For most of the spring season, the Yale University varsity eight has ended nearly all of its races pretty much off the start, gaining damaging margins early, and then quickly settling in and pushing away.
It took slightly longer in the Sunday final of the 2019 IRA National Championship - but not much. Positioned on the line between Washington and Harvard, Yale needed most of the first quarter of the course on Lake Natoma to establish their usual punishing lead.
Harvard, which experienced Yale's start at the Eastern Sprints, looked like they had adjusted their game plan and were trying to keep from getting away, and Washington, which was racing the defending national champions for the first time this year, was doing the same on the opposite side.
It didn’t work. Yale inched away just after settling into their base, established the lead they wanted, and continued to build on it until by the time they crossed the finish line, they were in the clear and had nailed another Varsity Challenge Cup title.
Yale was so dominant that before the field had raced past the crowd cheering from the beach, the only real question left to be decided was who would take the bronze. Washington, though they could not do anything about Yale, had command of second, while Harvard, which had fallen into fourth behind Cal though the middle of the course, was pushing back in and sprinting for the last available medal.
And when all six varsity crews had passed though the last line of buoys, Yale was already celebrating the victory. Washington secured second, and Harvard took third in the final strokes. The win was the third consecutive national title for Yale, and added yet another victory to an undefeated run for the Bulldogs that now stretches back to the 2018 San Diego Crew Classic, where they lost to Cal in the Copley Cup final.
Yale celebrating just after winning
"This is very special," said senior Charlie Elwes, who has rowed in all three of Yale's three IRA Challenge Cup championships. "Every year it's gotten better and better, and the main part of that is just the performance of the whole team.
"I know we've won the past three years, but the (second and third varsity eights) haven't performed as well. But over the years, they've been doing better and better to this year where we got first in the varsity, bronze in the second, and silver in the third. I think that's the sweetest part."
While Yale did medal in all three varsity eight finals, Washington also medaled in all three, taking silver in the second varsity, and winning the third - totaling two more team points than Yale and winning the Ten Eyck Trophy. It was the 12th year out of the last 13 that Washington has won the team points battle.
"I'm really pleased with the full team," said Washington head coach Michael Callahan. "It was a great team effort the whole year. Winning the Ten Eyck is one of our main goals, and we captured it today. This field is just getting deeper and stronger, the rowing is getting stronger and stronger, and so to win the Ten Eyck is really special. Of course, we would like to have won the varsity eight. Yale is a really dynamic and great crew, so they deserved to win today," Callahan said.
Washington wins the team trophy
While they could not match Washington in the point totals, Yale coach Steve Gladstone was clearly satisfied with his team's performance and stood on the beach beaming as the varsity eight was mobbed by the lower boat crews, who raced into the water to celebrate, and then broke out into a rendition of "Tide is High."
"This was great," Gladstone said. "I couldn't be more pleased with the team's performance. We talked about squad all year, and this is what we meant. The 3Vs had a silver, the JVs came back and got a bronze, and then the varsity won."
Yale was not the only team with reason to celebrate Sunday.
The morning had a full slate of high end racing that saw the Cornell University lightweights redeem their Eastern Sprints hiccup - the one where they missed the Grand Final after being edged out in the heat by the University of Pennsylvania, which went on to win their first sprints title since 1976. Cornell won the varsity eight, and took the team points trophy to boot.
Cornell celebrating on the water
And for the lightweight women, Stanford University won the varsity eight, and varsity four grand finals, and took their fifth consecutive national title.
The finals racing capped a three-day event that was run in perfect conditions from Friday morning on, and finished up with the varsity heavy eights handing in the highlight performance of the day.
While Yale has dominated the East Coast teams all season, the IRA was the first time the top seeds from both the Sprints and Pac-12 conferences mixed things up on the race course. And, when the racing ended, the top three teams finished nearly exactly where they were in the national polls when the season ended.
Yale was first, and Washington was second. Cal and Harvard finished tied at third in the final regular season poll, and they raced that way Sunday. Harvard got ahead off the line, but Cal caught up and passed them.
When the field began moving past the final stretch of water in front of the cheering crowds lining the shore, Harvard made a push and nipped Cal just as they were running out of buoys.
"That was great," said Harvard coach Charlie Butt. "I feel like when you get a great effort, you have to be satisfied because that's what you got, and you won't forget it," he said adding that the final sprint will be a story for his athletes to pass down to younger generations.
"As old men, they will tell young men about that race, and about when they sprinted through. So, I'm happy."
There were, however, mixed feelings among the crews, some that should take some getting over. Washington senior Ben Davison was proud of the way his boat raced, and happy to be part of another Washington points trophy.
But he was hoping for a varsity eight championship. "We had a good race," Davison said. "We put together what we wanted to put together, but it clearly wasn't fast enough today. We've got faster in us, but today Yale was the faster boat."
About leaving Washington without a varsity eight title, Davison said, "It's brutal. Really brutal. I came here in my freshman year and watched the varsity eight win. And we swept that year. I wanted to come back as a varsity eight rower and do that, and I haven't been able to do that. I'd say it's a pretty tough pill to swallow."
