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Furious Tails & Fast Times: Number 1's Get it Done
Sunday, June 3, 2012
John FX Flynn,
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Washington V8

When the 2012 collegiate racing season ended on the Cooper River on Saturday, the Huskies of Washington had swept the heavyweight races, making them three for the last four on IRA crowns; Harvard's Light Men capped another undefeated year with the one feather that eluded them--and barely at that--last year; and Stanford's Light Women now have a streak of their own going for sure in the LW8. Those three champions won with some authority to spare today, and made the story of the 2012 IRA really more about sustained excellence than upsets - while there was some scrapping and trading of spots all up and down the pecking order of the schools that earned invites to this year's IRA, no one in the end could take home a win over the top dogs in the main event(s) of the day.

Daily lane shift update? There weren't any shifts, thanks to a direct and full throated tailwind--the third installment, apparently, of the crosswind-headwind-tailwind trilogy that was the weather at this year's IRA. Gone then, were the issues of protected lanes that the Thursday crosswind and the Friday headwind occasioned and today, with both Lane 5 and Lane 2 delivering crews to medals, the consensus seemed to be that all the lanes had the same insanely fast tailwind--and that had screwdrivers busy at nearly every trailer in the boatyard as folks loaded up for the fast conditions.

The Light Women had the first Varsity Grand Final of the day, and clearly the tailwind was much more their speed than the bruising headwind racing that pushed times over the 8 minute mark on Friday. Stanford's 6:31 led the field here, but the faster conditions made it harder for the Cardinal to get too far in front, and the battle for silver and bronze brought the whole race up into their stern by the line. In the end, Bucknell, who had really been the only crew with any real answer to Stanford, held on for the silver, ahead of a surging Radcliffe eight who passed Wisconsin in the last 500 meters to knock the Badgers off the podium altogether.

Afterwards, Stanford coach Al Acosta said: "That was some fantastic racing from both boats. I'm especially thrilled for our six seniors to finish as they did. All of them set a really high standard for effort and attitude over the last four years. I couldn't be more proud."

Stanford may well have been a bit of a surprise to defend their 2010 title when they picked up their second last year, upsetting the resurgent Princeton light women in the 2011 final. This year, though, was proof that the Cardinal are clearly in it for the long haul. They bested the Badgers two out of three times in the regular season, and then took care of business here with aplomb. Stanford has now matched Wisconsin's longest streak of consecutive titles; only Princeton's 1999-2003 streak is longer.

The Heavy Men's Grand Final was really everything a fan of racing could want, even if folks who are not Husky fans per se might have wanted just one more thing: an upset of the mighty UW machine. That was not in the offing today--the Huskies starting strong and defending their lead before really dropping the hammer to close out title number three for Coach Mike Callahan--and lower the course and IRA record to 5:21.48. The margins may have looked tight, and the racing was, too, but Washington never really looked in danger here, despite another strong effort by Brown--who collected their a second silver medal to go with their 2V's near upset of UW--and an early run at stealing it all 2010-style by Cal over in Lane 1. Harvard won the bronze, giving up just a bit more to Bruno here than we saw at Sprints.

The wind and the competition did not ever seem to faze the Huskies this year. "We talked that champions stay composed," said coach Mike Callahan afterwards. "And they did." Callahan also addressed the tricky situation this year's crew faced as a new boat looking to defend the accomplishments of his 2011 seniors and the Huskies who are taking this year off to be Olympians for their countries: "This is a whole new boat. They really wanted to be known for their own accomplishments. Now they have a record, so I guess they have it."

Say this for the Huskies, they put the target squarely on themselves again this year, and then delivered on all their promise. Plenty of folks on the banks were wondering where an upset might come this year, in the face of what seemed sure to be--and was--another massively successful day for UW. After all, not even the Huskies, winners of the last 5 Ten Eyck points trophies had not swept all five heavy events in those years, so there must be another crew that could win somewhere in the lists, right? Could someone catch one of the fours? Cal almost did in the V4, but no: Huskies win. Would the frosh crew stumble? Nope, though it was Cal (again) who pressed the issue by leading the first half of the race only to find that, yes, the Grunties could go, and they did. Might it come in the 2V race? Well, very nearly, as Brown bore down with closed water in the final sprint, but no: again it was the Huskies, punching the air a split second ahead of the Brown crew as the crews crossed the line. Anyone who has rowed the IRA knows just how difficult the clean sweep is, and while Washington has tremendous talent, perhaps even to spare, actually doing it, against crews hellbent to say otherwise, is mighty impressive, full stop.

The Light Men's Grand Final gets the primo spot at the end of the program because the lightweights do their whole championship in a single day. This year's race was another dandy and proves the LM8 is as good a high note to end the IRA on as any. Unbeaten Harvard rowed a really patient race, taking the measure of the other contenders one last time, and then pressed away to take control of the race. Dartmouth made their run a bit later his year, and closed things up in the final quarter to move up to silver, but the margin at the line --about a second --was downright spacious after last year's Yale-Harvard photo-finish. This year, Yale had another IRA-time burst to pick up speed on the pack, working their way into a bronze medal, after early contender Princeton faded, their gamble to run away with Harvard in the tailwind taking them only to about the thousand.

"I thought it was our best piece," said Harvard's Charley Butt, "because we stayed right with the fastest boats in the first 300 meters, and at the 500 we knew we had to assert ourselves, not just for 20 strokes, but for an entire 1,000 or 1,200 meters. And they did just that. I was quite happy to see them get enough distance on very dangerous Dartmouth, Yale and Princeton boats and Georgetown, enough that in the end we didn’t have to have a desperation sprint.” The coach added, "It’s nice when things work out, because they don’t always."

