The race schedule was thrown out of the window Saturday night as fears of inclement weather forced a rethink of Sunday’s finals. Today's racing commenced during "horrendous" conditions. It was sunny, 70 degrees with only a slight breeze, and the course was mirror flat. While I kid about the altered schedule, today was the most important day of the regatta and nothing was left to chance. Racing kicked off early at 7:10am with the grand final of the varsity 8 running at 8:40am. A bit of a crosswind developed later in the afternoon however overall race conditions were fantastic all weekend. Crowds were a bit slow to trickled in, but the shores of Lake Mercer were packed in time for the V8.
Before the start of the V8 grand final, one could feel the tension from the finish line. Once the race began, 500 meters into the race Washington already had a 1 seat lead pushing out to 2 over the rest of the field. With 750 to go, Washington had open water over Cal and Princeton and cruised to victory. Coming into this regatta Washington was feeling a bit of pressure having lost once during the regular season and the pressure to meet their own lofty expectations, but their 5th victory in a row in the V8 was inevitable. Washington left no doubt as they rowed the last 50 meters with their coxswain’s hand held up showing 5 fingers to the crowd to signify their 5 championships in a row. In a very close race for silver Cal crossed the finish line 0.14 seconds ahead of Princeton.
After the race Washington head coach Mike Callahan said “Today the guys really performed. Obviously we lost some races in the middle of the season and that really unified everybody. We really relied on a strong senior class and that was really a point of emphasis.”
Losing to another collegiate team during the regular season has been a rare occurrence for Washington during this run. “I think how the guys handled the loss early on in the season that I knew things were going to be alright. To me that is why it’s great to have all of the seniors. Maybe if you didn’t have guys who had been through it before, maybe they would have fractured. It definitely created a sense of urgency and it created a unifier. Going into the Pac-12 we knew we had made progress, but we didn’t know how much. I think we gained a lot of confidence from that. Then the last couple of weeks I knew the boats rhythm was really strong and we were doing things in Seattle that I had not seen before in terms of times. I just knew that this was a pretty good boat.”
Last year the lightweight women 8 champion Radcliffe was coached by first year head coach Lou Berl. This year, new coaching success repeated itself as Stanford’s light 8 under first year coach Derek Byrnes took home the title. Stanford controlled the race early on and never looked back. Stanford was followed by, Radcliffe who was followed by their hometown rival Boston University in third.
Coach Byrnes took over a Stanford program that had very high expectations coming into this year. Stanford who had won 4 of the last 5 IRA light 8’s had championship expectations, but the athletes seems to enjoy the pressure. “Today we were pretty confident in what we could do and we have a good positive group. They just wanted to get out in front, be relaxed, and just pound it.” Despite being a freshman stroke seat Keagan Hanley aka “Turtle” helped lead the Stanford women to victory. “Once I was at the start I knew I had a strong group of girls behind me the whole way it really calms my nerves.”
The early schedule affected every team at this regatta however Stanford found this early schedule as an opportunity. “The thing about Stanford kids, the earlier you set this race the better they are going to be. They are all sleep deprived (from their school work), so if they have to race at a point where they shouldn’t really be awake, that’s their wheel house. We went to Boston earlier in the season and they had us race at 7 in the morning. One of the kid’s said isn’t that going to be 4am our time? Someone else was like…. Perfect!”
Later in the day Stanford capped off the lightweight women’s sweep of the day with another victory in the lightweight 4. This earned Stanford the lightweight points championship and ended Wisconsin’s 4 year control of the race.
Coach Byrnes comes from the high school ranks where he coached for Oakland Strokes. “The biggest transition so far is the schedule in which we can train. It’s a little more flexible in high school. Here the rowers are much more mature and they don't need as much to get up to speed.” Coach Byrnes continued “What’s hard is factoring in when they are physically and emotionally drained from school. Our kids are really smart and they study all of the time. There were days when we were training in high school where you just grind, grind, grind because you are always having to teach. Here there were days you could see everyone was wiped out so I would come into the erg room and say let’s play ultimate frisbee today. They are looking at you like you're crazy, but sometimes you just have to do something different.”
At this point of the regatta due to the schedule change, the finish line was absolutely hectic. Medal winners were basically being tossed their medals and quickly rushed away from the shore. While the finish line may have been crazy, the results on the water remained the same. Washington took home the 2V and 3V titles. The biggest surprise from today came across the finish line in silver behind Washington. For the 2V Princeton came in just ahead of a surprising Boston University crew, while in the 3V, Harvard also finished just ahead of Cal.
Princeton’s head coach Greg Hughes after the race said “We had some very strong and solid pieces in the lead up to the final week of training in the 1V and 2V. There was a lot of confidence coming in that we had something more to show. We had a simple race plan, it was just to be more aggressive than we have ever been.”
