It seems almost appropriate that the regatta that endured a whirlwind winter should also endure a whirlwind finals afternoon. Overcoming winds in the 25-45 mph range, Brock University won the men's eight, Sacramento State the women's eight; Vassar won the women's DIII eight for the first time ever, and Mercyhurst the women's DII eight. In the light eights, Mercyhurst won the men's eight for the first time ever as well, and UMass won the women's eight.
The Big Eights
The Brock men of St. Catharine's came back to Philadelphia from a fourth-place finish last year to take the Vails men's eight title for the first time ever.
"This is not our normal racing season (the Canadian collegiate season takes place in the fall), but they showed some good speed, so we did some trials and said, yeah, we're going to commit to the eight," said Brock men's coach Steffan Wagner. Before the race, Wagner "told the guys that they could be in the top three from the times we saw, and that it was their race from there for place."
While following the race on his bike, Wagner lost his hat in the wind, so he knew what his guys were rowing into. Of the conditions, Wagner noted that "in the semi this morning we had placed second, and the guys came off and said, you know, it felt a little heavy. We learned some lessons in the second five in that race, and so they really focused on those aspects. And they're pretty good rough-water rowers, so they're pretty experienced in this stuff."
CSUS coach Mike Connors said that seasoning and fitness helped his crew to the awards dock. "There are a fair number of seniors, and a lot of them are graduating, so they were really motivated," he said. "We had a great run at WIRAs this year, it really came together at the end of the season, so we had a lot of confidence. In the semi-finals (on Saturday morning), we had a tough time in the wind. We didn't have a great race this morning, so we ended up in Lane 6, and, maybe the wind maybe gave us an advantage today, I don't know.
"We just talked about sharpness, and maybe taking advantage of areas that might have been protected, and just rowing well," he said. "They row pretty well, and they're really fit, so that helped us today."
Conditions a Factor
Several coaches commented that the winds and chop created unfair racing condition that favored the outside lanes, and Purdue lodged a formal protest at the close of racing, citing unfair conditions across the six lanes. "At the start, the lane one bow seat was tapping, tapping, tapping, and lane six was just sitting there," one said. "It is even worse for those crews when you get to the island." Another said "there you go, lane six again!" when another crew on the far side of the course surged into the medals. A couple of final results read like a countdown of lanes, the finish order reading 6-5-4-3-2-1 (which we've all certainly seen before in our sport). Arguably as a result, the gold medal spots were almost bereft of top seeds, with lots of first-timers and new faces on the medals dock.
On the other hand, the crews that did win clearly did the best job with the conditions in almost every case. And for a good hour it appeared that the medals and trophies might be awarded to the crew with the best semifinal time in each event, which no one really wanted to see happen, either. So in the end the regatta seemed to do the best they could with the hand they were dealt.
More From the Awards Dock
In the women's DII eight, Mercyhurst came in as a clear top seed, and left with the bullion.
"They've had a very good year," coach Adrian Spracklen said after the race. "They've pretty much won everywhere they've been, and we've raced all these crews except for the two west coast schools Seattle and Humboldt, the only unknown entities. But other than that we were very familiar with the competition which - which helps a lot."
Spracklen noted that, save for two freshmen in the crew, everyone else was in the Varsity last year. Coming in as favorites, experience came through. "We did feek it was ours to lose, and that's where you talk about maturity, having poise and having been in the position before looking at it being to our advantage and not disadvantage."
The possible cancellation of the regatta was arguably more of a challenge than actually rowing the race. "They were very upset, some crying when they thought it was going to be cancelled. So for them to then come around and get focused again, is a testament to them that they have the ability to switch on and get back into game mode."
When racing resumed, the crew changed very little for the conditions, save for some gearing. "We had a game plan, just to row with composure," Spracklen said. "We weren't going to change to what they were going to do. We figured they had to challenge us. We weren't challenging them. If we stick to what we do well, and we'll come through, and it'll happen again. What we focus on is being persistent, no ups and downs. We aren't the fastest out of the start, but we just went through. Patient and poise is what we've been stressing the whole year."
Mercyhurst also won the men's light eight, the first time a Mercyhurst crew has won a men's eight event. Spracklen said that two members of the crew had won the light four the past two years, and that with four solid freshmen on board, they "finally had the people to go for the eight." The challenges of on-again off-again on-again racing were absorbed by the experience spread throughout the crew.
"It really helped having an experienced coxswain, and the three seniors are scattered throughout the boat, so there was a lot of maturity and race experience," he said. "And we raced heavyweights all year, so we'd always be either down, or losing, or even beating some people we're not supposed to beat, and that, I mean, that toughened them up for racing in any conditions.
