It’s nearly time to begin a new decade, and what better way to wind down the last 10 years (!) than with a few posts reflecting on the top performers, most exciting finishes, and best programs. Hard as it may be to believe (especially for us), RowingRelated actually first started in October of 2010. Since that time, there have been many advancements in performance, on the water and off, even as the media landscape has shifted constantly as well. And yet, in rowing, so much stays the same.
Here are the 10 athletes whose performances elevated them to the upper echelons of rowing’s storied history, as well as help push the sport forward as a whole.
The 10 Best Rowing Athletes of the Decade
Number 10: Grace Prendergast, New Zealand
For starters, the only reason Prendergast isn’t higher up this list is that, so far, the Olympic podium has eluded her. But that’s only a matter of time. Prendergast and pair partner Kerri Gowler put the world on notice as U23 athletes, crushing the world best time and then immediately elevating their game to the elite level, where they had some intense battles with the GB combo of Helen Glover and Heather Stanning in the run up to Rio.
The duo of Prendergast and Gowler hold the current world best time in the women’s pair, 6:49.08, which they set at the second World Rowing Cup in 2017 in Poznan. (They’re also world best time holders in the women’s four — a 6:14.36 from the 2014 world championships in Amsterdam.)
Prendergast has proven to be among the sport’s most versatile, with skills translating from the pair, to the four, to eight—and earning podium finishes across the board. As we said of Prendergast and Gowler when we awarded them a RoRy for Breakthrough Performance of the Year in 2014:
These two athletes got everyone’s attention quickly in the women’s pair over the summer, and for very good reason. Gowler and Prendergast have previous international experience, but finding the right combination has paid huge dividends, and the world took notice when they rocked up at the Lucerne World Rowing Cup and came within three seconds of edging Olympic champs Heather Stanning and Helen Glover of Great Britain. Then, they absolutely blew the doors off the event at the U23 world championships, winning by roughly 13 seconds over the field. The only problem for Rowing NZ: They already have a senior women’s pair that is capable of winning a medal (which they did in Amsterdam). Not to worry—the Kiwis just slotted Gowler and Prendergast into a new-look women’s four for senior worlds, and won gold ahead of the U.S. Yeah, that’s a pretty good season, all right.
This year, she doubled up in the women’s pair and women’s eight, and took home gold from Linz in both boat classes.
- 4x world champion
- 8x world medalist across junior, U23, and senior levels
- Fourth place finish with the New Zealand women’s eight in Rio
Number 9: Pete Reed, Great Britain
There are few athletes who better lived up to their potential than Pete Reed. The man who was touted as among the most naturally gifted in terms of lung capacity found a rhythm with Andy Triggs Hodge (also legendary in his own right) in the pair, and gave the Kiwi Pair some of their closest and most hard-fought battles — including an amazing final at the 2010 World Rowing Championships in New Zealand (on that, more later).
Of course, by then Reed had already won an Olympic gold medal in the coxless four (with Triggs Hodge), and the duo would repeat at their home Games in London. Following the victory in 2012, Reed made a switch into the men’s eight — from 2013-2016, the GB men’s eight matched the Deutschland Achter’s feat of the previous Olympiad, winning all three world championship titles on the way to Olympic gold.
- 3x Olympic Gold Medalist (2008, 2012, 2016)
- 5x world champion (2005, 2006, 2013, 2014, 2015)
- 3x world silver medalist (2009, 2010, 2011)
Number 8: Ondrej Synek, Czech Republic
Honestly, Synek could be listed among the best athletes of either of the last two decades—his career has been amazing both in terms of longevity and consistency (much like Olaf Tufte). Indeed, as we wrote following the 2019 World Rowing Championships in Tokyo:
Similarly, can anyone remember the last time that Ondrej Synek didn’t earn a medal at the world championships? (If not, there’s a reason for it — it was in 2002, when Synek was in the double. And yes, he got fifth in the single in Athens.)
The only reason for not moving him higher in the ranks is his narrow misses at Olympic gold, always at the hands of some equally amazing athletes. Synek took a very close silver at the Games in London behind Mahé Drysdale (of him, more below), and then rattled off three straight world titles before earning a bronze medal in Rio — this time back of one of the most epically contested races ever in rowing, as Drysdale and Damir Martin duked it out for supremacy (again, more on that later).
