SARASOTA, Fla. -- Just as the applause intensifies as rowers get closer to the finish line, so did the noise Team USA made towards the end of the 2017 World Rowing Championships.
With 10 finals taking place on the last day of the sport’s premier annual event, Team USA had a boat in six of those races.
The final day of the regatta, which opened Sept. 24 in Florida, saw U.S. rowers finish sixth in three straight finals, but the disappointment quickly ended when a medal drought did.
Team USA secured a silver medal in the women’s double sculls, marking the nation’s first medal in the event in 27 years. New Zealand won the race narrowly ahead of the U.S., while Australia trailed for bronze.
Teammates Meghan O’Leary and Ellen Tomek, who started racing double sculls together in 2013, had a conversation about the drought “years ago — we said let’s bring the medal back to the U.S.,” O’Leary said. “So it means a lot.”
At age 33, they were the oldest rowers in the final.
Their silver is also the best finish ever for a U.S. women’s double sculls since the world championships started in 1962 (the U.S. won four bronzes from 1977-1990).
It’s a placement they are more comfortable with and excited about, especially after finishing sixth at the Olympic Games Rio 2016. Tomek recalled, “We were disappointed after Rio, and we both felt like we were missing out on our families, friends, fun things, but I think we made the right decision.”
They were happy to have their friends and family in Sarasota cheering them on at Nathan Benderson Park, and equally happy about the fact that they were “staying a few days, too” Tomek said. “We’re excited to go to the beach…”
“And soak up the Siesta Key sun and sand,” O’Leary finished.
Clearly after five seasons together the duo has somewhat of an “unspoken thing” between them, O’Leary said. And before races can “just look at each other and know, OK, bring the shoulders down, take a breath. We’ve done the work, this is the fun part.”
But whether Tomek will decide to continue having fun rowing is a decision she has not made yet.
“I don’t know if this is my last race yet, but it was a good one,” she said.
Unlike the women’s double sculls team, the men’s eight was a fairly new team. Of the eight, only two are Olympians, and Alex Karwoski was the only one to compete in the eight in Rio, where the team finished fourth.
“It’s fun to keep building with a new group,” Karwoski said.
It seems to have paid off as the crew won silver on Sunday – Team USA’s first world medal in the eight since 2013 and best finish since winning gold in 2005. Germany won gold, while Italy took bronze.
To Tom Peszek, who rowed in the pair at the 2012 Olympics, that gap in medals shows, “it’s been too long,” he said. “It’s a good place to start, but we have a ways to go still. But I think we’re really happy with how we all performed.”
The team is looking forward to the next three years they’ll spend preparing for Tokyo 2020. All of them except one, perhaps.
“Three years is a long time,” Karwoski said, thinking about the next Olympics.
“I give myself less than a half percent chance of making it. But I figure if I keep getting better and I don’t make the team, that means the guys who do make it will certainly go and get a medal,” he laughed.
The U.S. women’s eight was not as successful. After winning every global title since 2006, the team led by coxswain Katelin Guregian relinquished their 11-year winning streak with a fourth-place finish. Instead, Romania won their first world title since 1999, followed on the podium by Canada and New Zealand.
But with a mostly new team this year, Guregian, who coxed the women’s eight to Olympic gold in 2016 and four world titles before that, reminded everyone that, “we’re a pretty young team.”
“For a lot of people this was their first real international race,” she said. “So I think with experience we’re going to learn a lot about ourselves and how we can be more prepared.”
Despite their longstanding tradition of landing on the podium and the pressure they were under, Guregian admitted that “regardless of that, our team has always been really good at understanding that that doesn’t matter. And if we want to win, we want to win regardless of what anyone else wants for us and regardless of what anyone else has done before us.”
Guregian was joined by Olympians Grace Latz, Emily Regan and Lauren Schmetterling, but with a boat that included four women making their world championship debut – and six making their first appearance in the eight at worlds – Guregian said, “this was a pretty exciting thing to have under our belts in terms of training for Tokyo 2020.”
“It’s been a long time since I’ve been in a boat that has been able to improve so much in just five or six days — and learn so much. Just to be able to execute what we decided and work on from the previous race, that’s pretty exciting!”