Fast times in tailwinds were the buzz of the boatyard on day one of the 2017 NCAA Championships on Mercer Lake in New Jersey, with two crews pushing under 6:10 (the Stanford and Washington V8s), a heap of eight more under 6:15 in the D1 eights Varsity eights, crews touching 6:30 in the D3 eights, and a D1 second varsity going 6:11, yipes.
(It is not for nothing that we don't mention the D2 crews above; by the time they were coming down the course pushing noontime, conditions had deteriorated to the point where the deleterious effects of chop and whitecaps nullified any help the tailwind could provide.)
Before we start in, you can see the full results at www.row2k.com/results.
In the D1 ranks, the big takeaways were Michigan and Washington winning all three of their heats, Stanford's 6:07 heat win, and Cal and Texas joining Michigan and Washington as the only teams to advance all three crews directly to the A/B semis from the heats. A few others joined them from the reps, including Ohio State, Princeton, Stanford, Virginia, Wisconsin, and Yale, for a total of 10 teams that have all three boats in the A/B semis.
One of the most entertaining squads for race fans has been the Iowa crew, which, in its first NCAA appearance ever in a squad dominated by walk-ons. By the end of the day, only the Iowa four made it through to the A/B semis, but the V8 gave notable chase to Michigan and Cal in the heat, finishing only a few seats off Cal at the finish in 6:15, and the other crews showed up to race as well.
We talked to Iowa coach Andrew Carter at the course about how staff and crew approached their first appearance at the championship.
row2k: From your championship to the Tuesday night of selection, what was that like for the athletes and the coaches?
Andrew Carter: It was tough, a lot of pins and needles. We were certainly in the hunt with a couple other schools for just two spots, and we really didn't know. Both the coaches and athletes tried to keep our heads down, plan as if it was going to be a yes, and continue with our process we've used all year. The women have been fantastic about being, for lack of a better term, workmanlike in their approach this year. They've been very honest in their training, very honest in how they are viewing what they are doing, and very involved in the process.
row2k: I think there is a video of the moment you were selected; what was that like?
Carter: Some of our video folks were in the room and they caught it. The term I used was that there was a lot of pent up emotion. This hasn't just been a one year or two-year thing. The staff has been in place now for four years, and it's been step-by-step, methodical, and they were ready for something to happen.
row2k: Once you are selected, logistically it isn't a simple task. There is a lot to do, and you have to get back to work; okay, we made it! When's practice?? How did the team approach this?
Carter: It is true there is a whole big mess of stuff to do, but for the athletes, I think the very honest and mature way that these women have approached this year, almost beyond their station in a way, they got right back to it. In fact, right on the heels of the announcement, we watched the rest of the crews get selected, and I talked to them and said, listen, we were going to train this afternoon, but I'm going to let you have this afternoon, we're going to take it off... and they looked at me as to say, uh, okay. They were ready to get back to the grindstonte straightaway, to head from that room to practice. That's the sort that we have, and they got right back to it.
row2k: Finally, as the new folks it might be said that you're punching up that regatta like this - although after this morning's race, maybe not so much - but none of the kids have ever been to the championship, unlike a lot of the athletes on some other team. How do you approach that?
Carter: Again, it comes back to the sort of young women we have on this team. We really draw from the novice pathway, and we have a lot of students who are not only newer to rowing, they honestly just don't know any better. There's a naivete that can really play to your advantage.
They're athletic young women who get really excited and have a lot of fun with competition. It doesn't matter what color the other guys are wearing; let's race. They've had a lot of fun with that. They haven't gotten into that mindset of worrying about the usual suspects. They don't buy into it. So there is a charming naivete they have about them.
The D2 racing went somewhat to script, although as noted above the conditions were definitely a factor, so upsets are not out of the realm of possibilities.
Not so long ago, the Western Washington women racked up a series of NCAA wins that made them seem indomitable, almost to the point that it sometimes appeared the rest of the field was racing for silver. But no dynasty lasts forever, and Western Washington fell from the top for a few years, only to rebound to come into the 2017 championship back as the top ranked crew. We talked to WWU coach John Fuchs about their time on top as well as what it took to work their way back to the front of the pack.
row2k: You spent a long time on top, almost to the point that it looked like that would never change, then have fought your way back to the top seed after a few years. What did it take to come back strong?
John Fuchs: You know, the current team doesn't really know anybody that rowed back when we were winning. It took that time to take the pressure off them, and then to get back. It was like we almost had to take a whole class, and now it's all fresh and new. We changed the way we do a few things, but it's just different now; they don't have that pressure.
row2k: What was it like for the kids who were in those streaks? Was it easier to be the top dog like that, was it harder?
