The Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas rowing course provided a spectacular backdrop to some of the highest play-by-play drama and most nail-biting finishes of the first week at Rio 2016. Across eight disciplines, all 547 athletes presented an exhibition of the commitment required to thrive in a leg-burning boat race, putting in more work before 8am than average person does all day. The champions, meanwhile, made the rest of the Olympics seem like mere games.
Great Britain and New Zealand entered the regatta as the countries to beat following their prolific team performances at London 2012 and brilliant build-ups to Brazil. Team GB was the nation that collected the most medals at its home Olympics and, inspired by its legendary coach Jürgen Grobler, the squad repeated that feat three months ago at the European Rowing Championships in Germany. Leading up to Rio, though, Britain trailed four points behind the Kiwi crews in the World Rowing Cup series, who topped the table with 119 points, despite only racing at two of the three stages. The Netherlands finished in third place to set up a crusade for the minor Olympic medals against Germany, Australia, perhaps the United States.
Outside the boats, the publicity before the Games centered upon water pollution, amid fear that the side-effect of the stunning urban setting was a lagoon contaminated with pathogens and sewage. Tumultuous winds, however, soon became the day’s unforeseen challenge. Atlantic gusts gave a tough edge to the exposed middle part of the 2,000m races, proving especially problematic for the Serbian men’s pair who flipped their boat with 500m left to row on the opening day of the regatta. The conditions continued to wreak havoc, first for the Sunday heats and then for the Wednesday finals. This sparked the scare stories that the whole rowing program would have to be canceled for the only time since Athens in 1896, when the sport was supposed to debut at the first modern Olympics. Instead, the schedule was reordered and compressed.
After three climactic finals sessions, Great Britain once again came out as the strongest unit with three gold medals and two silver medals from the 14 boat classes contested. Ahead of the crowd, Helen Glover and Heather Stanning never looked in doubt as they defended their 2012 women’s pair title with an imperious display, leading from the start to end up 1.2 seconds clear of New Zealand in a time of seven minutes 18.29 seconds. The inspiring duo, which won the first gold medal for the hosts four years ago, are the only female British Olympians to have two golds in rowing. The honor is richly deserved after they survived the entire Olympic cycle undefeated, which is particularly impressive given that Major Stanning of the 32nd Regiment Royal Artillery completed a tour of duty in Afghanistan between 2012 and 2013.
The second Team GB gold in Lagoa emerged just 20 minutes later as Alex Gregory, George Nash, Moe Sbihi and Constantine Louloudis took victory in the men’s four. The British quartet crossed the line in five minutes58.61 seconds following a reprisal of its rivalry with Australia, both boats pushing one another to the maximum while maintaining a slight gap through to the finish. The win gave Britain their fifth successive Olympic crown in this boat class and displayed an exceptional desire to keep searching for marginal improvements.
Silver medals followed for Britain in the women’s double sculls and women’s eight. Katherine Grainger became the most decorated female Olympian in the land by coming second alongside Victoria Thornley, having led the Polish twosome, Magdalena Fularczyk-Kozlowska and Natalia Madaj, right up to the finish. Accompanied by the glorious sight of eight oars flashing in the sun, the British octet secured its first Olympic medal in the coxed class, drawing a conclusive end to the era where fifth place seemed like home. The superior power of the United States eight, however, gave the hot favorites their victory. It was the only gold on the lagoon for Team USA but a momentous one, emulating its triumphs in Beijing and London.
Great Britain wrapped up its hat-trick of rowing gold medals in Rio shortly afterwards in the men’s eight. The cox, Phelan Hill, and his squad headed up the field from gun to tape to reclaim the prestigious title for the first time since 2000. Victory in the blue-riband race ensured that Britain topped the rowing medal table for a third Games in a row.
New Zealand, nevertheless, lagged narrowly behind with two golds and one silver. The most resounding conquest of the regatta came from Hamish Bond and Eric Murray, who have not lost a race in the men’s pair since banding together in 2009. The Kiwi sweep rowers pounded home with the greatest of ease under the shadow of Sugarloaf Mountain, stretching their unbeaten streak to 69 contests. By contrast, the second New Zealand gold arrived after, quite possibly, the narrowest photo-finish in history, as Mahe Drysdale defied the rookie Croatian, Damir Martin, to win the single sculls. The picture of relief on the multi-Olympic and world medalist looked palpable when he was adjudged to have won by less than an inch.
In the female equivalent event, the Massachusetts sculler, Genevra Stone, clinched the other United States medal, turning four years of training pain into a deserved silver. Kimberley Brennan finished the course with a solid lead, taking home the only Aussie rowing gold in a time of seven minutes 21 seconds. Meanwhile, New Zealand scored its own silver medal through the coxless pair of Genevieve Behrent and Rebecca Scown, both of whom made efficient use of their hours on the rowing machine by doubling up in the eight boat.
Impressively, Germany overachieved at the Games by matching the Kiwi medal count. Still the all-time legends of the sport, the Europeans added to their 23 Olympic rowing golds since German reunification and scored their 60th overall with victories in the men’s and women’s quadruple skulls. The victorious female line-up of Carina Bär, Julia Lier, Lisa Schmidla and Annekatrin Thiele lingered behind Poland for the majority of the race but went hard and strong to steal victory in front of the 10,000-seater grandstand at the finish zone.
The German men, including three members of their London 2012-winning crew, made it a double gold as Hans Gruhne, Lauritz Schoof, Karl Schulze and Philipp Wende took control of the race from the start. The quartet would have enjoyed its pain, knowing that the weaker Australian and Estonian crews close behind were finding it exponentially tougher.
Germany gathered their silver medal from the men’s eight in the thrilling finale of the regatta, one last time with the immaculate backdrop of the Tijuca Forest and Christ the Redeemer. As rowing consistently proves, the competition lies as much in the journey as in the destination.