Olympic Games - London Dorney Lake Eton, Great Britain

Before ever getting to race, the single scullers spend long training pieces alone, with no crew mate to shout words of encouragement or to pass them a drink as they turn their boat at the end of a long lake. They must be their own greatest supporter and their own biggest critic all in one. Yes, the men’s single is a lonely place but once these scullers step out of their boats it is a different story.

This week World Rowing focuses on the men’s single sculls as part of the Olympic review series, looking at the on-water battles and off-water friendships of those who challenged to become 2012 Olympic Champions.

In London, the route to the A-final was a long one. With such a large number of boats in the event, the least number of races these challengers could expect to row was four. If they found themselves in the repechage it was five. This was not an easy feat, whether you knew gold was within your reach or that this was your first time on the world stage, as it was for Niger’s Hamadou Issaka, who became fondly known by the media as ‘Hamadou the Hippo’.

During the London Olympiad a number of athletes had established themselves as the top contenders to become the Olympic Champion. Names like Ondrej Synek (CZE), Alan Campbell (GBR), Lassi Karonen (SWE), Mahe Drysdale (NZL) and Olaf Tufte (NOR) had enveloped the boat class from the pre-Beijing 2008 era. And they were joined by newcomers such as Cuba’s Angel Fournier Rodriguez and Azerbaijan’s rising star Aleksander Aleksandrov. There was no doubt that whoever would make it through to the final six scullers in London would have really earned it.

Double Olympic Champion Tufte posted very mixed results since his last time of the Olympic podium in Beijing. However, when he failed to make it through to the final it was still a shock to many. After missing out on the final Tufte was asked who he thought would win the final. His answer: “I don’t think – I demand,” Tufte said, “and Mahe wins that final…He is the man. When I can’t, he should – otherwise he’s going to swim!”

But there were no certainties for  reigning World Champion Drysdale. Just days before the last international race before the Olympics, Drysdale was knocked off his bike by a car and found himself unable to compete. His pre-Olympic preparation was hampered because of the accident, with Drysdale spending recovery time on the bike instead of on the water. Through the initial rounds of racing he looked as though he was on target for gold but would he be able to hold form through to the final, or would his rivals and friends catch up with him? 

Lining up on the start of the final at Eton Dorney were five Beijing scullers with the addition of newcomer Aleksandrov, who was fresh from victory at the World Rowing Under 23 Championships.

The first 500m of the race was a real battle to establish position but by the half-way mark Drysdale and Synek had set themselves up as the leading duo, with Campbell, Karonen and Aleksandrov fighting it out for bronze medal position. Racing past the thousands of spectators that lined the course Drysdale had established himself as the next Olympic Champion. The tightest of battles was now going on between Karonen and Campbell and at the finish line it was Campbell who claimed the bronze.

In the weeks and months following the 2012 Olympics one may think that rowing was the last thing on the mind of these scullers. However, just weeks after the Games, stories were emerging of rowing’s greats joining up on the water. Scullers of the past and present such as Tufte and Vaclav Chalupa (CZE) travelled to Slovenia to pay tribute to another friend,  Iztok Cop, at his retirement regatta. 

Then in what has become a tradition since 2009, coach Billy Barry rounded up some of rowing’s greatest to form a ’Great Eight’ at the Head of the Charles in Boston, United States. Amongst them were: Drysdale, Tufte, Campbell, Marcel Hacker (GER), Karonen and Aleksandrov. 

Then in early December, Karonen, travelled across the world to New Zealand to race against his friend and competitor, Drydsale and the nation’s other rowing gold medallists in the Billy Webb Challenge. Drysdale won and this helped him decide to continue rowing to the 2016 Rio Olympics.

The camaraderie shown amongst these highly competitive athletes is admirable and refreshing and will undoubtedly continue through to the newcomers aiming for Rio.