- 3x Olympic medalist (2 silver, 1 bronze)
- 5x world champion
- 13 overall medals between worlds and Olympic Games
Number 7: Helen Glover, Great Britain
Amazingly enough, one of the world’s best rowers in the 2010s is someone who hadn’t even started rowing until 2008, when she applied to the UK’s Sporting Giants program. Only a year later, Glover had won the senior single sculls at Henley Women’s Regatta, before winning a silver medal at the world championships in New Zealand in 2010.
Her meteoric rise to the top would prove no fluke — Glover and pair partner Heather Stanning went on to take silver in the coxless pair once again in 2011, this time just one tenth of a second behind the established New Zealand crew (and reigning world champs) Rebecca Scown and Juliette Haigh.
This set the stage for an epic showdown in London, where Glover and Stanning earned the first-ever gold medal for GB women’s rowing at the Olympics, this time edging both Australia (Sarah Tait and Kate Hornsey) and New Zealand, having set an Olympic record in the heats.
Despite Stanning’s return to military service for a year, Glover won the world title with a new partner (Polly Swann) in 2013. Then, when Stanning returned for the 2014 season, the duo would once again claim gold immediately, winning out at worlds until they defended their Olympic title in the W2- in Rio.
- 2x Olympic gold medalist
- 3x world champion
- 2x world silver medalist
Number 6: The Sinkovic Brothers, Croatia
Yes, it’s kind of cheating, but can you really separate these two? They have achieved an amazing amount together since 2008, when they began their international racing career together at the U23 level. The brothers both earned silver medals at the Olympics in London as part of the Croatian men’s quad, and then decided to split from the big boat, opting for the double instead—that decision proved…wise.
Now, the Sinkovic brothers hold the world best time in the men’s double, having crossed the line in 5:59.72 at the 2014 World Rowing Championships in Amsterdam. And that speed translated on the biggest stage, as they took home gold in Rio.
Then, having demolished the field in the double for a whole quadrennium, they decided to switch disciplines, and hopped into the pair. As in the past, they found success quickly, and are the reigning world champions in that event—the third boat class in which they have earned a gold medal at the senior level.
- 2x Olympic medalists (1 silver, 1 gold)
- 6x world champions across the M4x, M2x, and M2-
Number 5: Eleanor Logan, United States
Eleanor ‘Elle’ Logan was a key figure in the absolute dominance of the USA women’s eight from the time she joined the senior team — among her early achievements with the crew: a gold medal in Beijing (yes, we know, that was last decade — but that only speaks to what a consistent performer Logan was at the elite level). Logan went on to win Olympic gold in the eight two more times, in 2012 and 2016, and medaled in not only the women’s pair (at the world championships), but also the single and quad (at world cups) along the way.
Remarkably, Logan actually earned a bronze medal at her first-ever elite race in the women’s single, the 2013 World Rowing Cup I in Sydney, Australia.
- 3x Olympic champion
- 3x world champion
- Never missed an A final at the junior, U23, or elite levels, across five boat classes (W1x, W2-, W4x, W4-, W8+) — ‘worst’ finish was fifth in the women’s single at the 2013 world championships
Number 4: Mahé Drysdale, New Zealand
Uncommon as it may be, ‘Mahé’ is a household name in rowing. And for good reason. The Kiwi sculler, like his counterpart in Ondrej Synek, has been a study in durability as well as one of the top performing athletes in the history of our sport. He’s also inarguably among the best scullers of his generation, which has featured the likes of Olaf Tufte, Synek, Alan Campbell, Rob Waddell, and many, many others.
His track record speaks for itself—he has persevered through illness and injury to achieve outstanding results at the elite level on several occasions, not least of which was his bronze medal from the Beijing Games. But mostly we are thankful for his training and performance in the run up to Rio, setting the stage for what was perhaps the most dramatic final in the history of rowing at the Olympics.
- 2x Olympic champion (3x medalist, and 4x Olympian—his first appearance at the Games was in the men’s four in Athens)
- 5x world champion
- 3x world silver medalist
Number 3: Kim Brennan (née Crow), Australia
Kim Brennan is one of the most impressive athletes ever in rowing—despite having a relatively short career in the sport, she belongs in the echelon of champions like Ekaterina Karsten and Elisabeta Lipă. Why’s that? In an era when no one (not even the Kiwi Pair) doubles up at the Olympic Games anymore, Brennan not only competed in two events in London 2012, but also won a medal in both the single and the double.
