In the women's Challenge, an unparalleled field of Olympians took to the water, defending HTWSC Champion Ekaterina Karsten, who won gold in Sydney by the narrowest of margins, facing Olympic quad sculls silver medallist Guin Batten, and Sydney bronze medallist Katrin Rutchow-Stomporowski. All experienced Challengers, these three were joined by lightweight singles champion Laila Finska-Bezerra, making her Tideway appearance for the first time.
The men's Challenge was no less glittering an affair. Joining regulars Michal Vabrousek (ltwt world champion), Vaclav Chalupa (defending HTWSC Champion) and Iztok Cop (Olympic 2x gold medallist) were a new face and an old one. From Britain came the new Sculler's Head titleholder, Tideway Scullers captain and lightweight Rod Chisholm, to give Michal a run for his money, and returning after a few years away from the competition was Italian Giovanni Calabrese, one of the first scullers of the event's modern era.
The day before the race, the annual weigh-in was the cause for some red faces and smirks, depending on who you were looking at. Calabrese, a little on the unfit side after some time off the water, was miffed to have to wear the pink all-in-one, after he had specifically asked to have any other colour, but made the best of it with good grace (and Giovanni, it did set off your swarthy complexion to perfection!). The various lightweight racers were of course out of competition season, so able to tip the scales harder, but were still outweighed by their heavyweight rivals. The presence of the scullers' families, including hectically-dashing small kids, added to the jovial atmosphere of the event, as the challengers posed with the weights and ergometers in the new Imperial College gymnasium. You could almost forget that they were about to try and row each other off the river the next day.
Friday 23rd March was a still, calm day, with almost no wind. The upstream landwater having slowed the incoming tide to zero, the first half at least of each race would be very dependent on steering, with the visiting scullers at less of a disadvantage than usual, just having to find the straightest line between corners. The Middlesex station, giving a significant advantage on the first bend, was taken by the two British scullers, each of whom won their respective tosses. Full line-up (from Middlesex) was Batten, Karsten, Finska-Bezerra, Rutchow (women) and Chisholm, Cop, Chalupa, Calabrese, Vabrousek (men). There are, however, few rules in the Challenge, and once the scullers have started, they may take each other's water, and also the inside arches of any bridges should they so wish. Umpires Di Ellis and Martin Levy were primarily there to see fair play and stop clashes.
The women's race began with Batten, despite travel-lag after her recent flight back from training camp in Varese, bulletting off the start at a startling 52 strokes a minute, settling to 36. She was looking to open up the first lead, but took the standard centre line along the boats, rather than aiming straight for the Middlesex corner around the Fulham Wall on the streamless water. At the Black Buoy, as Rutchow and Finska-Bezerra turned sharply to cut the corner, they began to erode the 1.5 length lead Batten had opened up, and Karsten, although also on the outside of the corner, settled well into her stride and started to eat up the distance too. Past the Fulham Football Ground it was Batten by a short head still, with Karsten and Rutchow neck and neck behind, and Finska-Bezerra struggling to keep up with the power of the heavyweight Olympians. At the Milepost Rutchow started to move on Batten at a steady rate 27, looking extremely comfortable and sculling beautifully on the calm water.
By Harrods Rutchow had a couple of lengths on Karsten and Batten, and was still moving away with long, sustained, finishes. Then Karsten and Batten veered into each other, and Batten stopped for two seconds before restarting. Rutchow, in control of the race, now gave away her advantage by taking the centre arch of Hammersmith Bridge and letting Karsten cut the corner inside, but had done so in order to stay clear of Guin's boat.
Batten's perspective: "I could feel a vibration under the boat - I thought there might be something stuck there, perhaps the stickers catching the water, or something on the fin. The rate just dropped right down, I couldn't keep it up. When I got to St. Paul's [School, after Hammersmith] and steered, whatever it was knocked off, and the rate came back up. By then I'd dropped back, and I had nothing to lose, so I went for every bend. The tide was ebbing out by the time we got to Barnes Bridge.]
