Happy Crew Classic weekend - the first big regatta of the spring is finally underway! Apparently it's still snowing in the northeast, but in San Diego it was all suns out, guns out - perfect (row)2k weather. The day kicked off with glassy water, but as often happens in southern California at this time of year, the wind picked up mid-morning and continued throughout the day.
For many people, this isn't just the first big regatta of the season, it's their first 2k race since last sprint season. And for some, it was the first time on the water since the winter freeze. It's just the beginning of a long season of sprint racing, and looms large – some of this weekends results will be shaken up in just a few weeks, while some of the wins at the Crew Classic will boost team morale and keep crews on an upward incline until they reach their goals, whether they be in three weeks or three months.
Oh, the alumni races – where some very fit and some not very fit people race together and against one another for nostalgia and bragging rights. The race that starts off with the "this isn't so bad" mindset in the first 150 meters, which quickly turns to "this can't possibly only be only 2k!" within another few hundred meters. The men's alumni crews raced heats in the morning with finals in the afternoon, while the women – with only a total of four entries – got away with just one race.
The men's champion crew, University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB), was comprised of recent alumni. Adam Randall and Luke Wilhelm, both who graduated in 2013, are still training raced with some of their former teammates who "are just real life people with jobs and careers." Despite a shaky one practice before their race, they pulled together a strong piece.
"I called our practice the seduction row, because the first one we were thinking, 'Eh, I don’t know if I like this' and by the second one it went really well," said Wilhelm.
Since Randall and Wilhelm are still training, today's races were another workout with a fun result, but those guys who had to race twice in a day after years off?
"A couple of the guys went home to take naps; we got Costco pizza," said Wilhelm.
The women's champions – University of California Berkley (Cal) - came in the defending champions and took home their second consecutive alumni win. The Cal women ranging from the classes of 2004-2014, were all coached by Dave O'Neil and credited their almost identical rowing style for their success.
"We got in the boat and started to do some tens and it was like being back in college," said Emily Burkett, Cal '05.
When it came down to the race plan, they stuck with what worked in college, and it still did its magic years later.
"We had a really great start and we were out a length ahead and we did some tens," said coxswain Lynn Anderson, Cal '13. "We always have the same move halfway, so that felt good. It wasn’t anything crazy, just a good solid race."
Two masters grand finals were raced today, in the 60+ 'F' category for men and women. Like the alumni boats, many of the masters crews racing are "rolodex crews" comprised of old friends who may only row together a few times a year, and definitely don't do much in the way of practicing together.
The Men's Master's F champion crew from Kent Mitchell Boat Club in Redwood City, CA is one such crew – put together by longtime club member Skip Spiering. While the race wasn't ideal, the win was sweet.
"We had a horrible start," said Spiering. "They did a quick start and we were pointed the wrong way and crabbed up, hit a bunch of buoys, then came back and rowed our way through it."
On the women's side, the Long Beach Rowing Association (LBRA) crew raced for the first time in the F category, after winning many a Crew Classic in club and other master's age groups. This crew is a special group of women – many of them raced together and won at the Head of the Charles last fall, and many of them have been racing together for as long as they can remember. Many also raced in the 1976 Olympics – the first Olympics that had women's rowing.
All the women in that boat have a story, but there is one person who they all look to as an inspiration – Joan Van Blom, the first American women rower to win an Olympic medal, and a brain cancer patient.
Van Blom, who was diagnosed with glioblastoma multiforme in September 2013, has been nothing if not resilient – she raced and won the Head Of The Charles just two months after brain surgery. She showed her strength again today, earning another medal around her neck after having received a new chemotherapy infusion last Thursday.
Despite hardships, Van Blom fights on and races to win.
"It was kind of rough at the start and we had trouble lining up, but I look at who is in the boat – excellent rowers who are used to winning," she said.
During the mid-day break in racing, there was an exhibition race celebrating 'Freedom Rows.' This program, funded by grant from the Department of Veterans Affairs, is bringing adaptive rowing for disabled veterans to six communities in the US – San Diego, Oklahoma City, Detroit, Palo Alto, Raleigh/Durham, and Denver.
Though none of the adaptive athletes were available to row in the exhibition race as originally planned, a group of men, most of whom were veterans themselves and active rowers, rowed down the course in support of Freedom Rows. During the exhibition, Tom Darling, USRowing Director of Para-rowing, shared a little bit about the program; you can see the interview here.
Collegiate and High School Racing
While there were no Grand Finals held for collegiate or high school racing on the first day of the Crew Classic, the races were not without excitement.
This year, the two collegiate invitational cups – Copley Cup for men and Jessop-Whittier Cup for women – only have seven boats each, so today the crews raced for lanes in tomorrow's finals. The races were early enough in the morning that the water was nearly dead flat with very little lane advantage, but you never know what you get the next day, and everyone raced for lanes as if it were the grand final. On the men's side, Cal and Navy won their respective heats, while Texas and UC San Diego won their heats on the women's side.
As for the high schools, many kids raced today – the Varsity HS women's event alone had 4 heats. Teams have come in from all around the country – from Connecticut and Oklahoma, New York and Texas. The grand finals races should be exciting, as many of today's races had tight margins, a sure sign of excellent racing to come.
Row to Rio Kickoff
There are less than 500 days until the 2016 Olympics in Rio, and as US Team member Mike Gennaro said this afternoon, "Depending on what side of the bed you wake up on, sometimes that feels just around the corner, and sometimes that feels very far away."
To celebrate the upcoming Olympics and the athletes who have been training tirelessly, USRowing kicked off the "Row to Rio" with many current and former national team members in attendance.
The US Men were in attendance, having just wrapped up their winter camp in Chula Vista a few miles away. Tomorrow, they'll race in mixed boats with the Canadian National Team – more on that tomorrow.
Tomorrow will be a busy day chock full of finals, more medals, and more stories. Keep checking back for the latest on the San Diego Crew Classic coverage.