The United States women's eight crew, winner of the event's last three Olympic golds, won its heat Saturday in Tokyo to auto-advance to next week's final – the 11th Games at which the boat's made it through, maintaining a perfect record at non-boycotted Olympics.
Romania led early, but the U.S. pulled ahead midway and bore down in the second half to take the prelim. The American crew of Jessica Thoennes (bow), Charlotte Buck, Gia Doonan, Brooke Mooney, Olivia Coffey, Regina Salmons, Meghan Musnicki, Kristin O'Brien (stroke) and Katelin Guregian (coxswain) covered the full 2K from lane three in 6:08.69.
Multiple-seat events have been adversely affected by the Covid-19 pandemic due to the close proximity of rowers and lack of competition.
"We have never lined up in any lineup in two years to race someone side-by-side, and it's a really exciting opportunity," Musnicki said. "We're just grateful to be here, because a year ago, we didn't think this was going to happen."
Romania, which earned Olympic bronze in 2016, was second in 6:09.95 while Australia, 6:18.95, the world runner-up in 2019, finished last.
Reigning world champion New Zealand clocked a faster time, 6:07.65, to win heat two. The Kiwis and Americans will await the results of next Wednesday's repechage round before taking on four other crews in that following Friday's A final.
The U.S. won 11 consecutive world and Olympic titles from 2006 to 2016 before placing fourth at the 2017 World Championships. It won gold the next year but then dropped to bronze in 2019. Due to this recent uncertainly and changes in personnel, it's not the formidable gold-medal favorite of the past but still a contender.
Five of the U.S. women's nine-member crew are 27 years old or younger, and only two – Musnicki and Guregian – return from Rio.
After Saturday's race, Musnicki, who was also on the 2012 gold medal-winning crew, talked extensively about her younger teammates.
"Watching these women grow into their feet basically, it's like watching a Saint Bernard puppy learn to walk. They're like, 'Wow, I really am that strong and that powerful,'" she said. "It's so exciting to witness it and to be a part of it … to watch the new athletes come up and just begin to scratch the surface of their potential."
Musnicki also said she's learning from them.
"They teach you a plethora of things if you just watch them. They're young and fresh and they have a new set of eyes. I've learned technical things, how to be more relaxed. The youthfulness is refreshing. It's an amazing group of women, I'm so incredibly happy to be a part of it."
The U.S. men's eight crew finished second to three-time reigning world champion Germany in its heat, clocking 5:30.57 to move on to the repechage round.
Germany's 5:28.95 was the fastest of the two prelims. Netherlands won the other heat in 5:30.66. The Dutch and Germans auto-advanced to the A final.
Men's Four, Women's Lwt Double, Women's Pair, Women's Four
The U.S. men's four crew took second in the first prelim to advance straight to next Wednesday's A final along with heat-winner Australia, the 2017 and 2018 world champion. Five-time defending Olympic champion Great Britain won the other heat. The U.S. finished fifth at the 2019 World Championships.
""I think we came well prepared for the heat, for the wind, for the water, and then of knowing the opponent – knowing the fingerprint of each of the other boats, what we had to do to get that top-two spot, which was obviously the goal, and we got it," said Clark Dean, the U.S. crew's stroke. "We were ready for anything. I think that is one thing we are good at – changing speeds, being internal."
The U.S. women's lightweight double sculls crew placed third in heat one of prelims, missing an A/B semi spot by .64 seconds. It moves to Sunday's repechages.
"It was an awesome race to be in," said Molly Reckford, the crew's bow. "Being able to trade seats, being able to respond, I think that was one of the most exciting parts of the race for me in the boat was looking across, realizing we were down, calling a move and (then) moving. When the boat responds like that, it's really exciting and really a good sign."
The U.S. women's pair of Megan Kalmoe and Tracy Eisser, fourth at 2019 worlds, placed fourth in heat one of prelims. The crew moves to Sunday's repechage.
Australia set an Olympic record in the women's four, clocking 6:28.76 to win heat two. The U.S. crew took fourth in that heat. It'll compete in Sunday's repechage.