At Emmanuel's boathouse, Karsten and Rutchow clashed and the former was warned. This sent her out into the stream again, and she stayed there to avoid further trouble. That cost her the race, as Rutchow had the shortest line and least stream around the final bend to the finish. At the Brewery, with Batten closing, Karsten pushed hard, then wound down early, and let Batten through to take second place by 0.1 seconds, or a foot. Finska-Bezerra was fourth.
Rutchow was delighted with her first Challenge win, and credited the conditions. "It was my first race this season, and so high a rate was good for me. The flat water was the same as my home water in Berlin so that was good for me too. The middle of the race was close, touching blades. In the last 500 metres I think Karsten was knackered. A great race, very funny."
The men's Challenge started with a bit of a bunfight, Chisholm whizzing off at 40, and Cop and Chalupa stalking one another from rate 38 down to 33 as they steered towards the first corner. Chalupa had the advantage of the inside as they got to the end of the Fulham Wall, and cut the bend drastically, Calabrese and Chisholm following. However, with Cop only feet behind, the move across to the Milepost put the Slovenian back in charge as he was now on the inside station and sculling superbly. By the Milepost the two lightweights were only two lengths back on the heavies and battling hard, and Cop and Chalupa had first and second place and were still overlapping. Calabrese was struggling valiantly, but close to being washed down by the launches.
Round Harrods Chalupa and Chisholm cut back against their leaders by sneaking the inside line, while Cop surged majestically on in mid-river, dismissively able to take a less concise line without it apparently affecting his margin one bit. He tucked in more along Chiswick Eyot, but by the end of this island was moving away again once more. Vabrousek now led Chisholm by just a few feet of clear water, and cheekily steered off him, letting the angle of the Englishman's boat dictate when to cross to the Middlesex bank. Vabrousek also gained some breathing space by allowing his puddles to wash Chisholm down as he sculled steadily in time: gamesmanship at its utmost!
At the Bandstand disaster loomed. Cop, well to mid-river and now opening up a substantial lead, watched as lengths behind him, Chalupa, about two widths out from the bank, managed to avoid a fifteen-foot tree branch as the following launches shouted for him to look out. Some nifty sideways steering kept him clear, and he then tucked into the bank, but by now was unable to dent Cop's massive lead. A ltitle further back, Chisholm also hit a snag as he tried to be just a little too clever, and hit a willow drooping into the high water. This stopped him dead, and despite restarting had given Vabrousek plenty of space, and the Brit was only able to close back half of the six-length gap which had now opened, before the finish.
By the finish Cop had over seven lengths lead, as he could dawdle along and watch Chalupa vainly try to close the gap before the line. The time was extremely slow on the null tide, but conditions had on the whole been good: an excellent pair of races and two very happy champions. Runners-up last year, Cop and Rutchow had finally proved they could beat the Thames and all who sculled on it, Cop regaining the trophy he first won in 1999, and Rutchow taking hers for the first time.
WOMEN Posn Name MP Crabtree H'smith Crossing Barnes Finish 1. Katrin Rutchow NTT 7:55 10:29 16:13 22:08 26:45 2. Guin Batten NTT 8:04 10:38 16:38 22:19 26:54.0 3. Ek. Karsten NTT 8:02 10:31 16:09 22:06 26:54.1 4. L. Finsk-B NTT 8:24 11:19 17:33 23:42 29:13 MEN Posn Name MP Crabtree H'smith Crossing Barnes Finish 1. Iztok Cop 5:06 6:53 9:04 14:14 19:35 23:51 2. Vaclav Chalupa 5:07 6:59 9:12 14:30 20:00 24:13 3. Mich. Vabrousek 5:14 7:06 9:23 14:51 20:26 24:48 4. Rod Chisholm 5:16 7:09 9:26 14:55 20:44 24:58 5. Gio. Calabrese 5:26 7:23 10:00 16:46 24:01 28:23