Coming into the final, the coaches tended to the hull while the athletes got ready to dig in their heels mid-race. " We lightened the gearing obviously because it was so, so strong, and it was worth doing," he said. "And we focused just on the bladework, knowing that the wind just was gonna throw you around, and just we practiced being patient - just having confidence in what we do in the middle 1000, and we've done it all year. "
Spracklen and assistant coach Ted Nagorsen switch off coaching the men's and women's eights - one week Spracklen takes the men, Nagorsen the women - then they switch off for another week. I said that I would not ask which they prefer to coach, and Nagorsen quickly responded "And we wouldn't answer!"
In the women's DIII eight, Vassar coach Rodney Mott encouraged his crew to use the conditions to their advantage. Vassar has won a Vails four event previously, but this was their first W in the eight. Coach Rodney Mott suggested that the crew is peaking at just the right time, and attacked the conditions as best they could.
"They have been getting better and better each row, and actually we had a really good practice in rough water this week," he said. "In the wind we just said, when we hit that wall of wind that we're just gonna go at that point, and it worked. They had a good mindset going into it and we just wanted to kind of embrace the conditions."
In the light women's eight, winner U Mass made a late-season substitution, but was still able to plow through for the win.
"Ssadly this week we had our two seat, we had to pull her out due to a possible heart condition," coach Laura Simon said. "We had to throw in a very unseasoned, very unexperienced rower into the two seat. Her name is Libby Bempkins, and she really stepped up and held herself together and really helped this varsity, which was already extremely strong, reach their goal, bcause we have exactly eight lightweights on the varsity program.
Bempkins came up big, particularly facing the conditions in the bow section. "We were a little worried about her," Simon said. "She's got some wrist problems and so she's a novice. She hasn't raced that much, and she really did quite well. We have four lightweights that are under 7:40 in this boat and two that are under 7:30, so they're a pretty good crew. We had a pretty good feeling that they would have a great shot today, but you never know in a headwind in lightweight rowing what to expect."
The crew will be continuing on, possibly to a couple more regattas this year.
"We know that now we'll get an invitation to IRAs, just as long as it gets approved," Simon said. "We would love to take this lightweight eight that we think is fairly fast, and race them against the other extremely fast competitive lightweight programs in this country and see how they stack up. We know they're good, but we don't know how good they are. And we are taking the lightweights to USRowing Collegiate Nationals and racing small boats, which are these lightweight's specialities. They are very excited to race in small boats and be challenged at a different level."
Grand Valley won the men's four with the stern four of their JV; the crew members will go back into the eight after this weekend. "Because we were light with numbers at the start of the year with only one guy returning from the Varsity eight, we were basically a rebuilding year this year, starting all over again," said GVSU head coach John Bancheri.
"Obviously we had to do what we could with the men's eight, and these guys were the scrappers, the guys who fight and fight and fight," he said. "At the beginning of the season, we had the three fours together, they were always in the hunt. So Mark (assistant coach McIlduff) said, John, these guys could possibly medal, so instead of rowing the JV eight here, we decided to go with the stern four in the four. And then for ACRA we'll go back into an eight."
McIlduff said that coming into the final, he lightened the load so the crew could stay light and up out of the conditions. "We widened out the spread a little bit and put a couple of clams on," he said. "So with the two clams we tried to keep the rate up and just work on the layback into the wind.
"They had a real good start coming through the bridge, and were right in it, maybe down a little bit. Coming through the island, they turned it on and sprinted through.
"At practice they've been battling with their women's varsity eight, and they switch on and off, win in pieces, lose in pieces, so we knew that they had the speed to make the grand final. Today they had an extra gear we didn't know about."
The University of Western Ontario won the women's four with a dominant race, winning by nearly 15 seconds out of lane 2 in defiance of any conditions thought unfavorable. Coach Mindy Bullen said the crew did not know what to expect coming into the regatta.
"You never know coming here," she said. "We do only one American race, and that is the Head of the Genessee. Buffalo beat us last year, so we were out to get them this year - which they knew," she said with a laugh. "With a couple novices in the boat, we had a bucket rig, which I think helped a little bit. And we have been practicing in the worst water in the last couple weeks up in London. It's just been horrible, so this was actually easy. But they've really, really improved over the last few - well, I guess the last few days, and they finally got it all together.
UWO is a club program, so it was especially satisfying for the crew to win the event. "You always hope that you're going to do well, if you come this far and it's all out of the students' pockets - it's like we're not sponsored by Western at all. So they don't want to come that far if we're not going to be in the final, so we kind of hoped that we would final, but to win - and having the lightweight four win just two races before us, that's just amazing."
