At the Head of the Charles Sunday, 'Great'-ness was a really tough title to bear. Two composite Great 8's lined up at the start for the Championship Eights near the end of the program, and both discovered that it was great to be in a race on a sunny, breezy day in Boston; it was great to be an Olympic athlete; and it was great to have a collaborative effort for a common goal. But it was maybe not as great to be lacking a Head of the Charles gold medal at the end of the day.
The men's Great 8 started in fourth following Harvard, the USRowing entry, and University of Washington. With Slovenian 4-time Olympian and 2012 Bronze medalist Iztok Cop stroking and bronze medalist US rower Glenn Ochal in seven, the crew had a lot of power, experience and confidence (some would say swagger perhaps trickling down from their colorful coach Bill Barry of Tideway Scullers in England). Bronze medalist Alan Campbell of GB Rowing was in the engine room, and mentioned prior to racing that the crew had "unlimited potential, there is nothing this crew can't do..." and that is probably a true statement. The problem is that the crew, having trained hard into the Olympics for several consecutive years, was ready to kick back a bit from August through Oct. "I haven't trained in 11 weeks," said Kiwi Mahe Drysdale after the race. Although he was speaking about his 6th-place finish in the Championship Single event, he also confirmed that most of the crew had been enjoying themselves a bit lately. Greatness, for many of these men, came this summer at the Games, today they were fourth place but having a 'great' time in Boston with folks who are normally their rivals sitting in the same hull.
With Harvard tearing down the course with the #1 marker in the Championship Eights, there were a couple crews gunning for that top spot just behind them, including the Washington Huskies. Just prior to the Eliot Bridge, however, Washington got in a tangle with the USRowing Eight that had started one spot ahead of Washington. The result was a staggering 4-minute penalty for US Rowing that put them in last position (probably a first?); additionally, Washington was first issued a 10-second time penalty for a buoy violation in front of Belmont Hills dock. That put the Harvard University Crimson Eight in first with the second-fastest raw time. This was a temporary victory, however, as Coach Callahan and coxswain Seamus Labrum protested the buoy violation, and upon review, the penalty was dismissed. Washington won, Harvard second, University of California, Berkeley, third. The US Rowing Eight ended up last, as the likely most highly penalized crew of the weekend.
"We talked a lot about the line," said the Washington coxswain of his discussions with his Coach prior to the race, "Coach did a great job preparing us for what we should do on the Charles," said Labrum. "We started school 6 days earlier this year, and it has given us more time to get the guys ready, in shape," said Mike Callahan, coach of the Washington Huskies Crew. "We had two new guys in bow pair, Alex Perkins and Julian Svobota, and they really handled the contact with the US Rowing boat well." As they pulled away from the collision, the team cranked it up to a 38, "they looked really aggressive," said Callahan, "I was pleased to see that."
The US Men may have had a different perspective, and according the his coach, US Men's coxswain Zach Vlahos' line was an attempt to be aggressive as well. There is a gray area on the passing rule, with the safety of the crew being overtaken also a factor. Regardless, current coach of the US Men Eight Brian Volpenhein felt that the race was meant to be fun, and the slight error by Vlahos with an incomplete yield was just a part of racing at Head of the Charles. Asked about the collision, USRowing stroke Mike Gennaro deadpanned: "My ribs are a little sore, but I'll be alright." Gennaro reported that his oar got run over by and caught under the Washington boat, which, in addition to the formidable penalties, did not help USRowing's run down the course.
A side observation as that the trend is that most of the post-Olympic athletes are enjoying a recovery not unlike sleepiness after Thanksgiving turkey--they are lulled by the lack of urgency in their training. Harvard, Washington and Cal are on ramping up their training in preparation for their competitive season. "We are racing (inter-squad) every Thursday," said Callahan of the Huskies team. Their intensity showed this weekend, as even with contact with another boat, the Washington Huskies pulled off the fastest time.
The women's Great 8 had a different path to a less-than-optimal result, and again it was a dispute about a 10-second buoy violation for Jill Carlson, the coxswain of the Women's Great (Scullers) Eight. The officials upheld their ruling on the violation, and the Scullers Eight went from the best raw time on the water by one second to an official second-place behind the Olympic Gold-medal winning US Women's Eight, (with 5 women from the boat and 3 from the bronze-medal winning quad.)
"At a race like the Charles, there are 2, or 3, or 5 sides to the story... I felt like we were being pushed into the buoys by college boats, but the umpire upheld it," said Carlson after the race. "The speed was phenomenal in the boat," said Carlson. "There were moments when it was a little rough, but I could definitely feel the power and fitness in that boat," said the former Radcliffe coxswain.
Two-time Olympic gold medalist Susan Francia, who put the US Women's boat together while similarly-awarded retired coxswain and newlywed Mary Whipple got her life together on the west coast, admitted that the US Women's crew might be suffering from the same conditioning issues, or lack thereof, as the Great Men's Eight. When asked how the training was going, her response was "no comment..." but with a smile. She also admits this is a pretty competitive group of women, and when given this opportunity, will probably power it out. They did. They had the appearance of a crew that rows well and together, and were only a second behind the sculler's eight on raw time.
US Women's coxswain Mary Whipple said she was looking to stern pairCaryn Davies and Esther Lofgren, who both spent their undergrad on this river, for opinions on current and other water conditions. "The Head of the Charles is such a coxswain's race, so much strategy and jockeying," she said. "In my boat, motivation is not a factor, they are some of the most highly, self-motivated women in the world. I have one of the best engines in the world, I just have to drive it."
"The Head of the Charles is a great race...there are not many races where so many levels are here - high school, masters - there is nowhere else in the US where there are so many athletes on the shores, all the fans who have cheered us on over the years, it is just a great venue, " said Francia of her reason to collect a crew for the HOCR. Francia and other US Rowing athletes took turns greeting fans along the towpath prior to racing.
In the midst of all this mayhem, the University of Virginia topped the collegiate eights ranks with a third place finish overall, ahead of the Canadian and Dutch elites, and fully 25 seconds ahead of the next collegiate crew, Princeton, who placed sixth overall; Radcliffe was another six seconds back in seventh overall.
This race is certainly a democratic venue, with post-Olympic composite boats at an all-time high, while the Youth Fours and Eights were fully-subscribed with 85 boats per gender and boat class. On the opposite end of the age spectrum, there are special awards within the 50+ categories for the first 60+ crews across the line, a medal that has many crews looking for strong age-makers. With that kind of talented category-filling enthusiasm, the Head of the Charles will remain the biggest regatta in the country.
There are a lot more interviews and stories to report from row2k, check back Monday for interviews with Al Flanders winner of the Veteran's Single, Frank Biller coach of the winning University of Virginia Collegiate Men's Four and Eight, more from Mahe Drysdale, Alan Campbell, guys from the 1972 Olympic Silver Medal winning Men's Eight, Carie Graves, and others from previous days racing. As always, look at the extensive row2k gallery for the best shots of the regatta.