rowingvoice

The independent voice of rowing in Britain

Three champions for two seats in a boat

Posted by rowingvoice on April 19, 2014

This is the full text of an article commissioned by the Daily Telegraph, my usual rowing-publication masters.  It was finally published on Saturday 19th April 2014 here and in the print paper.  What went in was fine, but they did cut out some of the more interesting quotes, probably for space reasons, so here is the original in full.

 

Britain’s top oarswomen are known for turning the water gold, but now a red-hot battle is developing for selection.  Sparks will fly at the Redgrave-Pinsent Rowing Lake at Caversham this weekend during final trials, where Olympic champion Heather Stanning has pushed her way back into the top of the team in a bare five months.

Six weeks after Heather Stanning and Helen Glover spectacular start to Team GB’s gold rush at the London Olympics, a partnership with Grainger-like potential was split up when Stanning returned to her Army career for a tour of duty in Afghanistan.  It was never going to be a permanent break, Stanning having already signed up to return this year and aim to row in the Rio Olympics.  But a spanner was thrown in the works by the talented 25-year-old Polly Swann, who formed an equally unbeatable partnership with Glover during 2013 while Stanning was away.

Swann had missed out on her Olympic debut in the eight at London due to a back injury.  So she was new to the senior team yet fitted seamlessly into the pair last summer, even moving like Stanning while she rowed.  One of the trickiest boats to master, the coxless pair demands brilliance from both rowers, and the incredible luck of finding a new partner for Glover who could continue the success was not lost on Paul Thompson, the women’s and lightweights chief coach.

But it also posed him a a serious problem.  When Stanning returned to the UK last November, he had three oarswomen for two seats.  Two stroke-women, each unbeaten for a whole year with Glover at bow, each physiologically and technically impressive.  True, Stanning had two world silver medals before 2012, and had won the more prestigious Olympics.  But despite ergometer training fitted in around her Army work at Basra, she wasn’t ready.

“She was boot-fit but not boat-fit”, said Thompson.  “She was not at her best – though on the water she still had a fantastic feel for the boat and rhythm.”  Swann, by comparison, had a whole year of water training under her belt.  At the start of February Thompson had been clear, the incumbent Swann had first dibs on the place in the top boat.

“Helen and Polly are a world champion pair, that was our starting point”, he said.  “We couldn’t have a plan until [Heather] was back and in front of us, and she needed to find her feet.”  He held winter meetings with all three, making it clear the big task was to make the pair fast enough to beat the world again – whoever was in it – and that Stanning would have to show him something special quickly to suggest a change.  “Whoever wants to be in the best pair in the world, they need to be in the best pair in Britain.”

He knew he had to work fast, and to test other combinations as well.  “What we didn’t want was Polly looking over her shoulder every stroke, Helen trying to think she’s making the decision between this one and that one, and Heather looking for an opportunity,” he said.  Floods delayed full testing, but during March Stanning’s results suddenly became impressive.  “I wouldn’t call it a surprise, but she certainly developed quickly”, says Thompson.  “Training popped up some interesting results, and you have to go with the evidence.”

Other sweep oarswomen were raising their game too.  As a result, on Saturday morning Stanning and Glover will trial against Swann paired with Jess Eddie, a 5-year incumbent of the women’s eight with which she won world bronze in 2007 and 2011.  “It’s still completely open to see where this gets to”, said Thompson on Thursday.  “Maybe Polly and Jess are a faster combination.  I’m expecting a cracker of a race.”  On paper it’s clear he expects the Olympic champions to have the edge, but if Swann and Eddie can prove him wrong, it will make for a neat selection dilemma.

Thompson, like any canny coach, won’t let a single race decide his team:  further testing may be required and the whole winter’s evidence looked at.  Whoever loses out on the pair will strengthen the eight, which is his next big project.  The women’s eight has been tantalisingly close to the podium for eight years, and won bronze twice.  To have a chance in Rio they need to be winning medals more reliably, and Thompson’s pair’s contest might just help them do that.

Meanwhile equally fiery racing will be seen between the lightweight women, where Thompson points to Charlotte Taylor from Putney Town impressing behind the likely leaders Imogen Walsh and Olympic champion Kat Copeland.  A talented group of lightweight men race in singles, as do the openweight men, where the rivalry is renewed between Alan Campbell and Charles Cousins, and added to with Boat Race winning stroke Constantine Louloudis.

Junior world champion Jess Leyden joins the women’s singles group, and the world champion men’s eight are split into four pairs to meet the challenge from several ambitious but less experienced oarsmen.

 

Rachel Quarrell, Telegraph rowing correspondent

 

Copyright Rachel Quarrell 2014.  All rights reserved.

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