Washington was moving toward a 2017 IRA sweep. With wins in three of the four events, and its top seeded varsity eight on the start, some on the shores of Lake Natoma were thinking the Huskies were history bound.
It was not what happened. Right off the start, Yale University, seeded third in the regatta and rowing without senior captain Rob Hurn, who rowed to a Sprints Championship fevered and sick, set a pace that held for the nearly length of the course.
For over more than half of the 2000-meter course, Yale held and the race announcers were talking about how they looked to be the next champions. But Washington was not about to go away quietly and around the 750 mark, they pushed into Yale and began fighting for the lead.
It was a move that surprised even the Yale crew. "I'm normally a real looker," said senior Nate Goodman. "I normally take a lot of looks out of the boat to try and see where we are.
"My big thing today was to not do that, to be really in our boat. I didn't look out until about 750 to go and when I did I thought, Oh, we've won. And then in the last 250, I think we started to give out and at that point I thought, this would look really bad. That feeling just pulled us across the line."
Maybe if the course had been just a tiny bit longer, Washington might have gone across the line first. The finish was that close - just a fraction of a second close - 5:29.900 to 5:29.969, a margin of 0.069.
About one inch (maybe less) was all Yale needed to win the school's first IRA title in the history of the 165 year-old regatta. It was a big moment for the Connecticut based university and for head coach, Steve Gladstone, the IRA title was the twelfth of his career, leaving him two short of legendary Cornell coach and former professional oarsmen Charles E. "Pops" Courtney.
"This came down to the resilience of the athletes and being able to deal with the loss of Rob, the captain and to accept a new member of the boat without any negative vibes and making that person comfortable so they could perform," Gladstone said.
While disappointed, Washington did not leave the Championship empty handed.
With wins in the four and the second varsity and third varsity eights, Washington won the Jim Ten Eyck Memorial Trophy as the overall points champion. It was their 10th in the last 11 years. The varsity eight loss was an obvious disappointment to Washington's top crew, but coach Mike Callahan saw the team's overall performance as a solid move toward future championships. "That's really important to us," Callahan said.
"I feel from last year we really built a strong foundation of who the team is, what our core values are and I'm really proud of the entire depth of the team. If you look at our entire depth, we had an incredible Husky day," he said. "It's a tribute that a lot of these guys bought into who we are, our integrity, what we're about."
The varsity eight Grand Final capped a day of championship racing in which Cornell light eight defended its undefeated year while Harvard won the lightweight team points trophy, while Stanford University three-peated the women's lightweight national championship and swept the regatta.
"It's pretty cool," said 2016 Olympian Kate Bertko, who became the team's new head coach right after competing in the lightweight women's double in the Rio Olympics. "It's a good group. They worked really hard. It's been fun, and it's very impressive to see what they've done."
Just before the men's varsity eight final, Washington was in position to win everything.
Men's Varsity Four
The varsity four set the tone for the first of the three Grand finals, leading California in second and Princeton in third to the medals. In his remarks following the race, junior Luke Khoury indicated that Washington has been using a program "reset" mantra since the beginning of the season.
"In terms of our race this weekend, I usually get pretty nervous," Khoury said. "But I was watching this video we made for this weekend and it really talked about how we realigned out values for the team and how the team was so much more important than each one of us.
"During that race, I dedicated the last thousand to all of the guys that are not here that didn't make a boat. They really are the backbone of the team. So that was what this was all about. We had a really big reset and we all went back to the beginning of our freshman year and said no matter who you are we all had to earn the W," he said.
Men's Third Varsity Eight
The third varsity eight was the next Husky crew to pull in to the medal spot on the beach near the finish line after finishing first in front of second place Harvard and third place California.
"The goal is depth every year," said Sam Goertz. "From every stroke from the beginning of every fall, it's about moving toward the varsity eight final. That's what we're here to do. We're trying to win the team trophy."
In the second varsity eight Grand Final, Washington again crossed first with California and Princeton behind them. And again, the united Husky theme came up.
"Ever since the beginning of the season, we tried to rebuild team values, and we've been working very hard, mainly for our teammates," said Pietro Zileri Dal Verme. "We've been a lot less selfish and we have been working toward a team result. So now we're seeing the results that we are aiming for. We have one more race left and we're going to cheer for our teammates," he said.
More Men's Heavyweight Eight
Yale, however, had plans of their own. In the heats and the semifinal, all of the top four crews did little to stray from the seeding, and advanced through to the semifinals.
In the Saturday semifinals, the top seeds advanced without surprise. Washington posted the fastest time of the day and beat Yale. Princeton followed in third in that semi and in the second semi, Harvard, California and Brown advanced.
Brown was a bit of a surprise to reach the final based on its races in the dual and conference championship races. Cal went into the regatta as the defending champion, but through the heats and semi and into the final, Cal made three changes within the boat.
In the end, it was Yale, Washington and Harvard to the medals, with Princeton just behind, 0.3 off of Harvard.
Yale led the length of the race, with Harvard trailing in second through the first quarter. As Yale held, Washington took second over Harvard and began a last surge that brought them close enough to leave the result in question on the water.
