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Cal Heavy Men, Columbia Light Men, Stanford Light Women are the 2016 IRA Champs
Monday, June 6, 2016
Ed Hewitt, row2k.com
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California heavy men took the V8 and the team title

In an IRA that had perhaps the most diverse collection of winners in a decade, the Cal heavy men took top honors in both the heavy Varsity 8 and Ten Eyck points trophy, while the Columbia light men won top honors in both the light Varsity 8 and lightweight points trophy, and Stanford took the light women's V8 and corresponding team trophy.

But despite the V8/team points hegemony in each category, fully 10 different schools won a gold medal in the 11 total events (Washington won two, the Freshman 8 and the Men's coxed four).

The winners list: BU, Cal, Columbia, Cornell, Georgetown, Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, Washington, Wisconsin.

There are some other awesome stats lurking in the pile of results:

  • the light eight was Columbia's first eights national championship since 1929
  • the Harvard 2V and Princeton 3V completed undefeated seasons
  • the Stanford light women completed their second straight undefeated season
  • the Princeton heavy and light men won a medal in every event they entered
  • Cal's team championship is only the second time in history they have won it

    HEAVYWEIGHT MEN

    Men's Varsity Eight
    The men's eight was commanded and controlled by California from the front; after blasting out to a lead very early, Cal really never faltered once, leaving everyone else to sort themselves out behind them. And some sorting there was to be done; Yale went out in second position, but through the middle 1000 Princeton challenged them repeatedly, even finally breaking through into second place with about 500 to go.

    Yale, who may have been focusing on Cal in front of them, switched their attention to Princeton very aggressively at that point, as evidenced by a very clear call at the 500 meter mark that was overheard by dozens of people watching the race from the gazebo jetty. At that point, the Yale coxswain looked over at Princeton moving into second and said, more or less, "Guys, listen to me; we are not going to lose to Princeton."

    The crew got the message, and in the last 200 meters dug in to gain back a second on Princeton; at the line, Cal, Yale and Princeton were only three seconds apart, followed by Washington a little open water behind, then Harvard another two lengths back, then Brown.

    Despite posting the fastest times in both the heats and semis, Cal coach Mike Teti said the crew saved their best row for last.

    "On any given day we thought any of the crews in the final could win," he said. "We were also very conscious of the fact that the past two years we won our heat and semi but fell short in the final. The guys saved their best race for when it mattered the most."

    Senior Cal coxswain Julian Venonsky credited the crew's speed mostly to a strong and reliable base, which he says is established in the stern.

    "Our stroke Natan (Wegrzycki-Szymczy just sets a great rhythm, and then it is everybody backing and supporting him," Venonsky said. "With this boat, we found a base that I've never felt at Cal before my four years here, and just a base that goes and moves. Every stroke is just powerful.

    Venonsky said the crew did not shoot for an exceptional row, however.

    "This piece wasn't anything super special; it wasn't a religious experience, the clouds didn't open up," he said. "It was just what we knew we were capable of doing coming from our semi yesterday, which was really solid, really good. And then we just trusted each other. We knew if we just had a good piece--we didn't even need to have a great piece--just a good piece that we're capable of doing, we knew we could win it."

    Men's Second Varsity Eight
    After trailing Cal for the first 1250 of the race, Harvard punched into the lead to pin down an undefeated season with their win here, one of only a few undefeated bids to survive the year – although it sounds like they barely survived some of their own practices. I asked six-seat Henry Kennelly what made the crew capable of winning all year long, and he revealed that when the crew wants to go, they go – and when they don't, well, they don't.

    "One thing that's just been special about this boat from the beginning is that we're all just racers," he said. "Every boat will have its own specialty and each rower will have his own specialty within the boat, but the one thing that matches up between every guy in our boat is they're all just dedicated to racing as hard as we can.

    "But that also means that when we're paddling, we're very slow," he said with a laugh. "Whenever we're on the battle, we always get doored; whenever we're doing low-rate pieces, we always get doored. But when we get it up to rate, we just go for it. And that was the game plan at Sprints, and the game plan at IRAs."

    To get the crew ready, the coaches had them do what they do best – race.

    "All year long, the coaches had us racing really hard every week, so we were really used to racing," he said. "In our Florida camps, we just had the confidence that we could race four races in a morning every day for a week, and when you can do that, you can do three races in a weekend.

    "So this row was really just a celebration of that training. We went off to start as fast as we could and settled to a rhythm, but it wasn't really a settle, and from there it was the best race we could've asked for. I think we asked for it and we got it; we all went into it thinking there's no reason not to be confident, and that we could just race as hard as we can."

