Fergus Mainland 

Looking back on WRICH 2021

The World Rowing Indoor Championships took place between 23-27 February, and brought together outstanding athletes from all over the world to compete online. Fergus Mainland reports:

"When I think about an indoor rowing competition, hairs start to prick at the thought of the passion and intensity than echo round the venue. Few things can be as intimidating as a bank of ergs lined up, meters away from some of your closest rivals. Similarly to just about every event in the past 11 months, the emotions associated with an unfamiliar arena or sports hall were instead replaced with home comforts and only the support from family or close friends.

The World Rowing Virtual Indoor Championships were fascinating to follow and proved that the fiery craving for racing continues to burn brighter than ever before. The three days of racing saw records tumble as some of the most recognisable names of the indoor scene crossed blades with the next generation of stars.

There is no better place to start than with some of Britain’s youngest ambassadors at the event. After a dominant domestic season at BRIC Online and the British Rowing Virtual Championships, Meg Knight of Trentham Boat Club set the world stage ablaze as she stormed to victory in the U19 Women’s 2000m. After placing second in the 500m event to Egypt’s Sara Mohamed Zafer Said Elsayed Elmarzouky by only half a second, Meg proved she was untouchable over the longer distance as she beat her British counterpart, Alice Baker into second place.

Not to be outdone, arguably the brightest up and coming talent on the Junior Men’s side, Gabriel Obholzer found himself in a tussle with the best America has to offer in the U19 2000m. After setting out at a blistering pace, Isaiah Harrison (USA), was clinging on for dear life as Obholzer’s more consistent pacing appeared to be paying off. However, the American hung on to take first place but in the process, Obholzer beat his own British Record which he set last summer.

The outstanding performances by Gabriel Obholzer and Meg Knight respectively will be well received by other members of British Rowing’s DiSE programme, which supports young athletes in combining sport and education.

From one end of the age range of the other, one of the most inspirational athletes to track through this pandemic has been Britain’s Val Coleman. Breaking records left, right and centre throughout the second half of last year, Val continued this form on the world stage, setting a new World Record in the Master’s 90-95 Women’s 2000 – breaking a record she herself set last summer. Mike Hurley also continued to prove that with age comes wisdom, as he set a new World Record in the Masters 85-89 Men’s 2000m.

Also amongst the stand-out British performances was Justine Reston, who added another electrifying performance to the growing number from Britain’s Masters rowers. Reston finished a commanding ten seconds ahead of France’s Nathalie Villechenaud, clocking 7:18.3 in the process to equal her own world record that she set in 2020.

Throughout this pandemic, university rowing has been hit hard. One athlete who has made the most of this tough situation, however, is Imy Bantick of Bath University. The Lightweight took victory in the U23 Lwt Women’s 2000m, a result which showed the winter’s hard work paying dividends.

Lightweight success continued across the age categories. In the Lwt Master’s 40-49 Men’s 2000m, Molesey Leg-End, Tom Middleton, stormed to a silver medal and a new British Record in a time of 6:18.7. His clubmate, Tom Solesbury, won a bronze medal in the Heavyweight event with a time of 6:03.3.

Across the globe, there is no doubt that the standout competitor was Joel Naukkarinen from Finland, finishing the three-day event with two golds, a silver and a bronze medal. Naukkarinen’s individual performances resulted in a silver medal in the 1-hour category and a bronze in the Open Men’s 500m. In the hour of power, Naukkarinen placed second behind Germany’s Benjamin Reuter and ahead of Tom Solesbury, who struck his second bronze medal of the Virtual Championships. However, the flying Fin’s gold rush came with help from teammates in the Men’s and the Mixed 3-minute minute event.

The 500m event saw the fastest athletes of the week lay it all on the line. For those who are familiar with the indoor rowing circuit, it will come as no surprise to see Britain’s Phil Clapp, the current World Record holder, dominating the event and winning in a time of 1:11.6. In the Women’s event, step up former swimmer Ana Do Carmo Caldas. The Portuguese CrossFit Games athlete proved that the tides of indoor rowing are well and truly turning as she took victory in a time of 1:24.5.

Britain’s Masters continued their fine form in the 500m showdowns. In the Masters Women’s 40-49 500m race, the familiar faces of last year’s gold and silver medallists squared off once more. However, this time the tables were turned, and Britain’s Arabella Carbutt took gold ahead of Italy’s Georgia Peramatzi. In the Masters Men’s 50-54 500m, Mark Robertson was untouchable, winning in a time of 1:17.4.

The Men’s and Women’s Open 2000m races, arguably the blue riband events of the Championships, more than lived up to expectation. Last year’s U23 Champion, Ward Lemmelijn of Belgium added 2021 Open Champion to his growing list of accolades. After quadruple French Champion, Vincent Matz got off to a better start, Lemmelijn executed the perfect race plan as he took over pole position crossing into the elusive third 500m. Lemmelijn never looked back and stormed to victory with an impressive time of 5:42.2.

The Women’s event was one for the ages. After dominating the Masters 30-39 Women’s 2000m, the pressure was on Kirsten Kline to go one better and win it all. Sophie Souwer, the Dutch sculler and holder of a bronze medal at the 2019 World Rowing Championships, looked set to win it all as they approached the 250m to go marker. However, Kline unleashed a sprint like no other to storm through and win in a time of 6:45.8, 3.2s ahead of the Dutch athlete pushed into second place.

Speaking of close finishes, German Olympic Champion Tim Grohmann was nearly beaten by Dan Bennett of the United States in the Masters Men’s 30-39 2000m race. In his first time competing on the world stage, the American led for all but 50m, with the German timing his sprint to perfection and winning by just 0.4s. Both men finished with times below the elusive 6 minute mark.

Those, of course, were only some of the highlights from a fantastic spectacle of racing, which saw more than 900 competitors from 63 countries participating."

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