Dealing with uncertainty became a prerequisite to winning this weekend at the Dad Vail, as a long week of rain in the 2000 square mile Schuylkill River watershed had the river well above allowable flow levels on Thursday, when all practices were cancelled. (The allowable flow speed for rowing on the river is 14000 cubic feet/second; it was at 19000 on Thursday, and down to around 7000 by the start of the Saturday finals). As a result, all of the Friday heats and reps were run as a 1500m time trial – a 10-hour 1500m head race, so to speak – and the course remained unbuoyed all the way until the final stroke was rowed.
Additionally, the threat of more rain in the form of an afternoon thunderstorm on Saturday dictated that the entire schedule was rowed "backwards" – the premier cup races were rowed first, the lower and small boat finals last.
All of which made it important to have a bit of confidence running in your crew, and the Michigan men's eight had this in spades. Racing in the somewhat delayed noontime race, the Wolverines men's eight got out of the boat to accept the Richard O'Brien trophy for the men's eight for the first time since 2005 with a front-loaded race that may well have been put away by the time the 500 gone marker went past.
"Traditionally our crews have been second 1000 crews," said Michigan coach Gregg Hartsuff after the race. "But over the past three-four years, the guys have started to be convinced that they can put in the effort early, and still be able to make it down the stretch. This group of guys has really bought in to the idea, and it showed out there today." The crew was almost in cruise mode by the end of the race, and it was probably a good thing: "We are racing in the ECAC Invite tomorrow, which is two races, heats and finals, so I think in the back of their minds they knew that, and may have kept the effort at a certain level so they can race again tomorrow." Can they pull it off again across the river on the Cooper? "I think if they race as poised as they did here, they can do it," Hartsuff said.
The silver medal went to Purdue, who were denied a tough-to-do threepeat in the offing, and the bronze went to Fordham in their first-ever appearance in the heavy men's eight. Notably the Temple varsity was not in the final for the first time in 27 years; they also had to scratch their entry in the petite final due to a rib injury to one of the frosh in the crew.
In the women's eight, after a few years as runner-ups in the DII/DIII race, Grand Valley State (also from Michigan, coincidentally or not) made the leap up a level to the women's eight, and talk about spades – arguably racing "up a class," they dominated the race and went home with the Lakers's first big Dad Vail championship. Coach John Bancheri said that after taking silver in the DII/DIII race three years in a row, the crew approached him about racing in the big eight earlier this year. "They were probably in a position finally to win the DII/DIII race, asked me which one they should do, race in the same class and maybe go for a sure thing, or race up and try to go for it all. In the end they decided they wanted to go as fast as possible and to make the jump, and have been committed to it ever since."
Stroke Sarah Zelinka was in all three of those silver medal boats, and Bancheri said she "served as the leader the group needed" throughout the long year of training. There are also four sophomores in the crew, all of whom won the Vails as novices.
On a personal level, Bancheri reflected back on a heap of silver and bronze medals his crews have taken over time. "All of my career, I've been so close yet so far, so this is really special."
Silver went to Buffalo, which set them on a path to the team trophy (as best I know; this wasn't quite clear when I had to leave the course), and the bronze went to St. Joseph's.
Another squad that had a special day was the Mercyhurst crew, which took three golds on the day – more than Mercyhurst has won in the entire history of the program (they won a gold in 1986, and a gold in the light four last year). Today they won the DII/DIII women's eight, the light men's four, and the men's pair. In his three trips through the interview scrum, Coach Adrian Spracklen had a slightly different take on what each crew brought to the start line that helped them get to the finish line first.
In the women's eight, Spracklen said "the crew is fairly talented, but the real difference is in their mindset; they really have the right attitude. They committed to the training, and did so early in the year. They realized that you do the work not only for yourself, but for your teammates, and that out of respect for the people in your boat, you go and do the workout; you do it for them." The crew blasted out on the field, and had such a comfortable lead they had dropped the rating almost to training levels by the finish line. "I knew that if we had the lead by the 1000, we would win it, and they probably won it in the first 500," Spracklen said. "The crew is strong, and is a good headwind crew, and we knew when we got out in that headwind, we could underrate people by rowing together and powerfully."
Grand Valley won what I believe is their fourth consecutive silver in the event, followed by Rochester, who was just a hair ahead of SPU.