    Third Varsity Eight
    Princeton won a medal in every men's race they entered at the IRA, taking the gold in the 3V eight, which is now a points-winning event. Princeton two-seat Greig Stein said the crew came in simply aiming to medal, and then to see what happened from there. A fast start gave them the momentum and confidence they needed, and they led all the way to the finish, also topping an undefeated season.

    "We had the best start we've ever had, so after 25 strokes I think everybody had the confidence that we could win the race," he said. "I think have a lot of clutch players, a lot of guys who can be consistent and perform their best when they need it. So, I have confidence in our boat; we have a lot of freshman but they're some of the most confident freshmen you'll ever meet, so it was great."

    The crew expected Harvard to be faster than at Sprints, and when the Crimson started to come back in the middle of the race, the Princeton crew dug in just a little, and were able to withstand the pressure.

    "They started to walk back a little, but once we held them off and they only took a little bit, that was when we knew we had it. We knew so long as we held them off, we knew we could sprint through it if we had to."

    And what about those last 15 strokes?

    "It looked like UW was charging up on us, but we were able to hold them off; at that point you're kind of holding on for dear life because you want that gold so bad, but you know anything could happen in the last 15 strokes," he said.

    Freshman Eight
    Despite tilting massively into the headwinds of change, the freshman eight is still in the mix, albeit with only six entries this year. Washington won it by a second over Cal, followed by the Navy plebes in bronze medal position. The unique experience of training as a frosh eight came into play for the winning UW crew, with a crew with very diverse experience hitting bumps along the way throughout the year culminating in a very committed and focused IRA training stretch – a process that was a fundamental part of rowing just a few years ago.

    The biggest benefit is the process," coach Matt Rung said, "especially for this crew that suffered some difficulties early on in the season to develop and grow and see the work really pays off. To have that experience early on in your college rowing career, can really teach the guys to work hard and stay patient. To stay committed to the process and keep believing is really important, and I think that will serve them well when they're varsity members, which is really the most important years for them.

    "The Freshman 8 is a good event for that, a good event for development, and definitely gives them good cohesion as a group and as a class."

    The UW crew has members from all over the country (and one international rower) with very varied experience levels. Rung saw them become a crew in just the past few weeks.

    "It's been a huge development curve, and the way they rowed has changed dramatically, especially over the last few weeks. The guys have really committed to changing and being accountable and being sharper. They had been building upon the fitness they had earlier in the year, and when we added that final component, it really kicked in and the final result really kind of speaks for itself."

    Varsity Four
    The varsity four is potentially the most wide open event of all the men's events, as most of the crews have never raced the boat class intact, never raced one another, and in some cases are doing their first actual 2k in the heats.

    It was also the biggest event of the regatta, with fully 28 crews competing in four seven-boat heats on Friday, and finals racing all the way through the "E" final level on Sunday. When it was all sorted out, Washington had won the event, followed by Princeton for silver and Cal for bronze. row2k talked to Washington stroke Philip Walczak after the racing; it is worth noting that Walczak is not a stranger to the coxed four, having won the event at Henley rowing for Washington last year.

    "There's a wide background of guys in this boat, and for us, it was really an accomplishment to band together and assemble a fast boat here," he said. "For myself, it's a lot like Henley where you don't know who you are racing or what's going to happen. We knew what of look out for, but for sure, anything could happen. So our approach has been to focus on ourselves. We don't focus on the competition. We focus on really rowing the best we can this weekend."

    That said, the crew seemed to have some seasoned traits, such as being able to respond mid-race to changes in intensity or cadence without explicitly planning on doing so.

    "We all trust each other a lot, so they (the crew members) said if you decide that it's time for us to just shift a little and push it, I could do it. They gave me that freedom, and we all executed it together the way we wanted to. We saw where we were in terms of margins and did what we have to. Princeton in the final, though, gave us a great push. They rowed a very good, strong race and never, ever let off. They kept us going. Who knows? If it was another 200 meters, maybe it would have been different!"

    "But the way we discussed it in the past was never give an inch, because once you give one inch, you give ten inches. And that's exactly what we did. So it was very well done in that sense."

    Overall
    California won the overall points trophy while wearing the letters MF on their uniforms; no, it doesn't mean that, get your head out of the gutter, yeesh. MF are the initials of Cal boatman Mike Fennelly, who is retiring this year.

