They’ve stood atop the podium in Rio de Janeiro and collected their Olympic medals, heard their countries’ anthems, watched their flags hoisted. This weekend most of the world’s best scullers are back on this side of the equator where the men’s and women’s Great Eights are primed to reclaim their polyglot primacy at the 52nd Head of the Charles Regatta after taking a pre-Games sabbatical last year.
“Everyone has a lot more freedom post-Olympics,” says New Zealand’s Mahe Drysdale, fresh off defending his individual crown. “A year before the Olympics, people are worried about their training program. The next Olympics is four years away so it doesn’t really affect that. This is an event that people know about and want to come to.”
After conceding last autumn’s championship titles to the Yale men and California women, the global all-stars are back in force. The female Great Eight, which prevailed in 2013 and 2014, includes six of the top seven finishers in the Olympic single, most notably Australian gold medalist Kim Brennan and Newton native Gevvie Stone, who earned silver.
Almost all of them will be doing double duty, also competing Saturday in either the championship singles or doubles.
“We’re putting ourselves at a chosen disadvantage because we like racing,” says Stone, who’ll be bidding to equal Anne Marden’s record seven victories in the single after winning by nearly 43 seconds last year.
The Olympians particularly enjoy convening both as collaborators and competitors. “The Great Eight is all about a bunch of mates coming together and seeing how we can go,” says Drysdale, who’ll be sitting directly astern of Croatia’s Damir Martin, whom he nipped in a photo finish in Rio. And instead of defending his singles title, Drysdale will make his doubles debut here with Norway’s Olaf Tufte, his longtime rival and pal who took bronze in the Olympic event. They’ll take on Irish lightweight medalists Gary and Paul O’Donovan and defending Head champs Sam Stitt and Willy Cowles, as well as three-time victors Tom and Peter Graves.
“It’ll be a nice experience to try something new,” figures Drysdale, who won for the third time last year. “I’ve always loved the single, but I felt like I’ve done everything I can here in the single and I might as well use the opportunity. I don’t know how long we’ll both be around. We’re towards the end of our careers.”
Stone, who won her first individual trophy here in an Olympic year (2008), always has gone solo and, as a local, she knows every twist and turn on the 3-mile upstream course. That’s a major reason her seatmates are pairing up in the double.
“This time around nobody wanted to race Gevvie in the single so we took the easy option of rowing with each other,” said New Zealand’s Emma Twigg, the former world champ who’ll be racing with Brennan. “Australia-New Zealand, why not? The Antipodean double. It’ll be good fun, I think.”
The fun is what perennially attracts the international elite to King Charles’s waterway and its challenging October conditions, which are expected to be wet and windy on Saturday and bright and blustery on Sunday. That doesn’t mean that the Olympians are here for a ceremonial paddle. “We take it seriously,” says Stone, who’ll stroke the eight. “We’re competitive people.”
The women’s Great Eight, which will be racing under the host Cambridge Boat Club’s pennant, will have another boatload of serious competitors starting directly behind in the “Super Sweepers,” racing as the New York AC and composed of Olympic pairs finalists, led by British champion Heather Stanning (with eights medalist Jessica Eddie) and New Zealand silver medalists Rebecca Scown and Genevieve Behrent.
The men’s eight, which will be stroked by German silver medalist Eric Johannesen and will compete under the West End ensign of Drysdale’s home club, will have its own gilded pursuers in Leander, the fabled London club that will feature half of the British gold-medal eight from Rio and will be stroked by Alex Gregory, who won gold in the four.
Up ahead of the Great Eight will be a trio of college crews in defending champion Yale, IRA titlist Cal, and 2011 winner Harvard, none of whom will be disposed to pull over to let their bemedaled betters go past.
“We’ve always got those high expectations, but we know we’re up against some really good crews,” acknowledges Drysdale. “After the Olympics, it’s quite hard because no one’s been training like you would in a normal year. But we’ll go out and give it our best.”