During a practice run at the world championships on the waters of Lac Aiguebelette in France, Robin Prendes almost felt like he was back home on the Key Biscayne rowing course.
“The lake opens up around the start line and there happened to be a strong wind causing rolling waves — similar to ocean waves instead of lake waves,” Prendes said.
But the sense of familiarity was fleeting. Prendes, a 2012 Olympian and nine-time national team member, is competing at worlds this week in a boat he’s unaccustomed to rowing. He and partner Peter Gibson did not make the cut for the U.S. lightweight four-man crew, so they decided to race as the lightweight pair.
So far, so good. Prendes and Gibson placed third in their 2,000-meter preliminary heat on Monday and advanced to Thursday’s semifinal round. Their goal is twofold: Race strong, with a podium finish not out of the realm of possibility, and transfer any remaining mental energy to the four, which must place in the top 11 to qualify for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Summer Olympics.
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“On the one hand, Peter and I have to race up to our capabilities, which we can control, and on the other hand, we will have to watch the four and hope that they do well, which we can’t control,” Prendes said.
The lightweight pair is not an Olympic event. After world championships conclude, Prendes will realign his focus to making the U.S. lightweight four roster for 2016. But for the past few months, he and Gibson have had to learn how to row a smaller, less stable boat.
“I like the pair because it’s difficult to row, technically-speaking,” Prendes said. “You need finesse in order to not stop the boat each time you stroke. I think it will bring me some benefit next year because I’ll have a better stroke technique.”
Prendes, 26, is a native of Matanzas, Cuba, and a Coral Park High and Princeton University graduate who spent his junior years with the Miami Rowing Club. He occupies the one seat, in the bow. Gibson is from Boston.
“I make a lot of calls during the race, for sprinting and changing rhythm,” he said. “Peter sets the stroke rate and steers.
“We are pretty compatible in that he’s very consistent and I like to go hard at the start and sprint at the end. We’ve spent a lot of time together and we get along great. He listens to me because of my experience, on what to worry about and not worry about. We’ve both accepted this challenge because we’re motivated for the upcoming year.”
Prendes, who finished eighth at the London Olympics, fifth at the 2013 world championships and second at this summer’s Pan Am Games in the lightweight four, got bumped from the U.S. world team lightweight four crew in the spring when he didn’t qualify. It was a disappointment that he ascribes to a training plan gone awry.
At the Oklahoma City training center, where Prendes and seven other American rowers live, an altitude-training program that included workouts in a room equipped to simulate a 12,000-foot thin-air environment had a positive impact on half the group and a negative impact on the other half.
“Everybody reacts differently to altitude, and you have to moderate it to make sure your body is adapting properly,” he said. “A couple rowers got sick right away and dropped it. But I didn’t have any dramatic setbacks. I just stagnated. It wasn’t clear to me that my performance was suffering until it was too late for me to make the boat. Immediately after I got off altitude training, I got a personal best in a 2,000-meter rowing machine test of aerobic fitness.”
He and Gibson switched to pair and won the U.S. trials.
“I love racing and that’s why I’m still in the sport,” Prendes said. “Next year I’ll do whatever I can to show I deserve to be in the four.”
Prendes, who has a degree in economics, relocated to Oklahoma City to take advantage of the training facility and a job with an energy company.
“All eight of us in OKC will try to make the four,” he said.
In the lightweight class, rowers must weigh 160 pounds or less. They weigh in two hours prior to racing.
Chris Lambert, 29, who grew up in Weston and lives in Philadelphia, is competing in France in the lightweight eight, which is not an Olympic event. Only six lightweights will be chosen for the U.S. Olympic team — for the four crew and the double sculls boat.
“As opposed to the last four years, the lightweight group is significantly more competitive,” Prendes said. “The outlook is much better than it was for London.”