Plihal’s going to Paris

Vashon’s rower will compete in 2024 Olympic Games

Say hello to the island’s newest Olympian.

With his second place finish in Switzerland’s “do or die” regatta in May, Jacob Plihal (who grew up on Vashon) has punched his ticket to Paris as a member of the U.S. Rowing Team on the 2024 Olympics — his first time competing in the most elite of international sporting competitions.

At about 3:30 a.m. on Tuesday May 21, alarms went off and lights flickered on in bedrooms around Vashon. Bleary-eyed souls shuffled to their computers to load the World Rowing site, which promised real time coverage of the 2024 Rowing Final Olympic and Paralympic Qualification Regatta —the last shot for those athletes from around the world who had not yet qualified to row in Paris.

The venue was the Rotsee, a placid lake just north of Lucerne, Switzerland, which has a storied history of hosting major rowing events — including the first rowing World Championships in 1962. The city of Lucerne dates to the year 750 and is a tourist destination due to its preserved medieval character and proximity to the Alps.

At 2,400 meters in length, the lake just fits a 2,000 meter rowing course, with 200 meters on each end to start and stop a race (the stopping part being more critical — there is a course in Redwood Shores, California where a rock embankment is so close to the finish line that rowers have to jam their blades into the water to stop their boats and avoid a crash).

One unique “feature” of the Rotsee venue is that it was the site of a World War I era ammunition depot explosion, which sent a building worth of grenades skyward into the lake.

It’s nothing to worry about, as long as you stay on the surface.

The individual men’s sculling event kicked off early Sunday (May 19) morning. Thirty individual rowers squared off in five separate heats. In this lineup was Vashon’s own Jacob Plihal, competing for one of two remaining spots in this Olympic event.

From the initial heats, successful rowers progressed through a quarterfinal and then a semifinal, both contested in the early hours of Monday in Vashon time.

Jacob had a solid heat time (placing second to the rower from Ireland) and thus moved directly to the quarterfinals, bypassing a repechage (re-row) stage that allows lower place finishers in the heats another chance to move on. Jacob then proceeded to win his quarterfinal race and, only about four hours later, he won his semi-final as well.

It should be noted that winning these earlier rounds really doesn’t matter; the only thing that counts is to progress.

With the final lineup set and Jacob in lane 3, the prerace media coverage made no mention of him at all. It’s hard to imagine how someone who is 6’10” tall can slide under the radar, but he did.

From the World Rowing website about the men’s scull final: “Despite a challenging couple of years, the Tokyo silver medalist, Kjetil Borch of Norway has had a good regatta so far here in Lucerne and has showed promise, but it’s far from certain. Bourne of Great Britain, Chiruta of Romania and Pazzaia of Ireland have all won two of each of their races so shown plenty of promise.”

Curiously, Jacob had won two of his races as well, but there may be some advantage in relative anonymity.

The final featured an audio feed alternating between British English and German, and a live graphic feed that showed the relative positions of the competitors and rotating instantaneous stats like stroke rate, velocity and meters per stroke.

At Jacob’s height, he has a relatively low stroke rate compared to smaller competitors, so his meters/stroke values stood out. The field was closely packed down the course, with less than three seconds separating all six boats at 1,000-meters.

Again, the audio hardly mentioned Jacob, but he was third at this half-way point and by the 1,500-meter mark (three quarters into the race) he had pulled into the lead. He was still leading with 200 meters to go, but in those last 40 seconds, the Romanian rower launched an all-out sprint and caught him at the finish. The margin was 0.19 seconds.

With second place, Jacob is heading to Paris and the 2024 Olympic games.

“Today’s race was a scorcher,” Plihal said afterward. “It was a battle all the way down the course against a field of scullers with incredible pedigree. Coming away with second place and a qualifying position is pretty surreal. The reality of qualifying really hasn’t set in all that much yet. It’s been an action-packed couple of days with a lot of intense racing, so lots of processing to do still.”

“I’m super excited to have qualified the single for the USA for the first time since 2012 and to have Ben (Davison) and Sorin (Koszyk) punch their tickets in the double was great, too,” Plihal said. “I’m devastated for the guys in the quad. Even though they narrowly missed out on qualification, I want to acknowledge that they’ve been a big part of driving the progress we’ve seen in USA men’s sculling the last few years and played a critical role in the success we saw today.”

To get a feel for Jacob’s journey to Paris, you can track his six-year post-collegiate international resume. In addition to his second place finish in Lucerne, he…

  • Won silver in the single sculls and gold in the mixed 8+ events at the 2023 Pan American Games in Chile in late October.
  • Won gold in the single in the Pan American Games qualifier in spring of 2023.
  • Reached the finals of The Queen Mother Challenge Cup in the quadruple sculls at the 2022 Henley Royal Regatta.
  • Finished ninth in the double sculls at the 2022 World Rowing Cup II.
  • Finished 18th in the quadruple sculls at the 2018 World Rowing Under 23 Championships.
  • Finished 14th in the quadruple sculls at the 2017 World Rowing Under 23 Championships.

That’s a lot of miles and strokes, all in races against the toughest competitors from around the world — and an almost unimaginable commitment to excellence in this sport that mostly is performed anonymously.

We’ll be watching you in Paris, Jacob — even if we have to get up early again.

Pat Call is a masters rower with the Vashon Island Rowing Club.