Oar-some effort as China returns to rowing's elite

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Liu Zhiyu (C)/Zhang Liang of China react during the ceremony for rowing Men's Double Sculls final at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan, on July 28, 2021. (Xinhua/Du Xiaoyi)

Guided by British legend Steve Redgrave, the Chinese rowing team has propelled its way back to the pinnacle of the Western-dominated sport thanks to its gold-bronze combo at the Tokyo Olympics regatta on Wednesday.

Thirteen years after claiming the country's first Olympic rowing gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Games, Chinese rowers again proved that they have what it takes to succeed in the grueling sport by winning the women's quadruple sculls and taking a bronze in the men's double sculls on the same day at the Tokyo Games.

Despite windy conditions at Sea Forest Waterway, the Chinese crew of Chen Yunxia, Zhang Ling, Lyu Yang and Cui Xiaotong dominated the final, smoothly pulling away from their rivals on the 2-kilometer course to finish in 6 minutes and 5.13 seconds and clinch gold in the same event as the triumphant 2008 Chinese crew.

Their spectacular performance also set a world-best time, shaving nearly two seconds off the previous mark, set by Germany in 2014. China remains the only non-European nation to win Olympic gold in women's quadruple sculls.

Poland (6:11.36) won the battle for silver after finishing more than six seconds behind Team China, while Australia took bronze in 6:12.08.Defending champion Germany could only finish fifth.

In sculling events, rowers use two oars, while in the sweep discipline athletes row with a single oar.

China's triumphant quartet, who won the event at the 2019 world championships, said that despite their huge margin of victory, winning was far from easy.

"It may seem like we won it easily, but the effort we put in during our prolonged preparations due to the COVID-19 pandemic was not easy at all," said Lyu, a 27-year-old Henan native.

"With this gold medal today, it feels like all the not-so-easy experiences have become easy," Lyu added, much to the amusement of her crewmates.

Bronze breakthrough

Earlier in the morning session, Zhang Liang and Liu Zhiyu made history by claiming China's first Olympic medal in men's rowing after finishing third in a tightly contested double sculls final, clocking 6:03.63. France won gold, with the Netherlands taking silver.

As the defending world champions, Zhang and Liu stormed into an early advantage to comfortably lead at the halfway point, before running out of steam and seeing their stroke rate plummet over the final 500 meters.

Although disappointed at not being able to deliver a golden breakthrough, the Chinese rowers were nonetheless satisfied with their podium finish.

"We came for the gold, yet the pressure of competing at the Olympics obviously took a toll on our performance," said Liu, a 28-year-old Olympic debutant.

"Still, we finished with a medal around our necks. It's quite a big breakthrough in itself, and proves that the Chinese can compete against European powers in this sport."

Zhang, a three-time Olympian having raced at Beijing 2008 and London 2012, attributed the pair's improvement to the influence of British legend Redgrave.

The only rower in history to win five gold medals at five consecutive Games, from 1984-2000, Redgrave was hired by the Chinese Rowing Association in 2018 as its high-level performance director.

Redgrave has made key adjustments in fitness, endurance, stroke efficiency and recovery during the preparations for Tokyo. And after seeing China win golds in the women's quadruple and men's double sculls at the 2019 worlds, the Briton suggested that more medals would be on the way in Tokyo.

Friday's women's eight final could, as predicted by Redgrave, produce a third medal.

"We did have a lot of the other women rowers in lots of boats… we decided to put them all into an eight and for some reason it's gone really well and they've put themselves in contention for winning a medal," Redgrave told Laureus.com last week.

"Winning a medal in the women's eight, that will be bigger than winning a gold medal in one of the other events, and that's how highly they rank in the eight event. So it's exciting times."

After failing to reach the final via their heat on Saturday, the Chinese eight squad qualified with a third-place finish in Wednesday's repechage.

A revered figure in the international rowing community, Redgrave could easily have stayed in Europe to continue working with more established programs after coaching the British women's team at three Games from 2008-16.

Yet, the 59-year-old said China's potential to develop into a rowing superpower swayed him.

"I think the resources China has are immense," Redgrave said.

"The size of rowers needs to be big, and we have a very strong squad with good juniors coming in to feed the team.

"The potential in the future is immense, I think we can be the No 1 rowing team in the world. That's the main reason for me to come here."

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