The World Championships and preparing for the big one – Tokyo 2020

Photo credit: Nick Middleton & British Rowing

Oliver Cook, GB Rower, World Champion and Boat Race winner looking to win a place for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. Eton Bridge Partners are sponsoring GB rower, Oliver Cook in the lead up to the Olympics games in Toyko next year. Oliver will be giving us regular updates on his progress and performance.

The dust has finally settled on the 2019 international rowing season. In my last blog I wrote about the how the season had gone so far; the triumph of Lucerne, the lessons learned from Poznan, the pressure of Henley and the intensity of Rotterdam. As a crew we had started the season well, we had become European Champions in Lucerne. Three weeks later, however, we were left floundering off the start in Poznan, teaching us the hard way what happens if you don’t bring your ‘A game’ to an international regatta!

At Henley we faced our B boat – made up of one 2016 Olympic Champion, another Olympian, and two World Champion medalists – a crew ravenous for an upset; fortunately, we were the faster boat. A week later was the final World Cup regatta of the season in Rotterdam, and in tough crosswind conditions we came second behind the Australians. That was the story of the 2019 season so far, and the story that I left you with at the end of July.

It is now almost the end of September and I’m coming to the end of a much needed three-week team break after the World Championships. It therefore feels very appropriate to reflect on last season before the start of this next one, which is the big one; the 2020 Olympic season.

Two and half weeks ago I was sitting on the start line of the 2019 World Championships final in Linz, Austria. It was just after midday and it was blazing hot, hotter than the forecast at 33 degrees. The wind had also dropped to being almost still. This was really important because only a couple of hours previous, the organising committee had redrawn the lanes due to a crosswind that was favouring the far side of the course. This would particularly affect us as we had come second in our semi-final, so we would not be in the now favoured two lanes. But as we sat on the start line, the flag above the starter’s platform dropped and had now gone limp on the flag pole.

The World Championships so far had been largely a really good race for us. We had won our heat convincingly, posting the fastest time out of all the other heats to the key markers down the course.

In the semi-final we blasted off the start, taking almost clear water by the 500m and were in control by the half way. But we almost went off too fast because we lost a bit of composure in the second half and let the Romanian crew come back at us.

We didn’t respond in the way we wanted, and they pipped us by one hundredth of a second! This meant that as we sat there on the start line, we felt like we had all the tools to win this race; we had a cracking start, a good race pace rhythm and we knew we had a decent finish if we could get into the race. Nonetheless, there was no question that we had taken our eye off the ball in the semi-final when we had let the Romanians sneak past.

The World Championships the year before the Olympic Games are always several degrees more intense and cut throat than previous international races, and the 2019 World Championships were no exception. In each boat class there are a certain number of Olympic qualification positions available, in the coxless four (the boat I was racing in) this number was eight. This meant that if you came top three in the semi-final, and therefore qualified for the ‘A final’, you also qualified your boat for the Olympic Games. The semi-final carried the responsibility of making sure that Great Britain would have a coxless four at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. If we didn’t make top three then we would have another chance in the ‘B final’, but that would mean having to come top two, and if we were fighting for that then we had really underperformed.

So, we had to come top three, no ifs, no buts, no maybes, we had to get the job done.

This absolute need to get through to the A final sat firmly in our minds. We blasted off the start but lost a bit of composure as we came to the line, letting the Romanians just get the better of us. But we had done it, Great Britain would have a coxless four at next year’s Olympic Games.

Therefore, as I sat on the start line of the World Championship final I felt less nervous than I had for the semi-final. In a sense, this race was now for us – medals were up for grabs. The semi-final had been for the team, a job we had to do, now was our opportunity to put a performance in to get an award that waited at the finish line. The wind dropping was great news. It was now, more or less, a level playing field; as Jurgen says, ‘‘every crew starts level’’.

‘‘Italy, United States, Great Britain’’, the starter began the roll call, ‘‘Poland, Romania, Australia, get ready please’’. The light beside each boat was red. We rolled forward, blades in the water, ready to start. “Attention…GO!” The light turned green and all the boats were off. We raced off and I don’t remember much but thinking ‘good start’.

We hit our high pace rhythm and we were in the pack, maybe a nose in front. As all the crews rushed towards the 500m marker, the pack started to shuffle, we were in second place behind the Polish four. Good. The Italians started to move on the outside and we were jostling for third place.

The Australians, the previous World Champions – dropped – they were out of the race. The Polish crew extended their advantage.

Half way and we were pushing with everything we had, it was now or never. We were half a length behind the Polish four and moved into second place. And we went again, we always go to win, no matter what. The Italians fell back, and we were holding on to second. As the last 500m came we were hanging on with everything we had.

We crossed the line and the Polish crew won, we crossed a bow ball behind the Romanians. We had gone out to win, and by doing so we had lost the silver medal, but we had gone for it. We could barely move as we lay slumped over our blades. We rowed to the medal pontoon and Sholto Carnegie, our stroke man, was taken away to the medical tent and given emergency oxygen. My legs had gone purple and my jaw hurt from the lactate. We had wanted to win, of course, and we had thrown everything we had at trying to do so. But we still had the bronze medal, and that felt brilliant!

Jurgen’s mantra is to always ‘go for gold’ and we definitely tried to do so.

We finished as the 2019 World Championships bronze medalists, a solid result, but not the glorified one we had hoped and knew was possible. The best result though was to see, first hand, how close we were to the winners, a position in fact that we had been in over the season. Going into the Olympic season knowing how close the gap is to the winners, and how possible it is to bridge, is, I believe, the next best result to winning.

I now have a few more days of the break between seasons to enjoy before the new season kicks off next week and the countdown to the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games really begins!