In the light women's four, Nova Southeastern took a very young four to the line and won it by the finish. "It's a very young boat, two juniors and three freshman," coach John Gartin said after the race. "We've had kind of an up and down season, as we have a young team. We graduated eight seniors last year, and the varsity eight also has five freshmen in it. But they're really all really working hard and you know we're looking forward to next year because of, of the experience that they've gain this year is just amazing."
Gartin was not surprised to see his four in the grand final, and then the crew enjoyed the ride from there - including the conditions.
" I had a really good feeling they'd get to the grand, nd then after that we resolve it finish line," he said. "The girls actually went in wanting it to be horrible. They went in with this mindset of bring on the conditions, we're ready for them. We did lighten the load up a little bit on the oars. I think part of it was just positive attitude, and you know I'll be quite honest, the conditions out there are extremely rough and it was survival rowing."
In the men's light four, UWO won rowing away again, this time by nine seconds, and again from the middle of the course. row2k was unable to speak to the coach of the crew.
In the light women's four, a Brock crew made up of five lightweight rowers with one conscripted to cox took the gold medal honors.
"They have been doing a great job in training, and they performed on race day like they do in training," said coach Peter Van Rooijen. He did not see the conditions as a major factor. "I think a properly prepared crew can do well in any conditions.
"We had five lightweight ladies, and one volunteered to be the coxswain," he said. "All five girls row both sides, all of them scull. Thy made me really happy today."
Due to scheduled changes, several of the events were raced earlier in the day, before we were on site. The full list of trophy winners:
- Women's Frosh/Novice Four - Fairfield
- Men's Frosh/Novice Four - Temple
- Men's Frosh/Novice Ltwt Eight - Michigan State
- Women's Frosh/Novice Hvwt Eight - Connecticut
- Men's Frosh/Novice Hvwt Eight - Saint Joseph's
- Women's Varsity Pair - Brock
- Men's Varsity Pair - Drexel
- Women's JV Heavyweight Eight - Buffalo
- Men's JV Heavyweight Eight - Drexel
- Women's Varsity Ltwt Four - Brock
- Men's Varsity Ltwt Four - Western Ontario
- Women's Varsity Hvwt. Four w/Cox (Div. II & III) - Nova SE
- Women's Varsity Hvwt Four - Western Ontario
- Men's Varsity Hvwt Four - Grand Valley
- Women's Varsity Lightweight Eight - UMass
- Men's Varsity Lightweight Eight - Mercyhurst
- Women's Varsity Hvwt. Eight Div II Petite - Humboldt
- Women's Varsity Hvwt. Eight Div III - Vassar
- Women's Varsity Heavyweight Eight SECOND FINAL - Loyola
- Women's Varsity Heavyweight Eight - Cal-Sacramento
- Men's Varsity Heavyweight Eight SECOND FINAL - Saint Joseph's
- Men's Varsity Heavyweight Eight - Brock
2010 Aberdeen Dad Vail Regatta Points Trophy
Saint Joseph's - 45 points
Delaware - 33 points
Buffalo - 31
Delaware - 26 points
Saint Joseph's - 25 points
Buffalo - 31 points
Saint Joseph's - 20
The Big Picture
The political and financial interest in the event was apparent throughout the afternoon, with a kilt-clad rep from Scotland-based Aberdeen joining the crews in many of the awards photos, and Mayor Nutter handing out the medals for the last 8-10 events of the day. Mayor Nutter also got a first-hand - or is that first-foot - exposure to the notoriously under-gunned docks at the grandstands. After wading into three inches of water for photos a half dozen times as the dock sagged under the weight of crews from the eights events, Nutter said with a laugh "I think the first call on Monday morning is to address this dock situation. The rowers seem to be used to it, but the rest of us…"
Aberdeen's presence was keenly felt, with an array of VIP viewing podiums just up course of the grandstands. Alas, the VIP viewing areas were somewhat undersubscribed this year, but they clearly got a late start on the project, and with Aberdeen's multi-year commitment, you have to think these will fill up going forward. The installation of the VIP area didn't go over entirely well with the Philadelphia rowing community, as they were installed before the City Championships, much to the intense chagrin of the high school parents out to see their kids race. The regatta has promised to wait until after the Cities next year, and to have everything disassembled by Wednesday morning in advance of the setup for Stotesbury this coming weekend. Such are the challenges of putting on big events at a popular venue in the close-knit and very interdependent rowing community.
At the close of the regatta, regatta director Jim Hanna commented that "They say every success has a thousand fathers, and every failure is an orphan. I know that back in December, I was an orphan. But today we had a lot of people working to make this happen." Although the Dad Vail that almost didn't happen in Philadelphia was perilously close to not happening at all, and some weren't that happy with the way it happened, in the end mostly everyone plowed through the conditions, and got it done.