And, of course, she led the way throughout the journey to the Rio Games, winning two of three world titles en route to Olympic Gold in 2016.
Kim Crow was, quite possibly, the best athlete on the water at Eton Dorney. Period. She was the only athlete to double up, racing in both the women’s single and women’s double, having qualified the women’s single at the Final Olympic Qualification Regatta in Lucerne. And, not only did she take a silver in the women’s double, she took home a second medal–this time bronze–in the women’s single, finishing ahead of four time Olympic medalist (and double Olympic champion) Ekaterina Karsten of Belarus. A phenomenal performance from a phenomenal athlete.
- 3x Olympic medalist (gold in 2016; silver, bronze in 2012)
- 3x world champion
- 6x world medalist
Number 2: Eric Murray, New Zealand
Eric Murray was not only 50% of the most dominant crew in the history of rowing, but also a key factor in pushing the sport and rowing community forward — like his Aussie counterpart, Drew Ginn, Murray embraced social media and the rowing web early on, going public with erg scores and helping shine a light on just what elite level fitness (and rowing) looks like.
Many people forget that Murray began his Olympic journey at the 2004 Games in that same men’s four with Mahé Drysdale. His second go at the Olympics finished in a B Final performance (along with Hamish Bond), again in the men’s four, in Beijing.
But then, the two jumped into the pair full time, and a little bit of magic happened.
- 2x Olympic champion (and 4x Olympian)
- 8x world champion
- 2x gold at the 2014 world championships, where he and Bond teamed up with coxswain Caleb Shepherd to win the M2+ event, setting a new world best time along the way
- Erg records: 5k 30-39 world record holder; 10k 30-39 world record holder; half-marathon 30-39 world record holder
- Did not lose a race at the elite level (heat, semi, or final) from 2009-2016
- Thomas Keller Award winner for outstanding career in rowing
Number 1: Hamish Bond, New Zealand
The stroke seat of the Kiwi Pair with more watts than seemingly possible from someone of a fairly average frame (at least in rowing), Bond not only set the pace for the best boat in rowing history, but also showed he was no slouch in the single as well — nor even on a road bike.
Here’s an excerpt from when we awarded him a RoRy for Male Athlete of the Year in 2014:
This guy is flat-out phenomenal. Put him in a boat, and give him an oar or a set of sculls, and you can expect great things. Bond got the year started in the single, in which he defeated both Mahé Drysdale and Eric Murray on three separate occasions. Then, he and Murray hopped back into their familiar lineup, and continued their streak of world domination, only this time with a twist—they added a second event at the world level, and not only won it, but set a new standard for speed in the men’s pair with coxswain that is likely to stand for some time. Yes, it’s tough to single one athlete out of the Kiwi Pair, but we figure Eric won’t mind given his being named one of the world’s fittest athletes by Men’s Health.
- 2x Olympic champion
- 8x world champion
World best time holder along with Murray in the men’s pair, set at the London Olympics (6:08.50); world best time holder in the M2+ with Murray and Caleb Shepherd (6:33.26)
Did not lose a race at the elite level (heat, semi, or final) from 2009-2016
Gold medalist in cycling (time trial) at the Oceania Championships in Tasmania; bronze medal at the Commonwealth Games in cycling (time trial)
Thomas Keller Award winner for outstanding career in rowing
1. Olaf Tufte, Norway: If this had been for the period between 2000-2020, Tufte might have topped the list — still, it’s amazing how he’s been able to keep performing at the highest level over the span of three decades (his first Olympics was Atlanta).
2. Ekaterina Karsten, Belarus: Like Tufte, Karsten has stayed in the mix at the highest level since the 1990s — indeed, there’s an argument that Karsten is the best athlete ever to row.
3. Joshua Dunkley-Smith (aka JDS), Australia: Undoubtedly among the best athletes of this generation, and there’s an argument that he should be on this list — not only is he a 2x Olympic silver medalist, he’s also the world record holder for 2k on the erg (here’s the interview we did with him after he posted a 5:35.8).
4. Jérémie Azou, France: In many ways, Azou was the successor to Eskild Ebbesen as the unbelievably fast lightweight capable of posting results on land and on the water that easily rivaled heavyweight crews. His athlete profile on World Rowing’s website speaks for itself—between 2012 and 2017, Azou only finished outside of first place 3 times.