California may be the land of laid-back chill, but the shores of Mission Bay were anything but chill today as spectators crowded together to cheer on a bevy of high school, collegiate, and masters crews. The Sunday schedule was chock-full of medals races, and the tension in the air was palpable as on-lookers waited with bated breath to see if their favorite team would cross the finish line first.
From the very first races of the day - the high school novice 8+ - the racing was fierce and competitive, with close margins and quick sprints. The wind picked up mid-day to challenge some of the crews, especially in the middle of the course, but still nothing compared to the unusual blustery gales San Diego has seen recently. And only one crew raced with 7 people... we heard their extra oarswoman was on land with an injury; we hope they didn't send her overboard.
Today brought some firsts to the SDCC, including the first ever win by the Santa Clara Men in the Collegiate 8+, who after years of chasing the gold, finally stepped up proudly to the podium; Texas's first win in the top women's eight event, and the first collegiate 2k race win for Olympian-turned-Coach Kate Bertko.
For a couple programs, it was also the first time they've taken home a couple wins in the same year. Sunday at SDCC demonstrated the depth of many programs – in both the high school and collegiate levels, just a few programs cleaned up nicely – with many coaches hauling multiple giant wooden boxes with trophies back home to showcase for the year.
Cal Men Sweep
In the most anticipated race of the day – the Copley Cup Invitational – the California Bears bested Yale to regain the cup after losing to the Bulldogs in 2016.
"Last year was disappointing," said six-seat Maarten Hurkmans. "This is a way better start to our season; putting down a good performance and a solid start for upcoming races."
But it wasn't just the result against Yale that pleased the Cal men's squad; they took home wins in every race they entered, including the top three spots in the Mens's Open 8.
Cal men's V8
While many schools only bring a few boats to SDCC, Cal brings the entire squad, allowing them to all get races in as well as show off their program depth. For head coach Mike Teti, it's an important weekend for the program.
"We come here every year because we have a strong alumni group down here and the regatta organizers really take care of us well," Teti said. "It's great for our program, we get to bring everyone down."
He also spoke to the sweep, cautious to put too much weight on an early season result. The Cal guys still have a handful of dual races before heading into the championship season culminating in the IRA where they hope to defend their title.
"This weekend was a good assessment of our speed, but if we want to win the whole thing we've got to get better," he said. "The National Championship doesn't go to who wins first; it goes to who wins last."
In head coach Dave O'Neill's third season with the Longhorns, the Texas women not only won the Jessop-Whittier Cup for the first time, but their 2V8+ and Novice 8+ also won their events, with their V4+ coming in a respectable second to University of Southern California.
"We came here to show that Texas has not only a fast 1V, 2V and V4, but also that the program has depth and that we're fast throughout," said Novice 8 bow seat Aine McGinn.
While the Varsity and Novice 8's were able to lead from the start, the 2V8 demonstrated an ability to move from behind. The crew started down on the University of Wisconsin and seemingly struggled to catch them as the two crews moved along.
"We were down at the half but we stayed calm," said 4-seat Sarah Cadman. "We knew that we could pull ahead, and we pulled ahead around the 4-minute mark and just went for it. Our coxswain called for us to step up and get the blades in together. We knew we could do that so we had confidence in each other and went for it - and it worked."
O'Neill was pleased with the results, especially with the way the 2V handled a challenging race.
"We certainly look at it as a full two-thousand-meter race," he said. "The 2V was down in the first thousand but they're tough, they're resilient. I'm really proud of them."
O'Neill was also careful to not take this weekend's results as a certainty for the rest of the season, as all teams will be doing work between now and the championships.
"We are happy with the results and it's certainly an important step for what we want to do the rest of the year. I think we're in the hunt to do quite well," he said.
Each time one of the Texas crews stood atop the podium, their teammates joined them in singing the Longhorn fight song – "The Eyes of Texas." There was a clear sense of comradery among the women in the different boats as they cheered on one another.
