad’s finish from London 2012.
Groom, after his first Olympic Games, said: “Before we went out there, we spoke about leaving nothing in our tanks at the end of the race. It almost didn’t matter about the result as long as we put 100 per cent of us out in the field and I feel like we did that, but it wasn’t quite enough.
The all-Leander men’s pair of Al Sinclair and Stewart Innes were up against the Kiwis, Eric Murray and Hamish Bond, who have dominated this event for two Olympiads. Murray and Bond began to show their class in the second quarter of the final, but Sinclair and Innes also produced a strong push and, with 500m to go, had rowed through the Italians into second place.
A podium finish looked on the cards, but it was not to be, as a mad dash for the line saw South Africa coming through for silver behind New Zealand, with Italy winning bronze.
“We gave it our all but it wasn’t enough – we just ran out of energy at the end. I know I am going to come back fitter and stronger and I will be there in four years’ time” said Innes.
Jonny Walton and John Collins, coached by Mark Banks, recovered superbly from a wobbly heat in the double sculls to come through the repechage and qualify for their final.
As Croatia and Lithuania engaged in an absorbing battle at the front of the field, Walton and Collins stayed focused and continued to plug away. That commitment to drive to the line was rewarded in the closing 500m as they overhauled the French double to cross the line in fifth place – an impressive achievement on their Olympic debuts.
“Of course we would’ve loved a medal but this is a great result and we can just get better and better over the next four years. We are still improving and that is the best thing about our partnership” said Walton.
It will be tough trying to match the nine-medal tally of 2012 but there’s every reason to suspect that the GB Rowing Team, including 26 Leander athletes and coaches, will return from Rio with yet more medals around their necks.
The course on the Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas is one of the most stunning urban rowing venues in the world, and nearer the city centre than any Olympic regatta since Stockholm in 1912. The statue of Christ the Redeemer on top of the Corcovado mountain provides a magnificent backdrop to the lake, which is sure to bear witness to just as much drama and spectacle as the Dorney Lake in 2012.
Leading the charge for medals in the GB heavyweight men’s team is the coxless four, coached by Jürgen Grobler, with Leander captain Alex Gregory the sole survivor from the gold medal crew in London. Having won this boat class at every Olympics since 2000, the British are odds-on favourites to retain the title. There may well be an additional poignancy for whoever wins – the current debate around gender equality at the Olympics may herald the end of this event in the Olympic programme.
The three-times world champion GB men’s eight is back up to full strength after a rocky season which saw them finish out of the medals in Lucerne, where the Netherlands won gold. But GB never performs well on the Rotsee in an Olympic year and, with the absence of the banned Russian eight, this event looks set to develop into another head-to-head with Germany, who dominated this event in the previous Olympic cycle and claimed gold at Dorney.
Another crew to look out for are first-time Olympians Jonny Walton and John Collins in the men’s double scull. Coached by Mark Banks, the duo have made a definite step up this season, contesting the A finals throughout, culminating in the silver medal behind New Zealand at their final world cup regatta in Poznan.
It’s not just the men who are looking for places on the medal podium. The reigning Olympic champions in women’s pairs, Helen Glover (Minerva Bath) and Heather Stanning (Army RC) are also odds-on favourites to retain the title. Meanwhile the GB women’s eight, with four Leander athletes on board, has been developing strongly right through the season and is now knocking on the door of the USA, who have been unbeaten in this event for the last ten years.
The lightweight men’s four, silver medallists at the European Championships in May, are another crew with definite prospects, and the presence of Olympic silver medallists Pete Chambers and Chris Bartley in board is sure to give them confidence in their quest for gold.
But the quadruple scull suffered a setback just days before the Opening Ceremony, when their stroke, Graeme Thomas (Agecroft) was declared unfit after picking up a flu-like illness on the flight to Brazil and has been replaced by Jack Beaumont.
The run-up period to an Olympic Games is always fraught with controversy, playe d out in the media, and Rio is no exception. The state of the Brazilian economy, the sewage problems in the off-shore waters and, of course, the Zika virus have all hit the headlines. But once the Games get under way following Friday’s opening ceremony I suspect all that will be forgotten, as the teams and their supporters savour this pinnacle of sporting prowess.