The University of Delaware men's lightweights took the men's eight by building on a solid frosh eight from last year; four sophomores were sitting in the boat in the stern three and bow seats. The squad last won the event in 2003.
After a few weeks of racing against heavyweight second varsities, the Bucknell light women's eight lined up against other folks who had taken a trip to the scales to very good effect. "They had an inspired race today," said coach Dan Wollebon. "It was good to get out and race against lightweight crews again." The crew took a length lead shortly after the start, but eventual silver medalist Berkeley made a bid for the lead mid-race. "They pulled within about six seats of us, and they're a good crew, so yeah, I was concerned. But our crew responded well, and that was a really good win for us." The crew hopes to race next at the IRA in Sacramento in June. "We've got four weeks of training to get ready," Wollebon said. "They've done a good job in the past of dealing with the long stretch without a race in the past, so we're looking forward to it."
An hour or so on from the women's eight win, Mercyhurst coach Spracklen's take on his light men's four was a bit different: "They are extremely self-motivated, and are really fun to coach," he said. "They have a great time; they just really enjoy rowing and winning." The three of the crew won last year's light four as well are joined by a freshman; this crew will likely continue on this summer to row at the Henley Royal Regatta in July.
The Temple squads may have found some consolation after winning the men's JV eight, and by looking to the future; the JV has six frosh, while the varsity has two, including one who posted the fastest 2k erg in Temple history in training this year. Coach Gavin White said he has enjoyed working with the youngsters – "They're still young enough to do what I say," he laughed – and enjoyed the moment with the 2V. Asked if it helped assuage the disappointment in the V8, White said "Right now, I'm just really happy for these boys right there," pointing to the crew as they climbed back in their boat from the medals dock. "In the varsity, this is the first time in 27 years we haven't been in the varsity final, so you know it hurts you in your heart. But I'm just really happy for these boys, and hopefully it pays dividends for them in the future."
The women from Buffalo won the women's 2V, followed by San Diego and UMass. Coach Rudy Weiler was proud of his entire squad on the day. "In my eight years here, this is the first time we have had four eights in the finals," he said. "We had four crews in the finals last year, but not four eights." By the end of the day, the Buffalo women had won silver in the V8, gold in the 2V8, fourth in the light eight, and gold again in the frosh/novice eight. After the frosh eight, Weiler said that when he dropped off the points trophy before the regatta, he "told them I hoped to be back to pick this up this weekend." (Ed's note: At press time, I had not seen the points tally, my apologies)
Back on the medals podium for the final time of the day, the Mercyhurst program's men's pair was stroked by the final returning member of last year's gold medal light four, a junior who "got a bit too big this year to be a lightweight," Spracklen said. "We got a bit lucky in that when we put them together, they matched up right away. They row alike – they're willing to grind it out – so in the conditions they had a really good row." The bowman took silver in the same event last year, "so this was a really good win for him," Spracklen said.
The women's pair was won by the University of Toronto by a generous swath of open water; I asked coach Ming-Chang Tsai how the crew handled the issues brought about by the conditions, which pushed the Dad Vail officials mightily to figure out a way to keep the pair from being stricken from the regatta this year. "The challenge was to stay focused and not to get frustrated or angry, not to focus on the negatives after traveling all that way," Tsai said. "They did a good job of refocusing, and when the regatta officials said it was a go, they were excited and ready. And they had a great race today, it all came together."
The conditions did create a few unusual scenarios, such as a couple seven-boat finals, a few protests, and some fairly rough conditions in the middle 700 meters of the racecourse today when the headwind kicked in. There were some sidebar stories I sent to our twitter feed; the men's pair coming down Lane 1 hit the Temple 2V as it rowed home, and the bronze medalist women's pair clipped a launch at the awards dock on the last stroke of the race. The last winner of the day had to empty out their shell of water before accepting their medals, and there was also a dead heat for third in the women's four, despite the pixel-slicing by the powerhouse folks; in the end, however, it seemed like the Dad Vail Regatta of 2009 mostly got better by the hour all weekend, and as is custom, beer started to flow shortly after the end of racing in the officials tent. All in a day's racing; tremendous congratulations to all the crews throughout the regatta, especially those who are ended their season today. We hope to see you all on racecourses in the future.