    "Today the most important member of that family was our boatman of the past 35 years, Mike Fennelly, who spent most of his life dedicated to Cal Crew," Mike Teti said. "His initials were embedded on the jerseys of all of our athletes. This regatta was dedicated to him because there's no doubt that he cares more about our program than the rest of us combined. We love him and we already miss him.

    "I'm so proud of how all of our boats performed enabling us to win the team championship for the second time in history."

    In placing second in the overall points trophy, the Princeton men were the only crew to medal in every event they entered, a result that Princeton coach Greg Hughes says has been years in the making.

    "This was a four year process, something that we looked at a long time ago and believed was possible, but we didn't really know how to do it," he said. "We watched especially the West Coast crews doing it, and knew we had some talent, but we had to find a way to do it right. We went through the trenches a bit to get here, but I think we figured it out, and the guys bought in on it and they really believed in it. It's a testament to the senior class, because they've been a part of the project for the last four years. It's thrilling, and it's a great way to see those guys all experience rowing. "

    Hughes noted that an effort like this comes back to the work teams are doing back home.

    "I've always felt that the fastest boats are developed by the fastest teams, because I think that the intensity and the pain that you have to be prepared to endure in this kind of racing, it needs to be developed daily," he said. "The only way that happens is with really tight and passionate internal competition within the team, and guys that are ready to take that on. I would honestly say that some of the hardest races we faced this year were on Wednesdays. We would line up all of our boats in our speed order and they brought it, so we got to practice that in that environment, which allows us to be ready for days like today."

    LIGHTWEIGHT MEN

    Varsity 8
    As noted above, the Columbia lightweight men's national championship win is the first lightweight title ever for Columbia, and the first for a Varsity 8 dating back to the celebrated 1929 Varsity Eight. And they did it in dominant fashion; at around 750 meters to go, the announcers had the Lions up on the field by open water. Previously undefeated Yale did come back aggressively late in the race, but Columbia still had almost 2.5 seconds lead at the line.

    The crew placed second to Yale at Sprints, and Columbia four-seat William Solberg credits the approach since then with today's pretty dominant win.

    "The last three weeks, as a boat, we really stepped up," he said. "We committed to the piece, and when we crossed a thousand, you felt everyone on the same page, and we crossed 300 meters, it was like we kind of knew. You knew that there was no guy in a boat that could ever let anyone else down. We were just going to go for the line. It was phenomenal."

    Columbia light men won their first eights national title since 1929 as well as team title

    Solberg harkens back to an erg session during the winter when he first saw the crew's capacity to commit to the work necessary to win a national championship.

    "I remember one practice this winter when we did 12 x 2 minutes; it is one of my favorite memories from Columbia," he said. "Everyone was in the erg room just going after it. It was something really special, and I feel like those memories, that trust kind of builds over time and it culminates in a place like this. And then we really solidified that trust over the last three weeks, and when we were up at a thousand, we just knew. It was the boys. It was our best friends just going hard for the line. It was really exciting."

    Columbia also placed second in the light men's four, earning the team the points championship as well.

    Light Men's Coxed Four
    Georgetown didn't get a V8 into the IRA, so they made the absolute best of the situation by winning the coxed four event rowing away, winning by open water over Columbia in silver medal position and Princeton in bronze. Crew member team captain Luke Prioleau said that, after the Sprints, the crew licked their wounds a bit, then got to work.

    "We didn't graduate a single senior last year, so we had very high expectations coming into the season," he said. "We also had a good crop of freshmen coming in with some international experience and a lot of success at the high school level. We had pretty high hopes, and the season never really panned out the way we wanted it to in the eight. We had some close race, we picked up speed, and had some good racing at Sprints, but weren't able to qualify.

    "So we took that and really attacked the three weeks between Sprints and IRAs with a purpose. We had no goal but winning the gold here. We put in a lot of work, trained our asses off, and this group of four guys were able to lay down one of the better races."

    Since the crews don't row these fours intact during the year, the learning curve can be steep and long, continuing even into the regatta, and Prioleau saw that close up this weekend.

    "In our heat, we were able to hold the lead from the first five strokes, and had a pretty solid race," he said. "Today was pretty different. We had a slower start than usual and I think we were in either last or in the bottom two after the first 500. We maade a move at the 750, kept picking up speed throughout the whole thing, and really picked it up going into the last 500 and were able to walk away."

    Prioleau admits that the way the final panned out was not entirely comfortable.

