As mentioned yesterday, 2021 is an 'asterisk' year in countless ways, as we all understand too well - but you couldn't tell out on the water on Mercer Lake today. The few observers on site as well as lots of folks online saw teams they have never seen at the IRA before, unexpected crews coming up big on the day/weekend, crews having best-ever outings, and teams celebrating not just when they finished out front, but throughout the ranks of each event.
As noted yesterday, the three defending champions were not here this year, and they were missed as any strong competitor would be, but there seemed to be more going on here. It does seem that it isn't every year that crews that placed 9th or 11th or 14th, say, are splashing water, hugging in the boat, climbing gunwales, and more. There was a lot going on just to get to this weekend, as well as to navigate weather and conditions to get to the finals, and it seemed that many teams appreciate and celebrated that fact.
The Men's V8 pack coming down the course
The University of Washington came in as favorites and swept all five heavyweight events, and even for the frontrunners, Washington coach Mike Callahan said that appreciation of the experience and the sport was front of mind, especially after a long two years of waiting.
"Since 2019 and ‘20 we were really preaching that we have to take more moments to look around and enjoy the day-to-day of it - not just one data point at the championship at the end of the year and decide if we had a good year or bad year," Callahan said after the racing.
"We needed to enjoy our comradery and our team more, and even last year we were well on our way to that - then COVID happened and your season goes away from you. Everyone was really dedicated to come back, including the fifth year seniors, and I think it’s because they were enjoying it; enjoying rowing for rowing’s sake. And then even this week, I told them they were at the top of the mountain here, and you gotta look around at the view, regardless of what happens on race day. Results are gonna be the results, but you have to love the comradery and the sport for what it is and what it’s done for you and each other."
"So when we got here today, I felt really good, and even last night I thought, hey, you know, I really enjoyed this year in a way, the day-to-day: all of it. With these guys, it’s been really special that way, and I could even say one of the most special years of all my time coaching. The guys have been amazing. We asked them to change their lifestyles and they did it; we had no COVID interruptions; nothing. We said you get to live in the dorm and come to the boathouse, and that’s all they had, and they did it. And uh, the fact that they wanted to do it and they supported each other through all of that - I mean I didn’t think it was even possible at one point, but they did it and they kept saying they want to be here - and we kept saying we wanted to be here.
"In December, a lot of guys were doubtful about a season; they were hearing other coaches and universities, and we decided 'hey, this is our gunwale, our boathouse, and we’re not going to listen to all the noise out there. We had an opportunity to train, and if all we do is row on single the whole year, there’s some value to that. Singles will get you fit enough - if you row a single 30K across Lake Washington, or 40K around Mercer Island, that will get you fit!
"So that was the beauty of it. Many times I reflected along the way that they were doing it, and there are hard lessons and hard moments for sure. I mean it was difficult - it was almost emotional sometimes. We're moving forward as young people, to learn that when you have challenges in life, you have to face them, and that’s what this sport does for you."
And Callahan offered that doing a lot of rowing is not really a hardship.
"To have the opportunity to row, we were so fortunate; you can't go to big gatherings, but you can row every day. You have to make sure you have appreciation for that, because a lot of people did not have it so good these past two years. You have to look at that year as a luxury, to go out and row in singles with your buddies.
"You went through this challenge together, not alone on your parents’ couch; you’re here with each other. We are going to cherish this for all those things."
Callahan had great things to say about the Varsity crew, but perhaps an interesting observation for the rowing wonks in the world is that he found that this crew showed speed in all conditions - tailwinds, headwinds, flat water, rough water - for coaches who wake up in the morning and check wind direction with dread, having this trait in a crew would be welcome indeed.
Dartmouth College was the breakout surprise crew of the year far and away - the extent that, when the varsity placed second in the time trial on Friday, messages started pinging around about the reliability of the timing system. But the 2V placed fourth a half hour later, then the 3V placed third after that, putting the lie to the notion, and Dartmouth's stellar weekend was real and underway.
This morning, Dartmouth medaled in all three eights and placed fourth in the four (stocked by lightweights), logging what might be their best IRA ever, at least in recent memory.
Dartmouth coach Wyatt Allen said he and the team were "pleasantly surprised' at the results, and they would be analyzing how the season came together in the upcoming days.
"We will spend some time this summer looking back to figure out exactly what helped put this together, and we did work on rigging and some other things, but really it’s the guys. The year’s been really segmented and fractured for us; with the quarter system we're on, and then with term assignments (due to Covid) we had different groups each term. But overall it was just the team sticking together and continuing to move in a positive direction no matter where they were.
We’re still missing a big portion of our sophomores and juniors, but overall we're psyched about the team we have right now in the way that they stick together and support one another and continue to work hard."
Allen said that the lack of head to head racing results may have made showing up big on the championship weekend less fraught.
"In some ways it made it really simple because we weren’t looking to make adjustments, but just going out here to improve on the previous race. We have a pretty simple race plans and not knowing a lot about the competition and not adjusting to what other crews were going to do let us focus on controlling what we could control and executing as well as we could."
And that notion is at the core of Allen's takeaway in the aftermath of the team's superb championship.
"It might be a bit of a cliche but I do think the big lesson for us is that you can control only what you can control. You focus on your own speed, and if you do that well, it can work out."
George Washington bested their previously strongest showings in all boats, and that will have to serve for the record books in this last season for the program. The team and coach Eric Gehrke had an ebullient celebration after the regatta that had to be immensely bittersweet, but all will agree that the team set an exceptional example of, well, nearly all of the values that a lot of us in rowing talk about, even if we can't always meet them; the George Washington crews met them all this year.
"We are very proud of this team, their efforts, and their commitment to the process during an unimaginable year," Gehrke said. "After being cut and all the hardships that came with it weekly, we pushed for the team to focus inward on each other and to put the day to day process ahead of anything else. Together we really grew within those concepts, propping each other up when one of us would falter.
"That incredible commitment shined this weekend with every boat posting their best finish in GW history and earning 7th in the Ten Eyck and 2nd in the Chapman improvement Trophy. The circumstances with GW are disappointing because I think we showed this weekend that we were building a program top to bottom and are now losing that opportunity. All the credit goes to these young adults and my coaches for getting up every morning to do the work, trusting our process."