Elite Nationals, now in its fifth year in its present incarnation as an elites-only, FISA events regatta permanently hosted at the east coast Olympic Training Center in NJ, continues to grow, with a wider array of the top clubs participating each year. Part of that growth is definitely due to the U23s: many crews, winners and losers alike, have started stay over from the Trials held earlier in the week the past few years--and the push to have U23 crews ready to race early in the summer creates a good incentive for clubs and camps alike to look for elite caliber races.
The swelling of entries, especially in the singles and two person boats, does conflict a bit with the "small field" ethos of the event. With just 2 heats available in any event--this to run things over just two days while keeping the chance to repechage in place without adding semis--the time trial to set those top 12 entries is a brutal exercise in culling worthy of a National Championship. Of the over 190 entries, nearly half faced the time trial on Wednesday night, and were headed home before the regatta had really even begun.
The "TT"--run at the FISA trial distance of 1900 meters--sent home ten scullers in the men's single and twelve in the women's, including Armine Afeyan, a Yale undergrad who will be using her dual citizenship to race the U23 1x for Armenia later this summer. She could have used a few more races: according to her coach in the single, Lisa Stone, having just gotten into the singles game a few weeks ago, but she came in 21st in the time trial so will have to cut her teeth elsewhere before Amsterdam.
The margins were tight, too: no mere formality, this time trial. Just slivers of a second separated 12th place from 13-16 in both the heavy and light single on the men's side. A tough way to find out your regatta is over, to be sure.
Thursday featured a full slate of heats and reps for the events with more than 6 entries. The Men's 4 and Men's and Women's Quads were the only big boats involved in the heats. By Friday, it was down to the finals, and the healthy number of entries this year meant that there were only a handful of races with empty lanes, even amongst the straight finals. Most of those undersubscribed races were on the lightweight men's side, owing to the fact that most of the top lights here were racing "up" in the heavyweight events for the increased competition--and more than a few came away with the gold by getting the better of the big guys.
The top "giant killers" on the day were the lightweights from the Oklahoma City Training Center: these are some very skilled and experienced guys who missed making the final cut at USRowing's Light Four selection camp the past few weeks. Many have Worlds and U23 medals, and most will be headed either to trials in the challengeable boats or to the lightweight eight camp being run by Dartmouth's Dan Roock this summer.
In the Men's Four final, the lights from this deep OKC pool torched the field, and the only crew who could match their pace was the recently selected U23 light four. It was the U23 crew's debut, since they did not have to race at the U23 Trials, and they looked sharp. Last year, the U23 LM4 snapped up the US's first-ever medal in the event, won by some of the guys in the crew just ahead of them in this race, and hopes are high for this group to turn that 2010 result into a bit of a streak.
On the sculling side, Potomac had a great day right from the start, with Margot Shumway looking back on her Olympic form from 2004 in walking away with the W1x to start the day. The white starred blades of PBC led the way in the Men's 1x as well, as Willie Cowles won the first of two golds on the day, handing the U23 sculler Ben Dann his first defeat of a week in which Dann fairly dominated races with some good open water in hand each time down the course. Cowles, who took fourth at NSR 1 in the single, gave Dann a good speed check here that may well help him have even more gears when he gets to Amsterdam for the U23 Worlds.
The day got progressively harder for Cowles--maybe not surprising for anyone going 3x2k to end a week of racing--as the meters piled up and the racing got tighter. His gold in the double, which he won in a composite boat with Penn AC's Steven Whelpley, required a massive come-from-behind effort to reel in early leaders Martin Etem and Greg Ansolabehere of the OKC Training Center. By the time Colwes and Whelpley got to the quad, their bid for a three gold "sculling cycle" fell just short to a fresher--and lighter--GMS quad, who did some nice dancing in the light tailwind to stay just a canvas in front in the final sprint
That Men's quad final, a blanket finish for first through fourth, was one of the most exciting finishes on the day: GMS taking it home in the sprint, but only barely, from lane six, while Cowles and Co outlasted the Harvard åç racing as Cambridge for the silver. Vesper's top quad was right in it until the closing sprint as well, but Cambridge shut the door with a sprint that may have cost them a better medal in their bid to race both the heavy and light quad. The LM4x final was just 30 minutes and a hard paddle back up to the top later, and fatigue may have played a small part in the bobble that took Cambridge out of that one and let the NYAC quartet slip away to handily defend their 2010 title in light men's quad.
