The Kentucky Derby is run around an oval so that the hundreds of thousands of screaming spectators can see the entire race. In contrast, a 2,000-meter rowing “sprint” race is the same length as the Derby, but it is a straight course and spectators (such as they are) can see very little of it.
Unless you are in lane four of a six-lane final, where Jacob Plihal found himself on Nov. 11, as he competed in trials for the Pam Am Games, at a Lake Mercer, New Jersey, venue — the latest watery test for the Vashon-bred rower, who now competes in an elite tier of international athletes competing and training in the sport year-round.
Earlier in this week of “small boat” racing, Plihal had come in second in the time trial. And then, due to an accelerated schedule as Hurricane Nicole barrelled up East Coast, he won his semi-final race to reach the A final.
But what he saw when he looked across the field at the 1,000-meter mark was that he was about two boat lengths behind the leading scull.
“I guess I have some work to do,” he thought to himself.
Suspicious that the leader was pursuing a dangerous strategy of going all out early in the race, he quickened his stroke rate, put his head down, stayed calm and pushed with his long powerful legs.
Plihal was right: the leader started to fade a bit Jacob caught up to him and then launched an all-out sprint for the last 200 meters where the two lead boats matched stroke by stroke to a thrilling finish.
Plihal won by about half of a second (about a third of a boat length). And by winning the single event, he also qualified to race in the quad (four-person) sculling event as well.
The next stop for Vashon’s elite men’s rower will be in Chile, in March, in international qualification races against strong teams from Canada, Mexico, Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina. There, the U.S. team will endeavor to qualify its boats for the actual Pan Am games — also to be hosted in Chile, in October.
Since Plihal’s training center is in Craftsbury, Vermont, where the lake is already beginning to freeze, his training over the winter will be a mixture of indoor rowing machines, cross-country skiing and weight training.
“I’m not a proficient skier but it is great to get off the erg and outside for cross-training,” he said.
In addition to being an important international competition, the Pan Am Games are part of a progression that elite rowers hope leads to a shot at the Paris Olympics in 2024.
Great job, Jacob. Vashon is proud of your hard work and dedication.