What we learned: Rowing wrap-up from the Tokyo 2020 Olympics

From Emma Twigg and New Zealand's joy to first golds for Ireland and Greece, we reflect on rowing's most memorable moments at Tokyo 2020, recap the medals, and look forward to Paris 2024.

Picture by 2021 Getty Images

There were spills, thrills and surprises aplenty in the Tokyo 2020 Olympic rowing regatta at the Sea Forest Waterway.

First rowing Olympic golds for Ireland and Greece, China's return to the top step of the podium, and three golds for New Zealand capped by a first men's eight triumph in 49 years.

Meanwhile, rowing superpowers Great Britain managed just two medals with the United States going home empty-handed after the women's eight finished fourth in their bid for a fourth consecutive gold.

Read on for some of the most memorable moments, a recap of the medal winners, and who to look out for at Paris 2024.

Top 5 rowing moments at Tokyo 2020

Here are some of the highlights from the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, which took place in 2021.

1: Emma Twigg and Hamish Bond help New Zealand rule Olympic regatta

New Zealand's first gold in Tokyo came courtesy of Grace Prendergast and Kerri Gowler in the women’s pair, coming through in the second half of the race to win from ROC with early leaders Canada in third.

Great Britain, with London 2012 and Rio 2016 gold medallist Helen Glover making her return after having three children, were fourth.

After heartbreak at two Games, Emma Twigg scored a popular success in the single sculls.

With Ireland’s two-time world champion Sunita Puspure failing to qualify, and ROC’s Hanna Prakatsen making a sluggish start, Twigg was able to dictate the final pretty much from the outset.

Twigg finished fourth at London 2012 and Rio 2016, but never looked like being caught after reaching 500m in front and stretching clear.

Prakatsen took silver with Austria’s Magdelena Lobnig third.

The 34-year-old Kiwi took time out after Rio, moving to Switzerland to study and then work for the IOC and completing an Ironman triathlon.

She even started a round-the-world bike ride, but being at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Games persuaded her to return to New Zealand and train for Tokyo.

Twigg said, “It has been a long and rocky journey. To cross the line and win the gold medal was pretty mind-blowing and special.”

If you believe in yourself and keep going and dreaming, this can be the result. – EMMA TWIGG

Emma Twigg women's single sculls podium Tokyo
Picture by 2021 Getty Images

After silvers in the women’s double sculls and women’s eight, New Zealand clinched their third gold in the men’s eight.

In the crew was Hamish Bond who won gold in the pair with Eric Murray at London 2012 and Rio 2016.

When Murray retired after Rio, where they maintained their eight-year unbeaten record, Bond switched to road cycling and won the Oceania time trial title in 2018.

In March 2019, however, Bond opted to return to the water with a view to being part of the New Zealand eight in Tokyo.

The postponement of the Games by a year certainly helped a raw and talented group gel with the 35-year-old’s experience in the two seat proving invaluable.

It was desperately close between New Zealand and pre-race favourites Great Britain and Germany at halfway, but the Kiwis then pulled out into a lead which was almost half a boat length with 500m to go.

The Germans finished strongly to pass Britain, but they could not catch New Zealand who gleefully celebrated the nation’s first win in the event since Munich 1972.

At the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games, middle-distance running legend Peter Snell carried the flag before winning the 800m and 1500m.

History repeated itself as Bond and co-flagbearer, rugby sevens player Sarah Hirini, both won gold in Tokyo.

Bond said, “We had shown potential throughout the year and started to believe more and more that we were capable of pulling it off. To have done it with these guys... unreal.

“Some of these guys, 20, 21, to turn up to an Olympic final and win a medal, I'm so proud of everyone's efforts throughout the year.”

The New Zealand rowers’ tally of three golds and two silvers was their best ever at an Olympic Games.

Hamish Bond New Zealand men's eight Tokyo
Picture by 2021 Getty Images

2: First golds for Ireland and Greece

Ireland came to Tokyo with genuine hopes of a first gold medal in rowing.

It came in the men’s lightweight double sculls courtesy of Fintan McCarthy and Paul O’Donovan, the latter having won silver at Rio 2016 with brother Gary.

Like the O’Donovans, McCarthy hails from Skibbereen in County Cork.

He split the brothers’ pairing with his form in 2019 and Gary ended up travelling to Tokyo as a reserve.

Having set a world best in the semi-finals, McCarthy and O’Donovan were initially content to sit behind the fast-starting Germans and Italians on either side.