    "It was nerve-racking for sure," he said. "I was sitting bow seat, and kept yelling "Bring it up! Bring it up! Let's go! Let's go! We have to go now!" We did it when we needed to and we were able to come across the line first.

    "This is the biggest accomplishment I've had in my entire sporting career. I'm a senior, so this is my last race, so it's a great way to go out. We have two freshmen in the boat and one junior, so I'm really happy for those guys and excited for the future that they have ahead of them."

    Light Men's Straight Four
    The light men's straight four can be a real tangle of different crews, sometimes literally, since for many of the athletes, it may be their first time in a coxless sweep boat, and steering becomes a major challenge. Not so for Cornell, who spends time in straight fours during their winter training trip (thanks to the coaches bringing and installing a lane line themselves, whew). The winter primer paid off today as Cornell won gold, followed by Princeton for silver, and Harvard for bronze.

    "Most of our Florida trip we spent doing pieces on buoy lines in the straight fours," said bow seat Paul Clauss. "We have three seniors and a sophomore in our boat, so the three seniors actually have a lot of experience in the straight fours. We rig them stern-toed, and we have a good steersman who has done it for four years."

    Clauss notes that it is not just the steering challenge that makes the straight four tricky – and rewarding.

    " Without the coxswain, it's a lighter system, so it's a little wobbly sometimes," he noted. "I definitely think our racing experience in them helps. Honestly, I love it. I rowed fours in high school and am really a small boats guy, and I love the responsive feel that the straight four has."

    The crew was also cognizant of the straight four's lack of a dedicated set of eyes in the coxswain's seat, and developed a strategy to address it.

    "We know since this is a blind boat, the first thousand is very important, so we spend a lot of time rehearsing the start, getting the rate up, getting a nice settle," he said. "It's important because once you get out of sight, if they want to see you, they have to turn around. Especially in this kind of race where all these boats have kind of been thrown together, every stroke the bowman turns around is usually a bad stroke. So, the quicker you get up, the quicker you can start moving away."

    Clauss said the crew had good rows even when tired and enveloped in gear to make weight, which gave them confidence that they could hold it together under pressure.

    "It's nice when you're tired and you're still rowing well, and then the heat was actually the first full 2k we'd done as a crew, so we were pretty happy with it," he said. The crew thought they had rowed a little low in the heat, so added some heat for the final, which did the tric'.

    "We were a little shaky on the warmup, a little nervy, but when the flag came down, we got out of there really quick," he said. "We hit our settle, doing a nice stride. The rate was high. People felt confident. We stayed loose."

    In the straight four, with no coxswain, the crew members are charged with running the race plan, but Clauss said the crew didn't yap their way down the course.

    "We didn't talk too much; there were a couple 'yep's', a couple yip's," he said. "Every once in a while I'd chuck out 'stay loose, stay flat.' And then we opened it up."

    How did that feel?

    "Hard! Tiring!" he said with a laugh. " For three of us, this was the last 2k probably of our lives, so we weren't looking to just mail it in the last 500."

    LIGHTWEIGHT WOMEN

    Varsity 8
    The Stanford light women's varsity eight completed their second undefeated season on Sunday by matching a fast start by BU with a grinding middle 1000 that put Stanford out in front in the second 500, from where they extended bit by bit to the line to win by just under three second over BU in second, followed by Radcliffe in third.

    For BU's part, no other crew had finished within closed water behind Stanford all year, so their bid for the lead and silver medal performance was a strong go for a program that is only four years old.

    Stanford crew members Brittany Presten and Christine Cavallo did not feel like they had their best race, but also felt that come championship day, the situation might not always allow that, and you have to do the work anyway. As it went, the Stanford crews were in their final exams, with Presten taking one final this weekend, Cavallo submitting her final paper, and another crew member taking three final exams, all at the hotel in New Jersey.

    "I don't think it was our best race ever, but I personally think that we trained so we can have a mentality where you line up knowing that regardless of how it feels stroke to stroke, you have put in enough work where even if you have a slight hiccup, anything going on, you are still so confident in the race itself that it doesn't have to be perfect," Cavallo said. "You just know how you treat that environment and respond to it."

    Stanford light women took the V8 and the team title

    As for the uncertainty of facing so many east coast crews, Presten expressed a similar work ethic-based approach.

    "Coming into day, you've just got to hope that you put in the work day to day for that month that we had in between our last race and now," she said. "We're from the other coast and all of our competitions are out here, so a lot of the time we're on our own and it's just putting in the work with other girls in the boat and hoping it's good enough."

