Alex Gregory and Mohamed Sbihi came out top for the second year running in a star-studded men’s pair final at the GB Rowing Team Trials at Caversham, Nr Reading, today.
The duo, both reigning World Champions in the men’s four, soon took a length out of a high-quality field and never lost control of their lead.
Behind them Constantine Louloudis, fresh from Oxford’s Boat Race triumph, and Olympic men’s four champion Pete Reed, fired on all cylinders with 100m to go to nudge past 2012 Olympic bronze medallists George Nash and Will Satch to take second. The result was remarkable given they only had five days together to prepare.
Afterwards Olympic men’s four Champion Alex Gregory, from Wormington in Gloucestershire said: “That was possibly one of the hardest races of the year for us, against our mates, our team mates, our work colleagues and there was a lot of pressure riding on that across the field.
There were six really strong boats there and going into it you didn’t know what was going to happen. Really pleased with our result. There was lots of pressure on us as the lead pair and we’ve been feeling it for the last three weeks. That was really important”.
Surbiton’s Sbihi added: “By halfway we felt in control but up until that point we really didn’t. It’s not been the best of weekends for us, we were trying to show that we were lead pair throughout the season. The first two races didn’t go as well as we would have hoped, we weren’t dominating in the fashion we would have liked too, so to do that in the final, and to get a win like that was really important.
“As tense and horrible as this weekend is, it does show the rest of the world that we have a very competitive and very strong squad and that should give us a good drive going into the summer and the regatta season. We push each other on a day to day basis and nobody is able to sit back and relax. It is an infectious attitude that we have and it makes us one of the better teams in the world.’
Olympic lightweight women’s double Champion Kat Copeland was eased out of the honours in a sizzling lightweight single scull final. It took a video replay to give the verdict to her 2014 crew-mate Imogen Walsh from Charlotte Taylor. Copeland , having led throughout, was caught in the final 100m by the momentum of the battling duo behind her.
Walsh said: ‘I had a really bad winter. I spent a lot of time getting unfit just so I could get fit again, it was what I had to do to get into state of long term recovery. To be back here and racing at all… but then to come out with a win, I was just absolutely astounded.’
“The standard of the rest of the girls went up hugely this year which was really horrible for me to see when I wasn’t training and to see them getting better and better so to come out with a win in that competitive race… I was just really happy for the lightweight women’s crew, it’s really exciting.’
Taylor said: “I feel really overwhelmed! It just reflects what we have been like as a group this year. We got the most out of each other because we were all so determined to win that no-one was going to let anything go. Absolutely amazing credit to Imogen and Kat. We are a really tight-knit group, so we know each other’s style and strategy”.
The upward curve of Katherine Grainger’s return to the sport after two years out was slowed when Vicky Thornley beat her emphatically in the open women’s single scull final. Thornley burst out of the start, had the lead after 100m, was half a length up by 500m gone and then eased out to a full length lead by the mid-point.
Thornley said: ‘I was really pleased, that race went to plan and it was definitely my best rowing of the weekend. I just wanted to go out and not worry too much about what everyone else was doing and put myself in the best position to race well.
“I’ve had a long hard winter and it is nice to feel like the training has paid off and I hope I’m in a good position for selection for the boats in the summer. It is qualifying year, a really important year, and we are going to have to be fast to put ourselves in the medals and to qualify the boats.
Grainger said: “I’ve only been back a relatively short time. It would have been lovely to take the title again but it was a feisty second place and to someone like Vicky who is an amazing sculler. She had a great season last year and has clearly learnt a lot from that.
“The Trials are always competitive events, across men’s, women’s, lightweights, sweep and sculling. There are Olympic champions, World champions, World Cup winners – the depth is really impressive so to some extent the Trials feel like a proper international race”.
Frances Houghton, like Grainger a multi-Olympic medallist, tussled with Tina Stiller and Jess Leyden behind the leading duo before cementing third place on the line. Stiller took an unfortunate boat-stalling crab with 200m to go and lost out to Leyden for fourth.
The men’s single final, won by Charles Cousins for the third year in a row, followed a similar pattern. By halfway it was clear that Cousins would not be overhauled. His fellow world quad silver medallists Graeme Thomas, and Peter Lambert were locked in battle with World U23 medallist Angus Groom in his wake.
Thomas eventually came out on top, digging deep to counter a Lambert push with 300m to go and finding a final burst of his own. Groom lost out by a mere smidgen in his first senior Trial final.
Cousins said: ‘Really pleased with my win especially with how the race came together. It’s been a tricky weekend with the change of schedule and conditions but you’ve just got to deal with and get on with it.’
Jamie Kirkwood, from Ashington in Northumberland, completed a return to form from a knee injury to win the lightweight men’s single scull final. His was the most exuberant celebration of the day as he punched his boat and slapped the water in delight. Will Fletcher, from Chester-le-Street, who raced in the 2015 lightweight double with Kirkwood was second. Richard Chambers, the elder of the two brothers from Coleraine was third.
Kirkwood said: “That was awesome. I really can’t believe it. I felt like I had come back really strongly after my knee surgery in the winter but I didn’t know whether I would be able to get to the form I had last season. I felt good in my semi-final and then just gave it my in the final from the first stroke.”
Fletcher said: “I’ve had a pretty rough winter with injuries so to come back and finish second wasn’t too bad.
I definitely think the lightweight is one of the most challenging events and we were racing against Olympic medalists, so it was really hard. At least the wind died down for the final – it was pretty ropey for the time trials”.
Helen Glover and Heather Stanning cruised to victory in the women’s pair final taking the verdict by 10 seconds from Olympians Jess Eddie and Louisa Reeve. The World and Olympic Champions, representing Minerva Bath and Army BC at Trials, applied an inexorable tempo to move away from the field. Zoe Lee and Katie Greves were third.
Glover, from Penzance, said: “We not only have great respect for each other as athletes but we are great friends on and off the water. I can genuinely say I want to win these races as much for Heather as for myself. We know how much we put into every session – it isn’t just our day job, it’s our passion”.
Stanning, of Lossiemouth, added: “The Europeans kick off the season. In terms of targets, it is difficult to compare times this weekend to regattas elsewhere. We have developed as a pair. Individually we have become better athletes over the years and we have grown together as a combination”.
Sir David Tanner said: “We have had some outstanding racing today with some fantastic tight finishes and whilst most of our top guns have performed to their best we have seen some young talent come through as well.
“The attitude and discipline of our rowers this weekend has been exceptional and this will be a good base for us to form our boats for the European Championships over the next few weeks”.
That squad will be announced on May 13th.