After 500m, the Irish duo cruised past Italy but they found it far harder to shake off the Germans despite their stroke rate of 40 per minute.

It was not until the final 250m that the Irish started to assert, crossing the line half a boat length clear for a famous success five years after the O’Donovans put Skibbereen Rowing Club on the map.

And while Paul O’Donovan enjoyed the triumph, being an Olympic champion will not change who he is.

He said, "There is a ceiling on how well and happy you can feel about this type of thing. We try to be happy about the place all the time.

"It gives you a boost, for sure, but you’re not going to explode with excitement and happiness afterwards, you know?”

Ireland also won bronze in the women’s coxless four, finishing ahead of Great Britain for the first time in an Olympic rowing regatta.

O'Donovan McCarthy Ireland lightweight double sculls Tokyo
Picture by 2021 Getty Images

There was also history for Greece.

Stefanos Ntouskos had stunned observers in the single sculls semi-finals with the way he rowed through his rivals in the early stages.

Could he do the same in the final?

The answer was an emphatic yes, as the 24-year-old stroked his way powerfully past Norway’s fast-starting Kjetil Borch and Sverri Nielsen of Denmark before the midway point.

He maintained a lead of a third of a boat length until 300m to go when Borch attacked, but Ntouskos had left something in reserve and pulled out more to record a dominant success.

Borch took silver with Croatian veteran Damir Martin, who lost out to Mahe Drysdale for gold in Rio by a whisker, edging out Nielsen for bronze.

Ntouskos said, “I was in the third place at 750 metres. There was one variation, to go up with strokes. I changed my rhythm and power, and then I was in front.

"It was a very difficult race. I tried to keep contact with them. I knew the opponents were very tough.”

As well as Greece’s first ever Olympic rowing gold, it was the nation’s first medal of Tokyo 2020 with three more following including gold for long jumper Miltiadis Tentoglou.

Stefanos Ntouskos celebrates single sculls Tokyo
Picture by 2021 Getty Images

3: Sinkovic brothers complete set

Croatia’s Martin and Valent Sinkovic made history in Tokyo, adding gold in the pair to their double sculls title from Rio 2016.

Not many rowers switch successfully between sculling (two oars) and sweeping (one oar). Those that do usually combine a sculling event with the eight.

Previously, only Canada’s Kathleen Heddle and Marnie McBean – in the women’s pair at Barcelona 1992 and double sculls at Atlanta 1996 – had won the two two-person events.

The Sinkovic brothers switched to the pair after Rio and had to settle for silver at the 2017 World Championships behind Italy’s Matteo Lodo and Giuseppe Vicino.

Since then, they have been largely dominant although they were beaten by Romania’s Marius Cozmiuc and Ciprian Tudosa at last October’s European Championships.

Cozmiuc and Tudosa qualified fastest for the final, but the Croats went out hard and established a two-second lead at the midway point.

The Romanians are renowned for their strength in the second half of the race, but the Sinkovic brothers maintained their advantage in the third 500m and had more than enough in hand with Cozmiuc and Tudosa half a boat length behind.

Mission accomplished, and the end of the road in sweeping.

Valent Sinkovic said afterwards, “The plan now is to rest. We don’t do pairs anymore. Five years is enough. We are better scullers.”

Martin added, “We are scullers and it was a little difficult to adapt. We had a lot of challenges. It helps that we are brothers. If not, I think we will have much more fighting in the boat. I’m really happy we’ve done it.”

4: China emerges as rowing superpower under Steven Redgrave

China won just their second Olympic gold in rowing, 13 years after their first on home water in Beijing.

CHEN Yunxia, ZHANG Ling, LYU Yang and CUI Xiaotong secured it with a dominant display in the women’s quadruple sculls, making the best of the tricky conditions.

They went out fast and continued to pour it on at the front, passing midway a boat length clear of Germany.

The Germans looked booked for silver but, with 250m to go, Daniela Schultze in the bow seat "caught a crab" – her right oar stopping in the choppy waters – and fell backwards, almost bringing the boat to a halt.

They eventually recovered to finish fifth with Poland and Australia moving into the medal places.

No such problems at the front as China crossed the line six seconds clear of the pack in a new world best of 6:05.13.

The nation also won bronze in the women’s eight and in the men’s double sculls through LIU Zhiyu and veteran ZHANG Liang.

