The New England Interscholastic Rowing Association (NEIRA) Championships regatta is always a special day—for some athletes it is their first taste of a big regatta, and for the many alumni, former coaches and friends of rowing, it is an annual tradition to watch these young rowers compete.
It's an emotional day to say the least; a few kids arrived at the medals dock astounded that they had placed and almost dumbfounded that what they had just done was real. One commented that it was his first time ever taking first place in a big athletic competition - sitting on that dock was a moment he was trying to soak in as he slapped the back of the guy in front of him and shook hands with his coach.
At this level, especially in the third and fourth boats, there are many kids who have never raced at a big regatta, or really played at a championship level in any sport, and alternately some who have always excelled at athletics who have never lost a race who are shocked to not be taking home the gold.
All the coaches agreed that the field at NEIRA is becoming more and more competitive—schools that in years past won handily had to work more aggressively in order to medal, and some who had not medaled in years took home some hardware. The Deerfield boys and girls varsity fours both took home the gold for the first time since 2005 for the boys and 1999 for the girls (it's possible some of the current girls were just barely walking when their team last won). It was an exciting day for the whole team as they put together a strong performance.
Geoff Bond, who is the interim boys coach this season, echoed sentiments we have been hearing in New England during the collegiate championships: water woes. "It was a long and challenging season," he said. "We've had lots of water challenges on the Connecticut River; too much water, not enough water, not enough rowing. The kids have persevered and dealt with the adversity. They are a very confident group of young men and they were committed to putting out their A-game today."
The girls agreed the water did not help, but like their counterpoint boy's boat, their confidence and commitment got them to the finish line first.
"This boat has two junior national team members in it [Claire Collins, 2012, 2013 Jr. W8+ and Libby Murray 2013 development team] who are really strong, fluid, amazing rowers, and the other two girls pretty much knew that they wanted to row just as hard and make the boat go straight," said head coach Eve Goldenberg.
The Deerfield girls lead the pack by open water, but reality didn't set in until they crossed the finish line. "I've always wanted to be New England Champion at something, and it felt so real right then," said junior Eileen Russell.
"Our coxswain said '3...2…1…it's about to be real!' It was just so exciting," added junior captain Claire Collins. "There's a lot of pride in the green and white; it's a good program being built up again."
Coming in seven seconds behind the Deerfield women was Newton Country Day School, to capture their first NEIRA medal in program history.
"It's the first year all four boats have qualified for the grand finals," said coach Kate Spelman. "It's has been amazing watching this boat because I remember coaching their first strokes when they were freshman. They have gone from being excited that they qualified for NEIRAs, to being excited to make the final, and today we are thrilled to have medaled."
Yet another program made history in the girl's fours, when the Choate girls won the third and fourth fours, and got a bronze in the second four. The women's program had not medaled since 1983, so tying with Winsor in points was a huge accomplishment.
Belmont Hill and Winsor
For quite a few years, the Belmont Hill boys and Winsor girls have won their respective points trophies for the boys and girls fours. The two programs share a boathouse and a sense of camaraderie, and have been setting the standard for fours rowing amongst New England high school athletes. Neither team swept the races, but both demonstrated great depth in their programs.
The Belmont Hill boys are a strong team, and continued to show their depth when they captured the points trophy for the 11th time 12 years thanks to wins from the fourth and second boats, and second place finishes in the third and first boats.
"There is an awful lot of good to celebrate and it was great racing all around," said head coach Chris Richards. "All the finals were fantastic races; for some of them we had the extra gear, and for others, the competition had the extra gear. It's tough when all season long you're in control of your races, and suddenly you find another crew's in control and can respond to anything you throw at them. That's a tough thing to train for."
The Winsor girls have had their eye on the points trophy all year and worked together to bring it home yet again. "The dynamics amongst the 20 young women is so much better if it's collaborative versus just wanting to win their own boat," said head coach Lisa Stone. "They're being supportive of one another so they can win. The collaboration is imperative to team culture—there's a fair amount of joy."
The Phillips Exeter Academy girls have been a dominating force for some years now, having won the points trophy eight of the past nine years. This year was no change for the women as they captured the gold in the first and second varsity boats, and the silver in the third varsity. The legacy of winning is apparent at NEIRA for many of the teams as alumni stand on the shore to watch the programs where they learned to row so many years ago, and some athletes really feel the momentum from previous successes.
"One of the best things in Exeter Crew is that sense of tradition," said senior captain Kerrick Edwards. "We hold ourselves to a high standard of rowing and I think that the team dynamic is something that is passed on every year."
With a gold in the first boat, and silver in the second and third boats, the Andover boys took home the points trophy. The first boat put down an impressive sprint in order to capture the gold, and according to coach Stewart MacDonald, "they're fast closers, they know how to ratchet it up."
Not far behind the Andover boys was Boston College High School, who came in second place by just over one second for their first 1V medal in program history.
"It's another positive step for our program and one that we hope will inspire our younger guys," said coach Steve McKiernan. "NEIRA is such incredible competition and we certainly won't take this for granted."
Some schools will go on to race at Youth Nationals, and a few will likely go to Henley, but for most of the programs this was the final race of the year. And since many of the prep schools don't compete in the fall, it'll be March or April before some of these kids get back in a boat. See you next year!