    Light Women's Four
    Wisconsin won their fifth lightweight fours IRA title with a front-loaded effort that had them solidly in the lead before the 1000 meter mark, resulting in an open water lead by the finish, followed by UMass for silver and Stanford for bronze.

    "Today was definitely a step in the right direction for the lightweight program," UW head coach Dusty Mattison said, "and the four led the way. The race was powerful and committed the entire way down. They were confident in their speed and were able to stay nice and relaxed and just powered to bring it through."

    Light Women's Double
    The double is the only sculling event at the IRA, and as such may have a cross-section of experienced and inexperienced scullers across the crews. The winning BU double had an interesting mix in their own ranks, with senior Cynthia Herrera having walked on to BU and taking her first strokes in a sculling boat as a freshman four years ago, and freshman Amy Connell having sculled a bunch in high school at Conestoga.

    "I started rowing at BU, and the first time I sculled was in a tubby after my freshman year," Herrerra said. "So I've learned a lot going to BU, including sculling."

    The double is another event where the crews will have never faced off during the regular season, so after the BU crew posted the fastest time in the heats, they felt they had a shot.

    "Going through our heats, we were just trying to have the best race we could have and see how other people stood against us," Connell said. "We had a good time, but we knew the other boats were going to be faster, and we knew that it was going to be a lot tougher in the final, and it was. It was a lot closer, and it was a lot harder, but we had a good plan going into it."

    "We just stuck to our plan and made our moves, and I think it really made a difference," Herrera added.

    The crew is coached by C.B. Sands-Bohrer, a formidable sculler in her own right.

    "She has so much experience, and she really helped us know that we have more and we have more to give during the race," Connell said. "She just knew we could do it and I feel like she gave us what we needed given all her racing experience."

    "She was really just calm and confident in all the practice that we put in, so I think it makes us calm and confident, which is really important," Herrera added. "It's been really great."

    Notes from the course:

    • Stanford won the Clayton Chapman Award for Most Improved Team

    • Harvard 2V six-seat Henry Kennelly did inform row2k that the crew was not quite undefeated – they did not win the semi on Saturday. But let's be honest, that doesn't count when you win the final.

    • Harvard 2V bow-seat Travis Taafe also won the IRA Pick'em; undefeated in the boat and wins the last and biggest pick'em of the year, boom!

    • "Varsity" is really easy to make a typo on (seriously)

    • After the V8 race, Yale coach Steve Gladstone put on his California Rowing Club jacket while wearing his Yale hat. Was it a tribute, a sign of solidarity with his former school and boathouse, just the jacket he had packed?

    • We have heard a lot of cheers, but even this was new to row2k: one fan cheering on the crews had what could only have been an operatic singing background, and was cheering on the crews will full and clear tremelo cheers

    • Despite the early start, folks showed up for sure

    • You can see full replays of the racing here: Sunday | Saturday | Friday PM | Friday AM

    • The compressed morning schedule put all six eights finals in consecutive order on eight minute centers from 7:08 to 7:48 in the morning, a tricky go for photographers and medals ceremony folks, but a riveting spectacle for spectators. The first race of the day was the MV8 grand final, and crews from that race stopped in front of the finish line Jumbotron to watch the race alongside all the fans; it was a pretty spectacular run of races. So good that Princeton coach Greg Hughes thinks maybe it should happen every year.

      "It's funny, this format for weather is the format I think we should have all the time at the IRA, because it is 36 minutes of the most exciting racing in our sport, and I think those races are so incredible," he said. "It's action packed, and our sport needs that. We do enough stuff by ourselves. There's a lot of our sport that's boring and dull and old fashioned, and I think you could take that and that whole section could air on a 30 minute segment on ESPN, and that's what these kids deserve. I hope that the IRA, who've now done it two years in a row, and it's been exceptional, I hope we consider doing that permanently, because it's the way it should be done. "

      Other coaches agreed with Hughes, although with the caveat that the 7am start is tough on athletes and spectators alike; certainly row2k got late-night texts on Saturday noting how hard it would be to get to the regatta site before 7am. But the early starts are primarily a concession to the weather forecaster, and the format could just as easily be run later in the day, maybe on 10-minute centers to leave a little wiggle room for false starts, timing folks, and medals dock presenters. Certainly the Stotesbury Cup pulls off similar runs of finals while still pulling off satisfying awards ceremonies and good racing. Something for all of us to think about.

      Crowd and crews watching the MV8 Grand


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