If last year's IRA final in the light eight could be hailed as a great instance of the tight racing in this league, then this result was a glimpse of something else we see from time to time: the kind of truly exceptional crew that can be formed in that sort of crucible and consistently rise above the fray. Harvard's run stretches all the back to the fall and, but for Yale's incredible effort at last year's IRA, the Crimson have been doing all right for going on two years now.

Harvard's lights might also be looking to make some new history for themselves: their post-race victory tweet used the hash tag #evenyear, and indeed, this was the first of the HVL's eight national championships to come in an even year. (It was also HVL's first title in nine years, as the recent runs by Cornell and Princeton, a couple of Yale wins and a Navy victory kept the Crimson off even the every other year plan since Harvard's last win in 2003)

While all of the favorites may have gone home as winners and the day was upset free, it was not without its drama. For starters (or rather "re=starters"), two races got red flagged and sent back to try again: the 1F Petite, for a jumped slide in the Navy crew, the 1F Petite, for a jumped slide in the Navy crew, and the 1V Grand, when Cal stayed at the line--which added just a bit of tension for the racers and the crowd at the Jumbotron alike.

Those were pretty short waits compared to what the medal winners in the Frosh eight waited through: a lengthy protest hearing prompted by fifth place Harvard that sent Washington, Cal, and Northeastern back to the docks empty-handed after what had been an excellent boat race. The protest sparked an hours-long pow-wow with all six coaches, coxswains, and a full cadre of officials. It hinged on Harvard's contention that they had been impeded by geese in their lane, and at least one of the options under discussion was a full-blown re-row. In the end, the protest was denied – it also appeared from the shore that a couple other crews tangled with geese as well, tho this may not have been a factor under consideration - and the winners got their medals after the V8 race, finally getting their chance to stand on the medals dock, even though they had to get there by foot.

In some ways, the scrutiny and committee-decision that settled the Frosh Eight race this year was a fitting ending for an event is headed for a shake-up now that the IRA Stewards have voted (on Friday afternoon) to end the long-standing tradition of requiring freshmen to row on frosh-only crews. While making freshmen eligible for the varsity crews will not scrub the frosh event from the schedule immediately, this IRA is certainly the last time we will see each school's first-years competing against one another as a class--and future championships may well see a decline in the number of schools that field, and travel, a freshmen eight.

For the record, UW, Stanford, and Harvard were not the only gold medal winners: both Light Fours races delivered different names to the top of the podium. The Navy lights won the Light Men's four, holding off both Cornell and the novel Wisconsin lightweight crew, while Wisconsin's light women picked up the win in the Women's four. Stanford did get second there, but Buffalo--a program that did not get an eights bid, like Navy's light men--got in for the bronze well ahead of Radcliffe. That is, after all the point of the Varsity Fours races in the IRA's present format: opening up a spot at the regatta for programs that have yet to qualify or just miss the cut for a bid in a given year. Even though the Heavy Men's V4 has been won by a "full" team the past few years, even that final features an "at large" school each year. This year, Georgetown made that final, Temple nearly escaped the semis with a GF spot, and the Holy Cross V4 took the top spot in the Petite over the likes of Harvard and Wisconsin. The open entries in the V4s creates some great racing, and that opportunity is not taken lightly: the guys from Milwaukee School of Engineering, one of the newest men's programs in the sport, got to their first IRA this year, in the Light Men's V4, and managed to beat one crew (Georgetown) in the Petite final. More importantly, though, the MSOE program got a chance to race on the biggest stage--an incredible opportunity, even if it did cost them a few betting shirts in the end.


Log in to comment
06/03/2012  10:05:07 AM
I am sad that they didn't do this rule a long time previous, since I would have been a freshman on a varsity boat most likely. Yes, it takes away a tradition, but is it about the fastest boats or tradition? It is not like these groups are going to the nba for example. A number of these schools don't even offer scholarships...

06/03/2012  8:25:52 AM
I join jumpstart in being disappointEd by this change. Rowing at the collegiate level is full of traditions. This is a sport that, in my opinion, needs to hold on to every bit of history and tradition to continue to differentiate itself from every other sport that seeks immediate success. Rowing often rewards those that embrace process and patience and hard work in the lower boats. What effect will this have on novices and their development? Many times all of the freshman, regardless of experience, level out in the first year. I don't like it on the women's side and I really don't like it on the men's side and I truly hope that many schools resist the temptation and continuoe to develop long term contributors to the programs rather than seeking some hoped for short term gain.

06/03/2012  9:59:04 AM
I don't agree with you guys. The only people this really hurts are the smaller schools who don't have enough scholarships to be competitive without all hands on deck for the V8. If the V is stinking up the joint you will never be able to attract the funding required to increase the depth of the program. Traditions are important and to be respected but in this case it just a way for richer underperforming colleges to avoid being picked off from below.

06/03/2012  7:09:41 AM
I am disappointed with the IRA Steward’s decision to allow freshmen rowers to participate in varsity crew races moving forward. For me it is not the intention of the rule change, but the inevitable outcome of the change. If the best freshmen talent can be moved into the varsity boat, what happens to upper class rowers who invested years of time into a program? What happens to the freshmen recruiting class, where team building and camaraderie are trying to be developed for the four years they might be able to row together? We already row in a league that does not have enough races in a season, this rule will inevitably lower the number of boats racing and the number of collegiate racers who get a chance to row at the IRA’s.