Beach Sprints and LA 2028 | An Interview with Team GB

Rowing is changing – and fast. For the first time in history, The International Olympic Committee announced in mid October that Beach Sprint Rowing will be added to the Olympic programme – in addition to classic rowing – for LA 2028. This is a remarkable step towards enveloping this discipline as a cornerstone of our sport and ensuring that there are multiple avenues to becoming an Olympic champion in rowing.

Filippi Boats have been well aware of the growing trend towards coastal and beach rowing and are already one of the world’s leading suppliers of equipment to federations and clubs. As a result, we are already working to ensure that our shells are present at all key racing events between now and the 2028 Olympic Games whilst supporting athletes of today and tomorrow on their journey to the start-line.

Following the announcement of the news, our friends at JRN spoke with Mark Dunstan (Team GB Manager) and Lucy Hart (Beach Sprint Pathway Coach – British Rowing) about their reactions, excitement and strategy for the months and years ahead.

First of all, how pleased are you that Beach Sprints will be officially recognised as an Olympic sport from 2028?

(Mark) I think everyone involved in rowing should be pleased that beach sprints is included in the schedule for 2028. A great deal of work has gone into developing the format and preparing a bid for it to become an Olympic sport, and this is recognition of all that effort. This is where the work starts though, as four and a half years is not long to prepare for an Olympics almost from scratch. There’s a lot of work to do and I’m really looking forward to seeing how the format develops.

(Lucy) Truly excited. It is such a fantastic opportunity for existing scullers in the coastal community and for those seeking an alternative to the more traditional version of the sport. The sport is fun and exciting from both an athlete and a spectator point of view and its inclusion in the Olympics will open up opportunities for more athletes, their coaches and their boat handlers to try the sport and be supported in it. The ethos of the sport is that the organising committee supply the boats; this means that athletes from less affluent countries are able to compete on a par with those from more affluent countries. At the World Rowing Beach Sprint Finals (WBSF), alongside the usual contenders from GB, US, New Zealand and Italy, Tunisa and Egypt won medals, countries not normally associated with rowing.

What do you believe this will do for the sport of rowing as a whole, from a commercial and audience interaction perspective?

(Mark) Beach sprints is a really exciting format for spectators and people new to rowing. At every competition I’ve been to we’ve attracted casual spectators who happened to be on the beach and were drawn into the atmosphere of the event. This was especially true at the recent World Championships in Italy, where spectators filled the two grandstands to capacity, and crowds three or four deep were watching behind the barriers at the water’s edge. I sent the livestream link to some of my friends and family and they were pretty hooked, despite none of them ever having rowed or watched a rowing race in their life before! Hopefully some of these people will see beach sprints and want to try rowing for themselves at their local club. A greater level of exposure for rowing can only be good for the sport at every level.

(Lucy) A common comparison of traditional 2k racing and Beach Sprints is to road cycling and mountain biking i.e. the sports require the same basic set of technical skills but appeal to different audiences. Beach Sprints is a run, a boat entry, a slalom, a sprint, a boat exit, all taking place on dynamic water affected by the prevailing conditions and tides plus the quarter, semi and final for each event takes place in as little as 21 minutes. Beach Sprints have drama and jeopardy and this type of racing attracts athletes who enjoy and thrive in chaos. The whole experience is interactive for the audience; the athletes are interviewed on the start line, there is a DJ booth creating a beach party vibe and a compere whipping the crowd up into a beach sprint frenzy.

How were the World Championships a few weeks ago and what were the key takeaways from a performance standpoint?

(Mark) The World Championships in Barletta were fantastic, and it was the biggest competition I’ve attended so far – I think about 1000 athletes from 45 nations took part. From a performance standpoint we saw the bar raised in every element. Athletes have improved all aspects, from sprinting to boat handling, as well as overall physical ability and wave-craft (their ability to row quickly on a choppy sea). This improvement meant that some of the races were won on much finer margins, and for me the sprinting – especially on the exit of the boat – was more important than before. I’m confident that these margins will get smaller and smaller as we approach the Olympics, and with more skilled rowers and the evolution of boat design we’ll see the racing get even closer.

