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

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