On the other side of the finish line, both crews sat waiting for word. When the race announcer called it for Yale, assistant coach Mike Gennaro ran to the water and began pumping his fists in the air toward the Yale crew.
They got the message, and at least four of them jumped into the water.
"I had no idea who had won when we crossed the line," Goodman said. "And then we saw the coaches running down to give us the go ahead," he said.
While Yale celebrated, the Washington crew stood and watched.
"It was just the way the day went," said Washington's Ben Davison. "I think on any other day it could have been our day. They're a fantastic crew. It just hurts. It's been a long year. I think the team did well and I think that's something we can take away."
"When it comes down to this kind of sprint, it was a just ten strokes earlier kind of thing. But it is nothing I regret. It was a good race," Davison said.
"I think it's still the best year of my life," said Washington coxswain Stuart Sim. "I told these guys last night, I think we've got a really good team. It's the best team while I've been here and whatever way the result goes, it was a great time to be a Husky. And I think the next few years look very good.
"We would have liked being a little quicker off of the start," Sim said. "We had a pretty decent rhythm. We just got in our rhythm, tried to execute our race as best as possible. I always felt like we were in a positon to win it. At 750 to go, I looked over at Yale and I liked what I saw. Good credit to Yale for hanging in there."
For Harvard, losing to Yale is never an easy pill. But Harvard coach Charlie Butt said he is looking forward to the Harvard-Yale race in a week.
"I haven't talked to the crew yet about the race," said Butt said. "We were in a good position and they have given consistent efforts all year, and don't think there is any reason to think we did anything different today. They're good guys and we have a week to go in the season yet."
Harvard junior Cole Durbin also said he was looking forward to one more race against Yale. "I thought we gave a good effort," he said. "We sort of lost it there in the middle thousand and we couldn't get it back, and we're looking forward to seeing Yale again in a week."
Lightweight Men - Varsity Eight Title to Cornell, Points Title to Harvard Everybody watching the men's lightweight eight racing this year knew that Cornell University was the team to beat after an undefeated dual season capped by a Sprints championship. "Everyone is chasing Cornell," was the pat answer throughout the weekend to anyone who talked about the seeding.
Cornell did not disappoint, and neither did the rest of the field. The University of Pennsylvania has been building toward a solid finish to the IRA, and set itself in good position in the semifinal with a win in the fastest time. Penn did challenge, but it was not enough to get out in front of Cornell, which won in 5:40.17, earning Cornell its third national championship since 2014.
The Quaker lights finished second in 5:41.08. Behind them, Harvard looked to be in a positon to take the bronze but were passed at the line by Yale - they crossed in 5:43.07 with Harvard a hair behind in 5:43.08.
Harvard's finish was crushing, but the team's gold medal in the straight four, and silver in the coxed four, helped earn the Crimson the overall lightweight points title.
"Honestly, it's a little bitter sweet after the varsity result," said head coach Billy Boyce. "But it's a representation of what the program has done as a whole. But, they wanted to do better in the 1V," he said.
"It was a really great effort in the fours, and seven of those guys are underclassman and are all coming back, so that's exciting for the coming years. But we're definitely hungry for next year."
For Cornell, lightweight head coach Chris Kerber, watching his team race to solidify the season with a championship was satisfying, but nerve wracking. "The pits in the stomach are always the same," Kerber said.
And that was even after his crew told him to stop worrying in the pre-race meeting the night before in the team hotel.
"They told me last night, 'Coach we're going to do this', and I walked out of the meeting. I went through the tactics and they said, 'Coach, we got this.' And this just defines the leadership on my team," he said.
"Oh, man," said Cornell senior Jack Ruske. "We've got five seniors in this boat and three of us are from the 2015 eight. Last year was a big hit, and we just came back to the drawing board and we realized what we needed to work on. Ever since August, all the way to this day, winning was the focus.
"We knew that if we came here and executed to the fullest capacity, we'd win it, and I think we showed we could have won this race any day of the week," he said.
Pennsylvania has been coming on since Sprints, where they were third in the V8. They won their heat to advance to the IRA final, also posting the fastest time. In the end, their second-place finish matched the school's highest IRA finish, which came in 1992.
"We've always been a second half crew," said senior Jasper Liu. "We had some momentum going into the IRA camp, building our base pace faster for the second 500, and we just still had enough juice in the last half of the race."
Penn coach Colin Farrell said he was "a little heart broken," with not seeing his team win the gold. "It was a really close finish and this is a really special crew to me. These guys did everything I asked, so it's tough. Cornell is just a really fast boat; and to see the changes Yale made, it's just that the whole field has been like this all year.
"It's been so hard to get separation; we felt in the fall that it was going to be really close racing, and here we are," Farrell said. "I'm really proud of them. I'm really proud to be a Penn lightweight today. So, it's a mix of emotion."
Third place Yale had a difficult year, having a disappointing showing in the Harvard-Yale-Princeton race, and then missing the medals altogether and finishing last in the Sprints final.