The only finish on the day that really rivaled the Men's quad for sheer charge to line across the field was the lane 6-lane 1 battle between the OKC lightweights and the USRowing/Australia composite. A straight draw put these two crews on opposite sides of the lake, but they made it a two boat race anyhow, dropping an otherwise tight pack of good club eights by open water. The OKC outfit stayed nicely composed as the very much heavyweight Amer-Aussie composite chewed up an early lead.
The Aussies in this eight were the two Yale and two Columbia undergrads raining here in the US to race at U23s in the four for green and gold, minus the inconvenience of a trip down under to train for a race in Europe. To fill out the boat? Some pretty solid US elites including Cal Berkeley alums Mike Holbrook and Deaglan McEachern who raced for the US Team (most recently, respectively) in 2009 and 2010, so this charge was no joke--and the wake off this crew did sweep row2k off his feet (sorta: what it literally did was wash away the shoes row2k left on the bank when wading into the lake for a good shot; the shoes were floating past him as the race finished--whoops!)
For all that horsepower though, the lights over in lane 6 had just enough speed to get there first: by 0.02 seconds, in a Wintech King 8 they borrowed from Princeton. Hmm: sound familiar? It should, to those of you who followed Yale's just-by-a-bit win at the IRAs in a new King shell. Two 0.02 wins by King eights in big races--do we sense an ad campaign on this very selling point in the not-too-distant future? Don't let us down, boat hawkers of America!
In all, lots of great racing and full finals in 2011, but running the Elite Nationals opposite Henley in a year when virtually the entire senior national team is out of town definitely opened the door to the lightweight and club crews that won here. The conflict with the travel plans of the most elite rowers in the US also left one event off the schedule entirely: it was downright odd to see no women's eights contested, especially for a country that is dominating that event internationally these days--and has some pretty robust participation almost exclusively in that very event collegiately.
Yet there it was, a 10 minute gap where the W8 final would have been, as neither the clubs nor the training centers fielded an entry. The only training center athletes on the women's side were a trio of doubles who, not surprisingly, swept the podium--led by a gold-medal effort by Adrienne Martelli and U23 alum Sara Hendershot--and a quad from the U23 selection camp that took silver behind a veteran Vesper boat.
Off the water, all was not sans drama, and we can now add Elite Nationals to the list of regattas this year where some races were determined not by the racing but by the boat scale. As at NCAAs and Youth Nationals, boat weights--and specifically the insufficiency thereof--meant no medals for three crews here. Perhaps the word has still not gotten out that these things are checked, or perhaps adding weight is becoming the sort of "did you check your heel ties?" thing that crews are neglecting while they are distracted by things like race plans and warm-up runs.
Word certainly got around that "real" finish line was nowhere near the finish tower at this race: one now-champion saved his celebratory fist-pump until his boat was on the scale, and heavy. "Hey, we're over [weight]: we really won," he shouted, knowing to take nothing for granted when the scale is in effect.
The relegations for weight, while necessary, did create a few awkward results. USTC-OKC had come first in a two boat race before the scale said otherwise, making second (and last) place Riverside the champion instead. The Riversiders stepped up to gold in the light men's four as well, when the NYAC four came in under weight. Again, the Riverside boat had, in fact, been in last--and by a good bit on a day when crews were cagily saving energy for later doubling--in a four boat race, but RBC is still your National Champion, since the NYAC was relegated, and first and second on the water went to international entries from Guatemala and Canada's St Catherines. In all, a few oddities occasioned by the boat weight issue, though certainly hard-racing by all these crews, even the ones who didn't get the weighing as right as the rowing.