Cornell managed to stay ahead of a sprinting Princeton eight
When Cornell University's lightweight squad ended their season with a bitter pill of their own at Eastern Sprints, they went back home to find a way to fix what caused them to miss the Grand Final completely in Worcester after racing the dual season without a loss.
Coach Chris Kerber said his crew spent the two weeks between events training and looking for a bounce back. He got that at the IRA. Cornell remade itself into a top seed in the heats, and then jumped off the line and into the lead in the final, and won not just the eight final, but also the points trophy.
"There was definitely a bounce back," Kerber said. "We spent the last two weeks just working with the guys, just working with them through that. And we came here just knowing all the work we put in could get us the result we wanted."
"I'm over the top," he said. "It was a gut-wrenching spring, and it was for everybody in the Sprints league. So, it was nice to put the cherry on top of the cake - a red cherry."
Junior Eric Lee was also over the top.
"We've had an incredible season, and just being able to rebound speaks to the resilience of our team, the pulse of our team," he said. "Coming back from that loss at Sprints was really upsetting, but we kind of put out heads down the past two weeks, and just put it all back together. And then we put it together on the day it was most important."
The sprints lightweight league has been hyper-competitive all season. So, the consensus among the coaches and athletes before the final began was that it was anyone's race to win. Taking an early lead, one of the things Cornell was working on between Sprints and the IRA, was important, but it did not guarantee anything - and the crews behind them chased hard.
Princeton, which has had a solid season of its own, came close to catching them, but Cornell held.
Sorin Koszyk, another Cornell junior, agreed that Princeton put a scare in them. "We just said we were going to go and attack the first thousand, just try and get our bow out ahead, and just race it. And that's what happened," he said. "I remember taking a couple of looks out and saw Princeton coming and was like, oh, man we can't screw this up now."
Cornell on the podium
At the podium, after being awarded the silver medal, Princeton's Marcus Jonas said the race was one of the best of the season.
"It was an amazing race, truly," he said. "It was the best race we could have hoped for. Well, obviously, we could have hoped for the gold, but we laid it all out there. We had the best race we've had all season, and sadly, it was just not enough to nip them on the line. But I'm very proud of the lads, and what we've done all season
"Cornell went out quicker than we expected," he said. "Cornell, in the heat, was a length behind Yale in the start, and today they were a length up on Yale by the 500. So that was unexpected. We were chasing them down all the way, right until the line. In the last 500 we managed to close almost a length on them, but they managed to hold out in the end. They did what they needed to do."
Penn, which surprised nearly everyone but themselves with their win at Sprints, took third, followed by Columbia, Yale and Navy.
Stanford University has held the gold standard in women's lightweight rowing - and the national championship title - since 2015. They came in as a four-time defending champion, and went out a five-time consecutive winner.
If not for Boston University winning the double sculls event, Stanford would have swept the women's ticket. BU, rowing two freshmen, faltered at the line in the opening strokes, but regained their composure, took the lead, and won.
"It's pretty crazy," said Grace Beery, "it hasn't really sunk in yet. The race was definitely a great one for us. We caught a crab off the start, so that was a little shaky, but we were able to bring it back really easily.
"Yesterday, off the start, we were a little behind so we wanted to fix that today, and we just went a little too crazy. But that was ok, it gave us a little adrenalin to get back up and get into the race.
"Right now, it's pretty surreal winning this," said classmate Catharine Griskiwitz, "especially as two freshmen. Coming here for our first IRA, it's really exciting."
Stanford with the team trophy
The rest of the winning went to Stanford, which won the four, and then the eight.
"It was really awesome," said Tiffany Ong. "I'm a senior and it was my last year on the team, and my final race, and it was really exciting to race hard, and win with all my teammates. Everyone is super-fast this year, and we were really, really excited to race. I'm really proud of everyone on our team for putting in a really good team effort."
Stanford usually has a fast start, and is used to being in front and comfortable. But coming into the championship, Princeton was gunning to beat them and did everything they could to make sure they were not comfortable.
"It was very exciting," said Emily Molins. "It was a gritty race, and there were some moments where I think it would have been easy to get scared, but we really trusted each other. We've been through a lot together, and it was a couple of our seniors' last race, and we wanted to get them across the finish line first.
Stanford racing for the line
"It's always easy to get shaken in the first 500-meters when you don't have the fastest start," she said. "But we just had to keep our heads in the boat, which is what (coach Kate Bertko) has been telling us all season, to just focus on our own race, to not get distracted. And, I think we executed that well," she said.
Samantha Dore is one of the seniors Molins was talking about, and she pointed to the fact that the group as a whole is mature and was capable of handling the adversity of the Princeton challenge.
"I think this has been one of the most mature groups that we've had, and we've done a good job this entire season at putting our blinders on and focusing on what we can control to make us faster. I think that really benefited us in our race today," she said. "We just kept pressing throughout the second thousand. And that's what we trained for."
... and then celebrating after crossing