Friday, August 31, 2012

Cyrillic and Cats - General landscape stories of Bulgaria

Bulgaria, (Plovdiv) was very curious. Its the second largest city in Bulgaria with Sofia being the first. Plovdiv dates back to 4000BC ranking it among the world's oldest cities. The city was first called Philippopolis. In the 14th century it feel under Ottoman rule until liberated by Russian armies in January 1878. Only later in 1885 did Plovdiv become part of Bulgaria.

Happy Bar and Grill with its Sushi bar
I'll start with my experiences of Bulgaria with my foodie interests first: The food was great! Close to where we stayed there was a place called Happy Bar and Grill. Now the name turned me away right away, but after I tried their spread, I was thankful for this place. Having to make weight and concerns of fresh food and water not being clean, Happy came through for us. No-one got sick! Beautiful salads and meat-only dishes, and the watermelon plate was a real hit in the heat and after race recovery! The menu had great options, nothing greasy. There was even a separate sushi chef that accompanied the menu option. An english menu helped, because unlike other places in Europe where you can kinda make out what it is, in Bulgarian we don't even share the same alphabet, so there was no understanding the text. The bills looked like the rosetta stone. We just had to trust but luckily Happy was so cheap after you convert the Bulgarian Lev to Dollar. Almost half. This helped the budget a lot! "So lets go get Happy!"

The grocery stores were laid out in a interesting pathway. Once you enter, you walk through the isles almost in a set way, that leads you finally to the checkout. But trying to get back to the first isle there is no connecting 'lanes'. You need to literally retrace your path.
The stock was simple. Nothing too cultural, except these two things: 1. Supplements and eggs. Now I guess Weightlifting is without doubt their most successful discipline. So even in a modest selection of food, shelfs don't lack space for an array of protein powders and supplements.  

Then the eggs could be bought in a little plastic packet that looked hand tied. It also looked like a farmer collected his eggs and put them in this modest packet and brought it to the grocery store. It looked like something from a farmer's market. I loved seeing that in the supermarket. It was the two worlds combining. The produce too looked so farm market like. Just displayed in blue crates, still with dirt and leaves in. As if the produce was picked from the farms and brought in to the supermarket. Nothing shinny. For sure there was no wax on these apples. And not packed out in perfect pyramids. It just looked so real. In the aeroplane magazine, there was an article on organics in Bulgaria, and a store called Balev Bio "Mapket". I guess the 'p' is an 'r' to us. Walking in this store, it had all the looks of a health store. But I questioned the organic term, because the blue crates in the local supermarket seemed more organic than this. The Balev Bio mapket stocked things that looked forcefully healthy and at high premiums. If pasta is processed, imagine how much more handling in gluten free pasta with a longer ingredient (preservative) list added to make it bind. So just to avoid gluten, you get a lot of extra crap that I don't think are worth it. So then the boxes better bling with lots of design to make you pay more to give you the comfort of value for money.
Cats are pests there. Like crows they wait for anything. We had a glassy-eyed friend who found us constantly. And by the trash cans they wait. Sometimes young children too.

Just as I said nothing shinny in the stores, there was nothing shinny about the people, the cars or buildings. They had nice cars but they were covered in dust. Their seemed to be no pretense here. The inside was more important than the outside. Things kept very simple. 

 The city is broken down. Ancient ruins are among abandoned buildings. Both old and new now crumbling to dust together. The streets are cobble and cracked. Lots of smoking people. As I went for my runs, I crossed open squares with nice bistro tables, casinos, central park- but broken windows never far from view. We walked up to the old city to where the theatre was. There the opening ceremony was to be held. It was nice to see the historic buildings, churches and museums. But most interesting was a comment from a street seller. He couldn't believe we were American. Too skinny he said. One half of the world dying from no food, other half dying from too much food. He also ventured into political views saying when Bulgaria was communist American would come. Now no tourists from the USA are passing by. He had no idea about the rowing event happening.
The entrence to the apartment

We stayed in an apartment called Luxury Studio Plovdiv. The entrance way was scary. A door next to a barred door looking like it was the entrance to an undercover dance club or bootlegged bar. Then we had to climb 6 flights to the apartment. Our routine was: down stairs (going down always seemed to pass so quickly). To the bikes which we locked to the stairwell. Unmangeling all the chains and bike locks. Bike to the course over the river. Row. Bike to Happy. Lunch. Back to apartment, lock bikes and climb stairs. This time every floor was counted. Every sticker on the door known for its sequence of how many more steps. Into the air-con room.
The rowing course and venue was really nice. In three days they suddenly erected big change rooms with nice shower facilities. The course is decided by an overhanging pedestrian bridge at the 1000m. The first time I passed under instinct caught me ducking. There are wide lanes on both sides of the course to run and bike on. Great for coaching. 