"This was a good way to end the year, especially after Sprints," said senior Will Van Fossen. "The boat had six seniors in it with a lot of heart. It was a lot of fun to go down the course with them one last time."
Yale head coach Andy Card was ecstatic with the way his team performed, the way they ended the season, and the way the field performed overall.
"The story of all the medalists is fascinating," he said. "Cornell had a great season. Penn had a fantastic season, too. We went back and forth. We traded with Penn. We won the Dodge Cup, they got us in Sprints, and they got us here, two times, in the heat and the final.
"I have respect for those two crews, but for my guys to come back from what they went through - they had a very disappointing H-Y-P, and the Sprints was a complete disappointment - to have rallied and come back and fire hard like that with a thousand meters to go. It was a hard, hard, hard race for bronze. And they came through.
"I'm proud of them," Card said. "I couldn't be happier."
Men's Lightweight Fours
The lightweight men's racing was not a complete dominance by any one team.
Cornell won the biggest event, but Harvard won the straight four and took second in the coxed four behind a Navy win.
"It felt good," said Harvard three-seat Andrew Wilkins of the straight four win. "We haven't really rowed the straight four a lot and we had difficulty steering, but everyone stayed calm and collected and we trusted in the base and we knew that if we did that we could win and we trusted the plan."
In the coxed four event, Navy dominated. After the win, coxswain Cullen Harper was dunked - twice. Once in the traditional cox toss and once just after the crew got out of the boat to get their medals on the beach.
"It's incredible," said a very wet Harper. "All credit goes to them," he said pointing to his teammates. "There are so strong and they dominated the entire race."
Lightweight Women - Stanford Sweeps to Third Consecutive National Championship
Coming into the IRA National Championship, the Stanford women's lightweight squad were already having championship season.
But finishing off a year of big wins from the San Diego Crew Classic to the Western Intercollegiate Rowing Association Championship would not come easy with a field that included traditional east coast rivals Harvard-Radcliffe and a surging Boston University that was coming off a Dad Vail Championship.
Stanford swept all three women's light weight events, starting with the Sunday finals leadoff event the women's double sculls, the winning the four, and then dominating in the lightweight eight Grand Final, capturing the third consecutive national championship and taking home the Camden County Board of Chosen Freeholders Trophy.
Light Women's Double
Stanford got an early push from their lightweight double, which lead from start to finish and were never challenged by the field. Wisconsin was second, followed in third by Boston University.
"It's really exciting," said doubles stroke Jordan Reist. "We've been training really hard as a whole team and it has been a team effort to get the whole team here. And it's exciting to start the day off," she said.
Her partner, Marie Johnson, said the win was a happy ending to a personally difficult year.
"It's really been a ride this year," she said. "Both Jordan and I have been through quite an interesting year, in and out of boats and struggling with personal injuries, but I can't say there is anybody else I would rather go down this course with at the end of the day."
Light Women's Four
In the next event, Stanford also raced in front of the pack. Sophomore Diba Massihpour was so ecstatic that she rushed out of the boat and run and celebrate with her dog, Teddy, who was brought to the awards area by her parents.
"That's my dog, Teddy, she came to watch me with my parents," she said. "It's been so great this year. This is an amazing team and it was an amazing race. It's incredible. We've been training so hard and we started from a place that was kind of rocky. We've been evolving as a boat it was amazing."
Light Women's Eight
In the final event, the varsity eight grand final, Stanford completed the sweep, finishing clear of the pack again.
"This is my first IRA and it was amazing," said Michele Holtkamp, who sat in the four seat of the eight. "We all pulled for each other. There were a lot of nerves before the race. I was trembling.
"But as soon as we got into it, it was just like we do it in practice. It takes everyone to win a team championship, from the bottom up it takes every single person. We're a team that supports each other and it just creates this great environment to learn and to thrive in."
For Boston University, who finished second last year, the silver medal was just one short of what they had hoped to accomplish.
"It's bittersweet," said coach Malcolm Doldron. "We're excited to have been able to throw down a race that was amazing. Our goal was 6:30 and we thought it was going to be enough, but that Stanford crew was on another level.
"So, congrats to them. But these guys are amazing. I'm so proud of them. I'm proud of my seniors. It's been a roller coaster ride of a season, but they crushed it," he said.
"As a senior, this is the best race I have ever raced," said Makayla Karr-Warner. "I'm so incredibly honored to represent BU today and row with these women. They are the most inspiring group of women I have ever met in my life."
For third place Princeton, the bronze medal was an emotional accomplishment.
"This is pretty unbelievable," said senior Christina Warren. "We've been trying to fight back for four years now and this is the best way we could have asked to end it.
"It was a long way between Sprints and IRAs, and there was a lot of progression made. It just felt like we put it all together the last few days. Yesterday was our second-best race,and today was our best race," she said.
"It's pretty emotional," said coach Paul Rassam. "Last year, we were thirty seconds back at the Sprints. It just took a lot of really hard work from the girls and the team. It was a really long and hard rebuilding process from what we went through last year," he said.