Fuchs: I think there were some years when it was easier, because they were so dominant. They just knew they were going to win. With all due respect to the crews we faced, they were fast. Since then we have seen a lot of changes in the field; there are a lot of different coaches, and the bar has been raised in a lot of areas.
row2k: How did you handle it as a team when you finally fell off the top?
Fuchs: We just did the same thing that we'd been doing; really it was just a matter of time before everybody started evening up the field. It's the same thing when any team is dominating; it just comes around, right? So we just keep looking at ways to improve, and that's about all we can do.
row2k: Is there anything that you did this year, or something about this group, that allowed you to rally this year?
Fuchs: There are a couple key people on our team that are just really good athletes, and they raise the bar on the training. It helps some of the other athletes realize that they could go to another level as well. The training wasn't different, the water stuff wasn't different, we just do what we normally do, but they were so intense and so much more fit that it brought everybody up to another level. I think that really gave us a boost this year.
Chloe (Burns) and Karissa (Stapp), the stern pair of the eight are not big kids, and they've only been here two years - Chloe's in her second year, Carissa is in her third - but they just work at another level. Then everyone else thinks they can step it up. People are only going to work as hard as their fittest kid, and you've got to have somebody on the team that's just crazy, and works really hard. We have a couple kids - more than a couple - which is good.
If the times are any indication, the D3 V8 final should be a heater; there was a photo finish in one of the heats, then two seconds separated the top three in the reps. In addition, some of the more northern crews are just finding their speed after a late spring, and the quality of rowing is surging as June approaches.
The division is dominated by New England crews, with the sole exception of Pacific Lutheran, who hail from Parkland WA. It can be tough to prepare to race crews who you never see, but see each other all the time; we talked to Pacific Lutheran coach Andy Foltz ahead of the team's afternoon rep in the V8; the PLU varsity missed the grand final by a second, and will race in the petite final.
row2k: You are the only west coast team at the championship, and the other teams see each other almost every weekend during the year; how do you approach racing against teams you have not seen all year?
Andy Foltz: After looking at times over the course of many years, we have a time standard for ourselves. We test our speed in Sacramento, and we also use a lot of the speed coach GPS's to see if we're on pace. We have a time standard at which we believe we can win the national championship, and that's what we shoot for.
Having only been at PLU for two and a half years now, that was the approach I came in with; day one, we said 6:40 is our goal for varsity eight, and once there we see what we can do. Along the way, we assess it on the Speed Coach, by racing in California, and racing against Western Washington. I am an alum of the program, and still have great friends that coach there, and we know if we can compete with them, we can absolutely compete here with the best of the best.
I do think for the athletes, it's little daunting not to see the other crews, and the approach can be somewhat wide-eyed; we have four freshman, four sophomores, and a senior in the boat. This is still pretty new for all of them. We're building towards something further on down the road. But it is true it can be hard to figure out when we can only go off of times.
row2k: now that the crew rowed through the heat, are they a little more comfortable with the field?
Foltz: I think the message when we went back to the hotel today was, well, it's a national championship, and people show up to the championship ready to go. I think I asked the question, what do you expect? And they were all on the same page. So we bring ourselves back to what the goals and standards are, what we know we can hit, what we know we can achieve.
row2k: You had one of your athletes win a pretty impressive award this week.
Foltz: Sydney Otey is a two-time, back-to-back Elite 90 winner. The environment we have set up for her to be able to succeed, and everyone on the team to succeed, is probably my proudest coaching moment. We also have Hannah Peterson, who was invited to the U23 camp, the only D3 athlete invited to the U23 camp. The balance that they're able to have, and all the D3 programs have the same philosophy, but we really work on that balance, and having a good time.
Notes from the Course
Crews have seen a little bit of everything since the course opened on Wednesday; warm temps and flat water; pouring rain and headwinds on Thursday; a helpful tailwind to start the day today, and way too much tailwind to end it. By Sunday, it's likely back to headwinds; crews will need a pretty high level of competency to win it all this week.
There was a one-hour delay ahead of the afternoon racing to wait for conditions to improve (and thank goodness for a smattering of word of mouth and Twitter, as otherwise who would have known?)
The video feed was confoundingly tough to watch; a few strokes would be viewable, and then the video would seize up for anywhere from five to 60 seconds, then resume briefly, then repeat - oof. In one race, the video froze on the first instant of the first stroke of the race, so for the next minute or so - the crews were to the 250 before the video resumed - the crews were stuck at blades buried and legs pushing, some kind of rowing Inferno bolgia.
A minor mania was caused by two snakes intertwined along the gazebo pier; a serious discussion over whether they were friends or enemies engulfed one of the teams looking on.
The cool temps brought out a solid selection of race fans, regatta dogs, and even some local folks; regatta days in May are the best.