Great Britain’s five-time Olympic gold medallist Steven Redgrave has been China’s lead coach and performance director for this Olympic cycle and will remain in his position until at least Paris 2024.

He said, “The gold medal, with a world-record time, you can't fault that. Winning by over five seconds, that is unbelievable in Olympic racing. China should be so proud of that, but China always wants an eight to do well and to medal. Probably the eight getting a bronze medal is as big as the gold, so that will bring more people into the sport. That boosts their confidence, so our team should go from strength to strength.

“We’ve got athletes, we’ve got finance. They’ve got the capability of being the best in the world.”

Meanwhile, Britain had its worst Olympic regatta since Munich 1972 with a return of just one silver and one bronze.

Last year's surprise departure of chief coach Jurgen Grobler, the mastermind behind Redgrave’s and Britain’s success over the past three decades, provoked a mixed reaction with one member of the bronze medal-winning men’s eight, Josh Bugajski, admitting he "popped a bottle of champagne when Jurgen retired". His view was not shared by the rest of the crew.

Redgrave said pointedly, "We've changed our system in the last year and suddenly, from being one of the best nations, we're down nearer the other end.

"If you bring in systems and selection panels like we had in the 1970s and 80s, you must expect results that we had in the 70s and 80s."

China women's quadruple sculls gold Tokyo
Picture by 2021 Getty Images

5: Australia double up in fours

Australia won two golds in Tokyo, taking the women’s four and men’s four in quick succession.

This was the first Olympic women’s four for 29 years, ensuring complete gender equality in rowing at Tokyo 2020, and the Australian crew - Lucy Stephan, Rosie Popa, Jess Morrison and Annabelle McIntyre - were strong favourites after a blistering performance in the heats.

They had the Netherlands for company at 500m, but then the world champions started to open out into a commanding lead.

The Dutch rallied strongly inside the final 400m, but Australia held on for gold by just 0.34s with Ireland charging home for bronze ahead of Britain.

Victory came at a cost with pair gold prospects Morrison and McIntyre missing out on the A final after their schedule was wrecked by postponements caused by poor weather.

Australia women's four Tokyo
Picture by 2021 Getty Images

Just 20 minutes after the women's four success, Alexander Purnell, Spencer Turrin, Jack Hargreaves and Alex Hill ended Britain’s run of five consecutive wins in the men’s four.

The Australians were a boat length clear after 800m, but Britain closed the gap in the third quarter with the rest of the pack also advancing.

As Romania and Italy powered into medal contention, Britain lost their steering in the last 200m and hampered the Italians, costing them a shot at silver.

In the end, Australia just had enough to win from Romania by 0.37s for their first men’s four gold since Atlanta 1996, with Italy third ahead of the wayward British.

Hill was delighted at ending that 25-year drought, saying, “We’re just super grateful to be sitting in that boat. Those legends before us have achieved what they have, so it was just amazing to put it back where it belongs.”

Australia men's four Tokyo
Picture by 2021 Getty Images

One last look

A stalwart of American sculling for the past decade, Genevra Stone, has retired from rowing for good after Tokyo 2020.

Stone quit after winning single sculls silver at Rio 2016, but the lure of a third Games was too great to resist.

The 36-year-old finished fifth in the double sculls final with Kristina Wagner, and this time there will be no return with Stone going back to work full-time as an emergency room doctor.

Helen Glover was unable to win a medal on her incredible return to the water, but fourth place with Polly Swann in the women's pair was a great effort given the mother of three only announced her comeback in January.

The 35-year-old said, "The reward is knowing that we crossed the line giving it our all. The frustration would have been coming away from thinking we had more and we didn’t."

Swann, 33, who completed her medical degree last year and has returned to working in a hospital in Scotland, has not ruled out Paris 2024.

Citing her team-mate, she said, "Maybe I’ll do a Helen Glover. Maybe take one year to work, one year to have a baby and one year to do a comeback. We’ll see."

Kasia Gruchalla-Wesierski produced a comeback of her own to be part of Canada's winning women's eight boat.

The 30-year-old broke her collarbone in a road bike crash just six weeks before the Games and had an operation to fit a metal plate and screws as well as 56 stitches.

That did not stop the Calgary native who arrived in Tokyo 10 days after her team-mates and proved her fitness before helping Canada to their first women's eight success since Barcelona 1992.

Canada women's eight Tokyo
Picture by 2021 Getty Images

Hello Paris 2024

China is definitely the nation to watch after their gold and two bronze medals at Tokyo 2020.