While Princeton’s 2V and Harvard’s 3V had a great showing today, yet again it was Washington standing on top of the podium. “We had guys who have never won this race in the 2V and 3V and it was fun to see the seniors get a medal.” Coach Callahan said after the race. “We knew Princeton had an undefeated 2V and 3V….The depth of the 2V field is really strong now. It’s outstanding the competitiveness of the 2V and 3V with freshman rowing up. For us, one of the things we really pride ourselves on is the development of guys. We feel good that our development system is still working. "
The landscape of 2V and 3V rowing had definitely changed in recent years as freshman have begun to fill more than just the freshman boats. “Men’s rowing has changed and we are going to have to adjust” said coach Callahan. “There have been so many freshman that have made huge impact on all of these other boats that we are competing against today. We don’t know what the future holds, but we know every time we get to another threshold, we have to change and get better.”
Washington up to this point has swept the V8, 2V, 3V, and Freshman 8. The last notch on their belt was the varsity 4. Until the last 200 meter of the race it looked as though that streak would come to an end. Stanford had led the race from end to end, but after a missed stroke Washington and Cal took advantage. The race finished Washington 1st, Cal in 2nd, and Stanford in 3rd.
“The 4 we were changing guys from our 4 to the 3V to try to solidify that line-up and make that faster. There were definitely a lot of unknowns for us” Coach Callahan after the race. “I thought we were pressing back during the 4s race and I thought we could get back pretty close to the line. It was just a great way to top off the day. All of the other guys were on the beach by that point. We were making some jokes last night that we are going to end this day with the varsity 4 as the crescendo. It was great to have all of the guys on the beach cheering for the guys in the 4. It’s another thing we pride ourselves on is to really support each other through all of the boats. It isn’t a one boat program.”
Lwt Mens 8
Last year Cornell was the IRA lightweight champion and was looking to repeat for the first time since 2008. After last year’s victory, the expectation and momentum from last season carried into this season. “The momentum we built the last two years definitely carried on into this season. We were cautiously optimistic throughout the season since we had some excellent results. Not only in the varsity, but deep, deep down in our 2V, 3V, 4V on a very consistent basis. I think that's a testament to the athletes in the preparation that they are doing and with their attitudes.” said Cornell’s head coach Chris Kerber after the race.
With the condensed schedule due to weather concerns, the lightweights were forced to have an abbreviated break between their heat and the final. Despite this break coach Kerber wasn’t concerned. “We normally have a little bit more time, but I didn’t think it was ever going to be a factor. If it was down to two hours or an hour and a half I did not feel like that was going to be an issue.”
Cornell lead this race from start to finish with a heck of a battle for silver coming in behind them. Columbia was in the silver position for most of the race until Harvard put on a heck of a sprint. Unfortunately for Harvard it was a little too late as Columbia was able to come in just inches ahead of Harvard.
One of the best parts about rowing in college is the fact that your time is limited. For the seniors, this regatta marks the ending of a very enriching and memorable college experience. Coach Kerber after the race got very emotional talking about his guys. “There are three senior rowers and a senior coxswain, in that 8. I said stick with the race plan, and when the seniors come across the thousand meter mark, make sure you take a 10 for leaving a legacy. The seniors in that boat have won two national championships.” You could see the emotion from not only the rowers, but the coaches. Win or lose for all of the crew at this regatta, the experience will hold forever.
Continuing to Build a Dynasty
While coach Callahan refused to call his team a dynasty and insisted there is still more they can improve on, for the better part of the last decade the Huskies have been the dominant force in collegiate men’s rowing. Looking into next season the challenge for the Huskies is to keep the streak going. “That’s the thing we are always trying to figure out how to motivate the group. That really lends to what we do. Everything is really merit based. We run all of these pairs and there is a lot of mobility through the team so it regenerates every guy every year. Every guy has to re-earn their seat. We don’t do anything on the pedigree of what you did last year.” Coach Callahan continued, “That’s what this team does, we give them opportunities and they capitalize on them. Like today we had a great opportunity and they know if I want to be a champion I’ve got to take care of this opportunity. There is no one thinking last year is good enough from the coaching staff to the guys on the team. We constantly have to re-invent the team all of the time.”
Maybe it’s the intense competition at practice or U23 athletes that line their boats, but Washington, Cornell, and the Stanford lightweight women just had another gear in every race today. While the lack of parity this year may be frustrating for some, it’s hard not to be inspired and impressed by the performance of each of these programs. To come in with the highest expectations and meeting them says a lot about these athletes and coaches. I know everyone can’t wait for this regatta’s return next year. The grills will be smoking, the fans and alumni will be cheering, and tears will be shed as this century old tradition continues. See you in 2016!