Jacob Plihal picks up another win on the road to Olympic Games

Vashon’s Jacob Plihal has clutched another win on his path to competing in the Olympic Games this summer.

Vashon’s Jacob Plihal has clutched another win on his path to competing in the Olympic Games this summer.

Nathan Benderson Park in Sarasota, Florida is the only rowing course in the U.S. sanctioned to host World Championship races (technically, a FISA Class A course; but with a few alligators thrown in for local color).

From April 4 to April 7, this course was the site for this year’s U.S. Olympic selection regatta. Plihal and 17 other aspiring rowers competed in the Men’s Single Scull event.

Amusingly, Nathan Benderson Park didn’t start life as a rowing venue. It was supposed to be a shopping mall. But as excavation for the mall began, the site filled with water whenever a hole was dug. And so, in the spirit of “given lemons; make lemonade” the shopping mall became a rowing course — the relocated mall can be seen in the distance from the course.

At 6-foot 10-inches tall, Plihal’s life course changed early on, too. He didn’t start his athletic career as a rower but rather as a basketball player.

His knees didn’t fill up with water, but they didn’t take to pounding up and down the court either. He needed to find a sport easier on those knees, and thus an exceptional rower emerged. That transition came in 2012, and now 12 years later, Plihal lined up in the final for a shot at the Olympics.

He had won Thursday’s time trial and his semi-final on Saturday (earning the second fastest overall time) to get to the final. This racecourse has 10 lanes and is carefully constructed for fairness, with the entire course excavated to a uniform depth and a causeway that creates a wave barrier. Some river-based courses are comically unfair, with some lanes swept by currents.

The 8:30 a.m. final had six boats, with Plihal in lane five. The starting gun sounded, and the field was off — except for Plihal. A false start was called, blood pressures lowered among his family and friends watching the video feed, and the race was started again.

Plihal had a strong start, maintaining a roughly eight-second lead through the 1500-meter mark, and coasted to a final three-second margin of victory (about one and a half boat lengths).

The racing shells at the starting line are maintained by “stake boats,” Plihal said in explaining the false start. A volunteer in each stake boat holds the racing shell in its lane even with the others.

But “the singles final was the first race with multiple boats for the day, and there was a slight wind across the course,” Plihal said. “Inexplicably, before the race was started, the person holding my stern let go, and I started to skew sideways. I raised my hand, which is the right thing to do, and the referee stopped the race. But the other boats had started down the course and had to come back for the restart.”

So on to Paris? Nope, not yet. On to Lucerne, Switzerland, to face one more hurdle.

The United States didn’t qualify in the Men’s single in the 2023 World Championships, and thus missed automatically qualifying for Paris.

There are two spots left for Phihal to gain access to the Olympic field. He’ll have a chance to snatch one of them at the so-called “Regatta of Death,” which occurs May 17 through 21 between 12 finalists in the central Switzerland city.

The Vashon rowing community will be holding its collective breath.

Pat Call is a Master Rower and parent of two former Vashon junior rowers.