The women's quadruple sculls boat justified their pre-event favouritism while three of the crew which finished fifth in the women's four will be around for Paris.

As Steven Redgrave noted, the bronze medal in the women's eight should provide real impetus ahead of the next Games.

France finished just above China in the medal table with Hugo Boucheron and Matthieu Androdias adding Olympic gold to their 2018 world title in the double sculls.

At 31, Androdias must be seen as doubtful for Paris but Boucheron is only 28.

France's other medal was silver in the women's lightweight double sculls with Laura Tarantola and Claire Bove both young enough to figure in their home Games.

They will probably come up against their conquerors in Tokyo, Italy's Valentina Rodini and Federica Cesarini, who took gold by just 0.14s.

Greece's history-maker Stefanos Ntouskos was hugely impressive in winning the single sculls and the 24-year-old could dominate the division for years to come.

The Dutch won the men's quadruple sculls in a world best time with a crew filled with experience. Dirk Uittenbogaard, 31, is the only one of the four who would probably not make Paris.

Ancuta Bodnar and Simona Radis were comfortable winners of Romania's sole gold in the double sculls and, at just 22 years of age apiece, should be around for Paris and beyond.

Romania Bodnar Radis women's double sculls gold Tokyo
Picture by 2021 Getty Images

When and where to watch rowing replays on Olympics.com

The answer is: olympics.com/tokyo2020-replays

When do the top rowers compete next?

The World Rowing Championships scheduled for Shanghai in October have been cancelled due to Covid mitigation measures, spelling the end of competitive rowing for 2021.

The 2022 Rowing World Cup starts on the last weekend of May in Belgrade with subsequent rounds in Poznan, Poland (18-19 June) and Lucerne (9-10 July).

The next World Rowing Championships will be held next September in Racice, Czech Republic.

Full medals list in rowing at Tokyo 2020

Women's single sculls

Gold - Emma Twigg (NZL)

Silver - Hanna Prakatsen (ROC)

Bronze - Magdalena Lobnig (AUT)

Women's double sculls

Gold - Romania (Ancuta Bodnar and Simona Radis)

Silver - New Zealand (Brooke Donoghue and Hannah Osborne)

Bronze - Netherlands (Roos de Jong and Lisa Scheenaard)

Women's quadruple sculls

Gold - China

Silver - Poland

Bronze - Australia

Women's coxless pair

Gold - New Zealand (Grace Prendergast and Kerri Gowler)

Silver - ROC (Vasilisa Stepanova and Elena ORIABINSKAIA)

Bronze - Canada (Caileigh Filmer and Hillary Janssens)

Women's coxless four

Gold - Australia

Silver - Netherlands

Bronze - Ireland

Women's eight

Gold - Canada

Silver - New Zealand

Bronze - China

Women's lightweight double sculls

Gold - Italy (Valentina Rodini and Federica Cesarini)

Silver - France (Laura Tarantola and Claire Bove)

Bronze - Netherlands (Marieke Keijser and Ilse Paulis)

Italy Rodini Cesarini women's lightweight double sculls Tokyo
Picture by 2021 Getty Images

Men's single sculls

Gold - Stefanos Ntouskos (GRE)

Silver - Kjetil Borch (NOR)

Bronze - Damir Martin (CRO)

Men's double sculls

Gold - France (Hugo Boucheron and Matthieu Androdias)

Silver - Netherlands (Melvin Twellaar and Stef Broenink)

Bronze - China (Liu Zhiyu and Zhang Liang)

Men's quadruple sculls

Gold - Netherlands

Silver - Great Britain

Bronze - Australia

Men's coxless pair

Gold - Croatia (Martin and Valent Sinkovic)

Silver - Romania (Marius Cozmiuc and Ciprian Tudosa)

Bronze - Denmark (Frederic Vystavel and Joachim Sutton)

Men's coxless four

Gold - Australia

Silver - Romania

Bronze - Italy

Men's eight

Gold - New Zealand

Silver - Germany

Bronze - Great Britain

Men's lightweight double sculls

Gold - Ireland (Fintan McCarthy and Paul O'Donovan)

Silver - Germany (Jonathan Rommelmann and Jason Osborne)

Bronze - Italy (Stefano Oppo and Pietro Ruta)

France Boucheron Androdias men's double sculls Tokyo
Picture by 2021 Getty Images