(Lucy) The World Championships in Barletta was a total showcase of all that is brilliant about Beach Sprints. Alongside all that Mark and I have mentioned, the quality of racing was a step up and featured many Olympians, past and present, most notably Jackie Kiddle who was fresh from qualifying for Paris 2024 in the New Zealand lightweight double. From 2022 to 2023 there was a clear improvement in performance for Team GB. In 2022, Spain had topped the medal table in 2022; in 2023, they finished fourth behind Italy, Great Britain and United States. Our U19s had a successful championships, winning medals in four of the five categories.

Key performance takeaways:

  • The standard of Beach Sprinters is improving year on year and GB needs to stay ahead of the pace of that improvement
  • The running portion of the race is crucial; some races were won (or lost) on the final run from the boat to the finish line
  • Athletes need to be physically strong, particularly in the men’s solo; races were won where athletes were able to muscle their way through the conditions
  • The U19 athletes who had attended training days through the year and worked on their sea skills won medals

How do you believe Team GB are set up for success and what steps need to be taken to ensure that the squad put on the best possible performance in Los Angeles

(Mark) With both strong rowing and maritime traditions I think GB are really well placed for success in beach sprints. We’re lucky in Great Britain to have such a broad depth of rowers of all different backgrounds, from flatwater, to coastal, to more traditional fixed-seat. Plus we’re also lucky to have such a long coastline – I think everyone in the UK lives within 70 miles of the sea. Our big challenge in the beach sprint team is quickly bringing together all the experience and knowledge from all these different elements and putting them into preparing the rowers for Los Angeles.

(Lucy) Team GB already has a good baseline, consistently winning medals at the World Championships. On the back of the announcement last year that Beach Sprint would be included in the Commonwealth Games, new Beach Sprint-specific posts were introduced for England, Wales and Scotland, who are all in the process of developing pathways for athletes to represent those countries and ultimately provide development opportunities for Team GB. Alongside this is the development of Coastal Sculling Academies, venues where athletes can train on the sea and have support for themselves, their coaches and their boat handlers.

The next steps are to;

  • continue working with rowers and their teams who are involved in the traditional 2k program and facilitate the transition to Beach Sprints for those athletes who still participate in both formats
  • to support athletes and their coaches who are already focusing on Beach Sprints as the primary goal of their season by providing training support
  • Seek out athletes with beach sprint potential and provide pathways for those athletes to engage in the sport

What first motivated you to get involved with Beach Sprints?

(Mark) Beach sprints is a little bit of everything I love – I live near Dartmouth in Devon and enjoy all types of sport, but especially those close to the sea. Although ultimately it’s a rowing event, success depends on skills in so many different elements that there’s lots to think about. The fact that it takes place on a beach – often somewhere hot and sunny – is just the icing on the cake.

(Lucy) During Covid, once the restrictions lessened, the only place I could go rowing was with Bob Cottell at the Coastal Rowing Centre in Studland. As soon as I rowed on the sea I loved it; the excitement bordering on fear, going up and down the waves, left me exhilarated. I entered the British Offshore Championships because Bob had a boat available and the athletes I’d been working with at Bob’s (Clare Jamison and Kath Coleman-Jones) were also entering. Kath and Clare had also entered the British Beach Sprint Championships the following day. Guin Batten, designer of the Beach Sprint format and the driving force behind promotion of the sport at an international level, encouraged me to stay and help out at the Beach Sprint Championships. This was a new level of excitement – fast paced, unpredictable, enjoyable – I was hooked and felt a strong desire to bring the sport to as many athletes as possible and support them to perform at their best. When asked to stay to assist with GB Trials the following day I was all in and have been ever since.

What needs to be done between now and 2028 to ensure you have the widest possible pool of talent to draw from?

(Mark) I think as many people as possible need to come and give beach sprints a try. As I’ve mentioned, it’s a format with lots of different elements to understand, and rowing on waves is a skill which needs time to develop. We’re working on growing the opportunities for people to try specific beach sprints sessions, but there are also plenty of coastal clubs around the UK who welcome new members. There are also a growing number of beach sprints competitions that people can come and try their hand at.

(Lucy) Continual promotion of the sport at national and international level using positive role models from all forms of rowing. Ensuring there are coastal sculling academies based in locations around the country. Linking with the youth rowing initiatives. Tapping into the indoor rowing program to identify potential athletes in schools and gyms. For anyone reading this article who wants to get involved in the Beach Sprint Development Pathway via any of the taster sessions or would like information on their nearest coastal sculling location they can do so be emailing lucy.hart@britishrowing.org or james.walker@welshrowing.com or iain.docwra@scottish- rowing.org.uk

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