The weather was really perfect for racing. It was very hot in the first week we were there, but the second week, including racing was great. I saw my favorite German weigh-in ladies again! Thank you.

The race was not as I wanted in terms of results. But it was a solid performance. Unlike last year's world championships where I hit the buoys, and was devastated afterwards, this race I was excited to get back on the water to improve. Marie-Anne asked me afterwards how do I feel that the racing is over. She said she felt relieved as the weight has been lifted off her shoulders. I felt as if I've come home and my house was robbed. Two wooden medals are enough for me.

Roman Theatre
Country Bulgaria
Established4000 BC
 • MayorIvan Totev (GERB)
 • Total101.98 km2 (39.37 sq mi)
Elevation164 m (538 ft)
Population (2011 census[1])
 • Density3,316/km2 (8,590/sq mi)
 • City338,153
 • Municipal body403,153
Time zoneEET (UTC+2)
 • Summer (DST)EEST (UTC+3)
Postal code4000
Area code(s)(+359) 032

Bio Food sites:

Monday, August 20, 2012

Final Round up of Bulgaria

Photo from USRowing
We arrived at Sophia airport in Bulgaria about 10 days before racing. This is common for countries outside of Europe, to arrive much earlier, for the adjustment to the eight-plus hours times difference. In fact New Zealand was already there. A very hot Plovdiv, Bulgaria welcomed us. The heat would continue for a few days. Then just as racing commenced temps cooled down to perfect racing conditions.

The first race started on 15 August with four heats. We had the most entries for the Lightweight women's single ever! Only one entry away from going to quarters and that would make history. This is a non-olympic event and this is why it is not usually that well supported. This event is used as a stepping stone to prove speed for the Lightweight Double that is your olympic event. And further more, for USA athletes, if you are in the LW double, you are funded. But because of the Olympics, many girls who didn't make that elusive double came to end their season by racing the single, or even as a special mention, girls who came from the Olympics raced again in the Lightweight single. So it was a packed field.

The heats were meant to be at 6:40pm. I was making provision for rowing so late, since that was an usual time. But the night before, the draw came out and racing time was now 4:30pm. The progression from the heats was tight. Only the winner to semi, the rest to reps (also known as last chance racing to stay in the game). Now I'm not particularly well versed in reps. But when I saw my line up in the heats, I guess I knew I was thrown in the deep end and it was time to sprint. There would be no easing into it.  In Heat 1, you had ALG's Amina Rouba who I meant at the Holland Beker, BRA's Fabiana Beltrame who won the 2011 World Champs, DEN Rikke Quist who's brother performed an amazing win in the LM2x, and GBR's Kat Twyman who comes from the British Lightweight doubles matrix camps.

Heat 2 had AUT's Michaela Taupe-Traer who had been winning two the the World Cups this year, NZL's Lucy Strack who was in the New Zealand double that raced me and Abby out of the LW2x final in the 2010 World Champs, and FRA's Elise Maurin, who I also met in a few races.

Photo from World Rowing
Heat 3 I was in, but so was AUS's Alice McNamara, GRE's Alexandra Tsiavou who was coming from a bronze medal in the Olympics, BLR's Alena Kryvasheyenka who won the U23 LW1x and IRL's Claire Lambe who raced in Brandenburg.
Rowing with SA junior guy
John and the NED coaches

Heat 4 had my training partner from NED, Marie-Anne Franken, and SUI's Pamela Weisshaupt who came 3rd in last years World Champs and also won World cup 3 this year.

So the country countdown begins, Attention.... waiting for the red light to turn green, confirmed by the sound of that distinct buzzer, and we are off. Down the buoyed lane course, setting postion, fighting that first 250m. I was excited to get a feel for the speed. I had an outside lane, so had the advantage of racing on my own focus, but also had to check in to see where my position was. Yip, Greece was gone. I knew going into the last 250m she would win this heat, but it started becoming a tight finish for me and Alena from Belarus. She took the second on me to come in second. It would be DEN, AUT, GRE and CHN to go straight to semi's and the rest of us met the next day for the reps.