"The best thing about Texas is we're stronger together," said Varsity 5-seat Mariam Soufi.
Stanford Lightweight Women
The weekend's collegiate results can't be mentioned without a shout-out to the Stanford Lightweight Women rowing under the new leadership of 2016 Olympian Kate Bertko. Bertko, who raced the lightweight women's double in Rio, shifted her rowing focus to coaching as she took over the IRA National Championship team. Her crews continued their success this weekend taking home gold in both their events – the Collegiate Varsity 8+ and the Open 8+ by healthy margins.
Christine Cavallo, 5-seat in the V8 credits Bertko with pushing the team to new levels and setting a good example as a female coach to female athletes.
"Kate has this laid-back California vibe while she coaches us that meshes really well with our team, but at the same time there's something really new and exciting about being coached by a woman," Cavallo said. "I am going faster than I ever have as a senior and that's not something I expected. As far as our team is concerned it's only going to push our team further and further every year she's with the program."
Bertko was enthusiastic for her new role in the rowing world, leading an already successful team to continued victory, both in their athletic and personal lives.
Stanford light women's eight
"The team is continuing to impress and surprise me," Bertko said. "They have a lot of success and I want to make sure I am supporting that success and giving them the opportunity to develop as young women and as individuals."
"I think that college athletics really helped me mature and become an adult. I had an exceptional coach at Princeton (Lori Dauphiny) and so I hope I can provide the same kind of support and challenges as I was given."
The theme of programmatic depth continued with the high school varsity and second varsity races, with Newport Aquatic Center cinching both titles for the boys (along with the Novice 8 win) and Saugatuck taking home gold on the girls side.
It was the first time either team had won both the varsity and second varsity races during the same year at SDCC and for both programs it was an exciting day.
Nick D'Antoni, who coached the Newport Aquatic Center boys from 2006-2010, came back in 2014 to help rebuild the program and is now starting to see the results he saw from first stint.
NAC junior men
"This is the first time these athletes have had programmatic success, not just individual success, so it's pretty exciting to see it pay off for a lot of athletes not just a select few," he said. "It's been a rebuilding process. It's nice to be getting the program back on track."
For the Saugatuck girls, the win today was a continuation of programmatic success over the past few years; for the V8 it's their third consecutive win at SDCC, but the first win for the 2V in recent memory.
"The JV lost by a second last year; it was a pretty devastating loss because they were leading most of the race and in the last 100 meters Marin walked through them," said coach Gordon Getsinger. "Some of the same girls from last year's boat were in that boat today so I think there was fuel for their fire. This was a good win for them."
Unlike the Southern California teams, Saugatuck, which is located in Connecticut, has only a few weeks of water time under their belts when they show up in San Diego.
"It's hard for us because we train inside all winter, so we bank on our indoor training," said Varsity coxswain Charlotte Powers. "We've only had two weeks on the water to get our technique back in check, but we just go out and do it."
Saugatuck junior women
"Because we don't go on spring training trip we're slogging it out on the erg all winter and we row in the sleet, snow and rain all spring. This is a real reward for their hard work up to this point," added Getsinger.
A ton of masters crews raced today before and after the bulk of the "kids." The Long Beach women racing in a club lineup with some of the same athletes as yesterday's F final took home the Club 8+ gold, and the oarsmen from Kent Mitchell once again bested the gents from Cambridge Boat Club.
The masters rowers did an excellent job at re-hydrating as they filled the beer garden en masse at the end of the day. SDCC is a competitive race for many, but also a social event bringing folks from around the country to get some sun and meet up with friends. It's most apparent in the rolodex crews that race together year after year – it's like spring break for grown-ups.
And just like that, the first big regatta of the season is behind us. For crews continuing their spring seasons they'll take home momentum from a victorious win or bitter loss. For others, a full belly of fish tacos and a nice tan are the perfect souvenirs.