This year’s World Rowing Indoor Championships was definitely one for the books. As with so much in the past year, the Coronavirus pandemic meant a sudden change of plans and a lot of creativity, which resulted in the first ever virtual World Rowing Indoor Championships taking place February 23–27, 2021.
World Rowing and their partners put on a truly impressive event, incorporating a live race tracker, live video from many of the athletes plus commentators from the UK, Australia and the US, all of which helped to create a live event feel. In total, 763 athletes from 63 different countries raced over three days, all online from the comfort of their own homes or gyms (if racing 2000 metres can ever be described as comfortable!).
The athletes all played their parts as well, and the week saw impressive performances with a number of records broken.
The championships concluded on Saturday with the Men's and Women’s Open. Last year, Ward Lemmelijn of Belgium dominated while winning the Men’s Under 23 race. This year, he stepped up to the Men’s Open division and won in similar style. He pulled a remarkable 5:42.2, finishing nearly eight seconds ahead of Bartosz Zablocki of Poland, with Moldova’s Chirill Visit Chi-Sestakov taking the bronze.
In the Women’s Open race, Kirsten Kline of the US doubled up her earlier success in the 30–39 heavyweight race to take the Open title as well. She won in 6:45.8, with a big push in the last 500 metres putting her ahead of the Netherland’s Sophie Souwer, who finished second.
The Open lightweight races took place earlier on Tuesday (opening day), but they were two of the highlights of the championships. In the Men’s race, Florian Roller of the German national team came from behind to beat last year’s bronze medalist Martino Goretti of Italy to the top spot. Roller won in 6:09.4, while Goretti’s 6:10.7 saw him take the silver ahead of Boudina Sid Ali of Algeria.
The Women’s lightweight race was even closer. Klaudia Pankratiew from Poland was absolutely neck-and-neck with Olga Svirska of Latvia for the first 1500 metres, and just managed to pull ahead at the end to win in a time of 7:09.8. Svirska finished second in 7:10.4 while Krimi Khadija of Tunisia, who went out hard and led the race over the first half, faded to take bronze in 7:12.0.
The final day also saw two great Under 19 (U19) races. In the Men’s race, the American phenom Isaiah Harrison went off at 1:26 pace, with the Junior 18 world record in his sights. The last 500 metres, however, hit him hard, and as his pace dropped, he was reeled in by the UK’s Gabriel Obholzer. Despite his efforts, however, Obholzer was not quite able to catch his rival, and Harrison won in a time of 5:52.5. Obholzer will need to be satisfied with a silver medal and a new British record of 5:53.7. Jan Čížek of the Czech Republic finished third.
The Women’s U19 was even closer, with the two British athletes Meg Knight and Alice Barker trading positions throughout the race. Like Harrison in the men’s race, Baker was in a comfortable lead at 1500 metres. Unlike the men's race, Knight was able to apply just enough pressure, and pulled an impressive 1:42.4 for the last 500 metres to win in an overall time 6:58.7, just six-tenths of a second ahead of Baker. Anastasiya Rusak held off Frederike Föster of Germany to round out the medal spots.
The championships also saw 500m sprint races. In the Men’s Open, Phil Clapp retained his title from Paris last year, winning in a time of 1:11.6, just over a second ahead of Anton Bondarenko of Ukraine. Joel Naukkarinen of Finland took bronze, one of four medals he won at the championships. Naukkarinen also won a silver in the one hour race, and picked up two golds in the men and mixed 3-minute team races.
The Women’s 500m race was won by Ana do Carmo Caldas of Portugal in a time of 1:24.5, matching Olena Buryak’s long-standing world record to become the joint fastest woman of all time over the distance. Even more remarkable was the blistering performance of Australia's Ben Smith, who won the Men's Open Lightweight race in 1:17.4, a staggering two seconds faster than any other lightweight in history. A third 500m record was set by Paola Mancini in the Women’s 50-54 lightweight, who improved the record to 1:38.4.
It was in these veteran’s categories that the records really fell. Gerard le Flohic of France took a a remarkable five seconds off his previous Men’s 65–69 lightweight 2000m record, setting a new mark of 6:46.3.
Also breaking their own records were Australia’s George Peterlin (Men’s 75–79 Hwt, 7:07.9); Mies Bernelot Moens of the Netherlands (Women’s 75–79 Hwt, 8:15.5); Mike Hurley of Great Britain (Men’s 85–89 Hwt, 7:54.2) and Canada’s Alida Kingswood (Women’s 85–89 Hwt, 10:11.8).
The oldest athlete in the championships also became of the oldest record-breaker. Val Coleman of Great Britain set a new time of 13:05.0 to win the Women’s 90–94 Hwt race.
The final record to fall was in the PR1 Women’s race. Birgit Skarstein from Norway set a new time of 8:18.5, beating the existing record holder Moran Samuel of Israel into second place. Although this was the only adaptive record, there was some good racing throughout the adaptive categories, not least in the Men’s PR3 race, where Remy Taranto of France just managed to hold of a fast-closing Marc Lembeck of Germany to win by just half a second in a time of 6:23.5.
Overall the championships was a great success. If you missed out on the racing, or if you want to relive it, you can find video from each day’s racing at World Rowing's Youtube channel.
Next year’s event is set to to place in Hamburg, Germany, February 25–26, 2022. Hopefully it will be much closer to a traditional indoor rowing race, but it will be interesting to see how the new world of virtual racing and the experience gained this year fits into it.