Four reps, starting at 4pm. I was in rep two, with NZL and NED and GBR. This time top two to semi. Every race was really a tight fight to make it through to the next round. Usually you can have some confidence in the first steps, or even the rep. But here, before me was another hard race. Off the line we went, and I was working my rhythm. Stroke for stroke, going through my learned processes. At the 1500m mark, I started to confirm positions. I saw that Lucy from NZL was in the lead. But on my right I was fighting with Marie-Anne. We were both fighting for this semi-final spot with all we had. We trained together. Our coaches knew each other. We knew each other's strengths and we also knew the weaknesses. "Go Ursula Go", I chanted. The red buoys of the last 250m came in sight. I heard the finishing buzzer, and I looked over. I had crossed in second. We had the fastest rep time by more than five seconds. Also going through to the semi finals were ITA, AUS, BLR, SUI, BRA and IRL.
Nienke getting ready for Marie-Anne's race
In less than 12 hours recovery, I was lined up again, in lane 2, making my way to the top middle lane, waiting for the country count and start sequence. I was in semi-final two. I don't remember a lot from this race. Like one of those moments where things take care of themselves, because you have prepared so well it just happening. I remember the last few strokes, and feeling the squeeze from two boats, AUT and BLR. I felt good power and pushed that in my strokes. We crossed the finish with a close series of beeps. I thought I was third. The scoreboard showed first. Wow! By just 10th of split second. USRowing reporter Ed Moran interviewed me right after: In the lightweight women’s single, Ursula Grobler (Pretoria, South Africa) raced to a first place finish and the top level final, finishing in 7:49.85, ahead of Michaela Taupe-Traer of Austria, who finished in 7:49.92 and Alena Kryvasheyenka of Belarus who finished in 7:50.25. “This semi was just about going to the last stroke,” said Grobler. “It was a solid race but I just won it by that last stroke,” she said. “I have so much support from my parents in South Africa, my rowing followers in the USA and the Dutch team whom I have been training with. It was them going with me to that last stroke. It has been a long year and I can't reach out enough to this support in heartfelt gratitude.” 
Marie-Anne and Kat from GB

Cyrillic writing
Meeting me in the final would be GRE, DEN, NZL, AUT and BLR. That meant that going to the B-final was Pam from SUI, and Fabiana from BRA. Both were finalists with me in last year's world champs. I would be the only repeat performer from last year's World Champ to the final. WorldRowing also did a nice article about the change in Lightweight women here >

Saturday was a day of rest, or rather recovery work to prepare for Sunday's final. The usual sweat-run routine, and great paleo-nutrition got me ready as I lined up in lane 3, at 10:20am for my Final A in the LW1x. The light went green and off we go, in our lane, racing to the fastest end of the 2000m. Alexandra was next to me and she is so fast at the start. DEN was on my other side. We worked through the race, first 500m, and I was down. I needed to get to work to gain ground. I started moving up on the field. I heard the support cheering. Next the 1000m, and I was there pushing. We went under the overhang bridge which made a strong landmark divider on the course. We held positions, I was somewhere in the second and third crowd. BLR and AUT were next to each other, and next to them GRE, and then me. Into the last stokes, and I crossed in 4th. Damn. Wooden medal again. It was a repeat position from last year. But the times were much faster. In flat conditions, not even a helping tail wind, GRE was only 4 sec 22 thousands away from the World Record. The record is 7:28.15 done in 1994, Paris by Romania's Constanţa Burcică who would race in the great Romanian eight later on in her career. By comparison, the Lightweight Men who raced right after us, were 9 sec 48 thousands off the record. Fellow USRower Andrew Campbell took a bronze in the LM1x.

Media links
WorldRowing - Semi Final report
USRowing - the next big stage
SportsGraphics - racing pictures

Friday, August 3, 2012

Bulgaria shaping up

There is a little story behind the Plovdiv rowing course. Until 1988 it was only a 1000m long. But when in 1989, Plovdiv won the bid to host the World Canoeing Champs, the rebuild was approved to include the rowing distance of 2000m as well. It was redesigned by architect and former Olympian in the women's double's scull Svetla OtzetovaShe approached the integration of the rebuild in a Frank Lloyd Wright way, that is, integration with nature to be the key concept.

The first characteristic is the water level is only only 20cm above the road. This according to Otzetova creates very fair conditions. Lanes have never been re-seeded as we saw on day 7 of the rowing in Eton where the top lanes were seeded from left to right instead of middle to outside lanes. This also means for the spectators, they are more fused with the rowers as the the first row is only 12cm from the first lane. The second integration is that the facilities are all under the boathouse. This was the best way to not disturb the natural aesthetics of the grounds. Finally the weed problem that Plovdiv has too, as well as seen in Beijing (video of Mahe asking divers to remove weeds from his boat) and in Eton, a symbiosis relationship of fish that eat the weeds was created, and rowers can see these big fish in the water.
Read the full interview with World Rowing and Otzetova here

Watch this video of biking along the course.

More photos here and maps here.

USRowing has provided supporting documentation for rowers and spectators here.

Olympic Creed

The Olympic Motto:
Citius, Altius, Fortius (faster, higher, stronger)

The Olympic Creed reads: 
"The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well." 

The Best and Worst Countries in the Medal Count