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Rupert GuinnessMay 23, 2024 12:14:05 PM6 min read

There are defeats, and defeats … but none so pained as those in a Final Olympic Qualifying Regatta

By Rupert Guinness with the Australian Rowing Team in Europe

Coming to terms with defeat is part and parcel of sport. But in elite rowing there is arguably no more painful sense of loss than what is experienced in the Final Olympic Qualifying Regatta (FOQR), where career dreams – or in some cases, rowing careers themselves – can come to an end.

“You can lose races and have bad races but I don't think there are any more impactful [losses] than this,” said Australian Oscar McGuinness after the 2024 FOQR at Lucerne, Switzerland, where he missed qualifying the Single Scull for the 2024 Paris Olympics.

“It's different for different people. For some guys, they might not know yet, but this probably was their last one [regatta]. Some of them do know that.

“For everyone, this could have been your last one, it could have been your last shot [for the Olympics] for sure.

“You don't know what will happen in the next four years. So, even if you're intending on coming back, there is a part of this that feels like the curtains have definitely been closed now on the thing that you've been staring at for three years.”

McGuinness was not alone with his thoughts. The initial impact he spoke of was evident on all rowers who missed qualifying for the 2024 Olympics. With crews in all boat classes needing to finish in the first two of the A-Finals on Tuesday, the cheers of success at the Rotsee were very much the minority.

Not so the tears. There were plenty to go around.

There was no cause for cheer for Australia’s four FOQR sculling crews – the Women’s Lightweight Double Scull and the Men’s Double Scull, Quad Scull and Single scull – and their coaches, Tom Laurich (women) and David Fraumano (men) and their support staff.

None of the Australian FOQR crews qualified their boats for Paris, where Australia has already locked in nine berths from the 14 Olympic classes.

But there was every reason to applaud how they gave their all on the water and even more so for how they handled the setback afterwards among Australian team support staff, and their friends and family who came to watch this final fling play out.

The Australian crews were in strong company, though. The Rotsee boating area was swept with emotion as the FOQR, known as the ‘Regatta of Death’ because of its consequences on Olympic dreams, came to end. As with every FOQR where there is so much at stake, it was unlike any other at a regatta, always is; and for the most part fuelled on disappointment.

For those who succeed at the FOQR the joy is just as extreme. Plenty of crews have won or qualified for the Olympics at the FOQR and gone on to win medals at the Games.

In 2021, the Australian Women’s Quad Scull of Harriet Hudson, Ria Thompson, Caitlin Cronin and Rowena Meredith won at the FOQR before winning an Olympic Bronze Medal in Tokyo.

But falling short at the FOQR hurts. McGuinness, speaking the morning after the FOQR finished, said the Australian sculling squad drew strength from one another as a group one last time in Lucerne over dinner on Tuesday night, before parting ways to wherever life after the rowing ‘dream’ takes them.

“Everyone handles this very differently. But I don't think anyone handled it poorly … no one was pointing fingers,” McGuinness said. “We got together pretty much the whole team for dinner. No one was trying to hide away from it.

“Everyone was sombre but there were smiles and hugs and everything like that. So, you know, that's as good as you can hope for.”

It is too early to predict the future of those who raced at FOQR for Australia; those with McGuinness being David Bartholot and Marcus Della Marta in the Men’s Double Scull that placed third; Caleb Antill, Campbell Watts, Jack Cleary and Alex Rossi in the Men’s Quad Scull that finished sixth; and Anneka Reardon and Georgia Miansarow in the Women’s Lightweight Double Scull that also finished third.

They will all need time and space to recover and heal from an Olympic campaign of which they should be proud.

McGuinness raced the FOQR as Australia’s ‘racing spare’ after a strong performance in World Cup I at Varese in April. But he competed in one of the four Australian boats that all missed out on qualifying for the 2024 Olympic in Paris, placing fourth in the C-Final.

McGuinness’ run in the FOQR finished on Tuesday morning when placed fourth in the C-Final of the Men’s Single Scull after narrowly missing the A-B Semi-Finals with a fourth place in his Quarter-Final.

After his C-Final, it pained McGuinness to witness his fellow Australian scullers fall short of qualifying in their A-Finals after being so close to securing a spot in Paris.

“It was pretty rough … after the work that people put into it,” McGuinness said. “What makes it the worst is that everyone was close. Everyone was super close. And then on the day, the women [lightweight] and men's double [sculls] were the closest, missing by one spot … the men were leading the race for a good portion of it.

“The men’s quad, on the day, weren't super close, but this week have shown that they were super close to the standard.”

As for their futures? Some will retire. Some will return for another Olympic bid. Some have flown to Australia already.

Others will travel. McGuinness, who has set off for a “mini vacation” with Antill to Naples, said he learned from last year’s world title in Belgrade, Serbia, where he returned home to Adelaide immediately after he and Sean Murphy failed to qualify the Men’s Lightweight Double Scull for Paris, that he will need time and space.

“The instinct immediately when you're upset and all that is, ‘I just want to get home. Just get me out of here. Get me home’,’ McGuinness said. “But I think you'll regret that. 

“I had that last year when, after worlds, I came home when I was super disappointed. The day after arriving from the long-haul flight, I was on my bike for hours … you can get away with that for a couple of weeks.

“But at some point, it will come back to bite you. You’ve got to let the disappointment be quite extreme now, rather than let it linger for weeks and months.”

Saying that, McGuinness wanted to leave the ART hotel and Lucerne in positive spirit; and he did, by sharing one last breakfast with the team that will race this week’s World Cup and with whom he has trained alongside for months.

“We are pretty flat. I won't lie,” he said. “But it was good to come down [to breakfast]. This was the last opportunity to see the rest of the team before they go on and have this World Cup and the next regatta at the Olympics.

“Your initial reaction is to hide and not see anyone, but I think in the long run, you would regret not coming down and saying good luck to your mates and wishing them well.”