PRINCETON, N.J. – When two-time U.S. Olympic rower Grace Luczak competes in the women’s coxless four at the Tokyo Games on Sunday, the event will have changed immensely since her first senior international competition more than 10 years ago.
Luczak raced the four at the 2010 World Rowing Championships in Karapiro, New Zealand. There were no heats, last-chance repechages for the runners-up in those first rounds or multiple finals like there were in the other events, just a preliminary round in which all boats automatically qualified for the lone final.
That’s because the United States was just one of four countries entered the event.
“And now,” Luczak told USA TODAY. “There are so many more. There are so many more countries that are able to fill that out.”
Ten nations are slated to compete in the newly-reintroduced women’s coxless four, a four-seat boat without a coxswain, at the Tokyo Olympics. For the first time in Olympic rowing history, there will be an equal number of men’s and women’s events. The women’s coxless four, which made its first and last appearance at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, replaces the lightweight men’s four in this year’s program.
“The progression of Olympic rowing for women began in 1976 when women rowers first raced at the Olympics,” World Rowing Federation executive director Matt Smith wrote in an email to USA TODAY. “It has been progressing and developing ever since with input from our stakeholders and taking into account the participation rates.”
IOC’s gender equity initiative reflected in Tokyo Olympic program
The change to the program reflects the International Olympic Committee’s initiative to target Tokyo as a gender-equal Olympic Games. According to the IOC, 49% of the athletes participating are women. Nearly 54% of the United States’ 613 athletes, not including alternates, are women.
American women rowers are especially well-represented in Tokyo. The United States is the only nation at to qualify boats for all seven women’s events. Now that the women’s four is part of the Olympic program, Luczak said the additional opportunity at the highest level of the sport will have a trickle-down effect across the world.
“I think that on the women’s collegiate side, you’re gonna see definitely a honing-in on (the four) and all these countries being able to represent with a smaller number of people in the boat,” Luczak said, comparing it to the eight. “So it’ll be very competitive, which is fun.”
Luczak, the only member of the women’s four with prior Olympic experience, will stroke the United States boat making history. She took fourth in the pair in Rio with bow partner Felice Mueller. After coming up short in 2016, Luczak took time away from the sport and moved to New York City to work for consulting and accounting firm Ernst & Young.
“When I first came to try out in 2019 in the fall, I showed up and I had done the best training, build-up that I could,” Luczak said. “But I definitely was not in the same position that women on the team were who had been training and their fitness was super high from years of being on the team continuously. So showing up I was like, I’m gonna do the best I can.”
A tight-knit community in the four
The COVID-19 layoff tacked on an extra year to Luczak’s training, allowing her to spend more time getting back into rowing shape. Her best effort earned her an invitation to US Rowing’s sweep boat Olympic selection camp in April and ultimately a spot in the four. First-timers Kendall Chase in the three seat, Claire Collins in the two seat and Madeline Wanamaker in the bow seat round out the rest of the crew.
“I have never been through a more grueling, emotional and physical selection process in my entire rowing career,” Chase said. “We all just threw ourselves into meat grinders and hell to try to find the fastest boat possible. So in a way, that has united us more so than anything else that we’ve done.”
That feeling of unity is essential in the four. The boat is more sensitive to unequal contributions than the eight is, so each rower must be on the same page and pull even weight to row the boat smoothly.
Unlike the eight, the coxless four is exactly that – coxless. Without a coxswain, Luczak steers the four from the stroke seat with a rudder cable attached to her right foot. Typically, a coxswain is responsible for making calls throughout the race. In the coxless four, usually one or two rowers in the bow make calls. But in the thick of the race, Luczak said everyone in the boat tends to communicate.
“When you hear someone make a call, you can feel the entire boat react,” Luczak said. “Someone will yell and say, ‘Let’s go!’ Then all of a sudden that next stroke, there is a power, there is a momentum shift, and I think that in the four, you just get this really tight-knit community that builds.”
As the veteran of the four with 11 years of national team experience, Luczak can sense the excitement from first-time Olympians in the boat.
“There’s all that magic and those electric vibes,” Luzcak said. “I can feel it coming out of fingertips and toes when we’re out on the boat.”
Those vibes emanate from the colorful personalities in the four. The stern pair of Luczak, a Stanford University Cardinal, and Chase, a University of California Golden Bear, instigated a “fake rivalry” to keep things light. Between Collins and Wanamaker, Luczak struggled to pick the boat’s top comedian. But she easily crowns Chase the “celebrity” of the group, pointing to her nearly 50,000 TikTok followers.
“We take rowing seriously obviously because this is our job and we want to succeed,” Chase said. “But I don’t think we take ourselves too seriously where it gets to a point where everyone is just like butting heads all the time. We’re out there to learn and have fun and enjoy our experience and go as fast as we can together.”
When the United States rowers arrived in Tokyo, the sporting world will already be familiar with the legacy of the women’s eight, which will look to win its fourth consecutive Olympic gold medal. But the women in the four are eager to make history, too – not only by being the first to compete in a gender-equal Games, but also by being the best in a competitive field.
“I feel honored to be a part of the first four to be in this new system and I think we have a really cool opportunity to show the world that not just men can be fast and perform well,” Chase said. “We are competitors and we can set world records and perform like anyone else, regardless of gender.”