High schoolers: they're clumsy, awkward, moody, right? Half of them are fully-grown at 13, while some are still stretching out through their senior years. The disparity in size, ability, sheer power is huge in this age range, yet somehow the crews lining up today on Lake Quinigamond looked like real rowers. (But it wouldn't be high school rowing without a good crab or five, right?) With a bit of great coaching, some competitive spirit, and a lot of hard work, these teenagers operate in a different realm of adolescence; these competitors are here to win.
The New England Interscholastic Rowing Association (NEIRA) Championship, from its early days when it was commonly known as the New England "Schoolboys" Regatta, has roots in prep school rowing, but the growing number of successful new teams is inspiring. From the Brookline girls pushing St. Paul's in the first varsity heats, to the BC High men winning the boys eights team points with a five year old program, the new talent is helping the sport grow exponentially. As competition grows fiercer, so does the talent to keep up, and today there was no lack of excellent rowing from the expected and unexpected alike.
The March-like cold and rain did not cause the worst of Worcester winds, but it did deter the crowds. As morning crews were knocked out from the finals, busses were loaded and sent home to keep athletes out of the cold. Especially for the public school athletes who will be competing again tomorrow in the Massachusetts Public School Championships in Lowell, staying warm and healthy was top priority. Those who did stick around were related to the athletes; completing their familial duties—mothers ringing cowbells loud enough to be heard in Framingham, families crowding under umbrellas to try to stay a bit dry, and dogs who wanted to show off their own skills in the water.
Exeter Girls – 1V8+ and Girls 8+ Team Points Champions
With big risk can come big rewards. After their first loss of the season to St. Paul's School last weekend, the Exeter girls returned to practice ready to bump up their stroke rate to rise to the level of their competition. Instead of simply trying to up the rate, however, they completely changed their lineup within the first varsity boat to make the changes stick.
"We switched the boat from port to starboard rigged," said head coach Sally Morris. "Took out a bucket, put the bow pair into the stern pair, and made a few other moves within the boat. When we got into the new lineup on Monday, we knew it would work. "
In her 8 years at Exeter, Morris has led the girls to six first varsity wins, and eight team trophies. The girls returned to the dock with all their teammates later in the afternoon to once again accept the team points award. Their name will be added once again to the trophy and as their seniors move on, Exeter will look for a new class to live up to the legacy that this team has developed.
Exeter Boys – 1V8+ Champions
After a few years away from the gold, the Exeter first varsity boys captured that elusive gold medal today. In their first win with the team, Coach Albert Leger and Assistant Coach Marshall Moore looked on emotionally as their boys crossed the finish line in victory.
"Recently they've come in second, in third but this is our first win since 2008 and it feels great," said Leger. "We only lost to Tabor this year by .6 seconds, so we came in seeded second today. Our heat this morning wasn't our best, but we came back for the final and they gave it everything they had. "
Middlesex Girls – 1V4+ Champions
Last time the Middlesex girls won the varsity four race, it was 1978 and Middlesex coach Laura McNally was sitting in stroke seat. Today McNally was on the other side of the trophy as she handed it to her winning girls team.
This special moment McNally was able to share with her crew was not the only intimate moment the team had today. After a family death struck a member of the boat recently, the girls banded together to honor their teammate and her family.
"The bow seat's dad passed away two weeks ago," said McNally. "She came to practice the day after and said ‘This is what is important to me. This is what has kept me together all spring while Dad has been sick and I don't want to miss a minute of it.' They were really pulling for her today."
It's during moments like these—when even young athletes can rise to the occasion to support one another—that make a team sport like rowing so special. Competition and vigor, college admissions and recruiting, pleasing parents and friends can all be important, but when the crews are coming down the course, the ones to be successful are those who pull for one another.
Belmont Hill Boys- Boys 4+ Sweep and Boys 4+ Points Champions
In the last race of the day, the Belmont Hill boys took the varsity four gold to sweep the boys four races. Still wearing his bike helmet, Coach Chris Richards greeted his rowers on the dock with a grin.
"This is our third time sweeping," said Richards. "We did it in 2008, 2010 and this year, but it's not easy; everything has to be just right."
This year's first varsity was a special crew racing together—four of the five athletes have raced together for three years.
"The cox, bow, 2 and stroke were a third boat in 2011, second boat champs last year and then this year thy are back together. It's a real unit. They're not that big, and they're probably not the strongest out there, but they row really well together. There's a lot of chemistry when it comes to crews that I think even experienced coaches don't quite understand. Somehow these guys had it. The boat has really moved very well. They're a very confident crew and they just love to race."
It's clear the whole team loves to race, as the rest of the Belmont Hill victors joined their first varsity teammates on the dock to accept the points trophy.
BC High- Boys 8+ Team Points Champions
A mere five years after the program began, Boston College High School boys stood on the dock to accept the points trophy—one that had to be hand-calculated because the results were too close for the computer program to calculate properly.
This success was not only surprising because the team is relatively new, it was cause for extra celebration because the team only has one NEIRA medal in its history—a bronze in the third varsity eight from last year.
So, how does a team go from one medal to a points trophy in a year?
"The team culture is developing," said Head Coach Steve McKiernan. "What we expect to do is being laid down. Rowing on the Charles, the boys see the competition and want to be a successful team. We just emphasize doing what we do, and doing it well."
Winsor School- Girls 4+ Team Points Champions
After winning the second, third and fourth fours, and getting a bronze in the first four, the Winsor girls captured the points trophy, joining boathouse-mates Belmont Hill on the dock to celebrate.
Coaches Lisa Stone and Sarah Schwegman led the girls to their victories with the leadership of three captains, and a strong senior class. There were two seniors in each of the top three boats—giving the whole team a strong backbone.
"It was great leadership from the three captains who absolutely led the team," said Stone. "The goal was to win the team trophy for the first time. After the team fell to Groton across the board at the Wayland-Weston regatta a few week ago, they continued to push forward going after their goal to the end of the season."
On the award dock
The medals dock was a bit different this year as medals had not yet arrived in the medals shipment except for the gold medals and a few bronze medals, so only the winning crews stopped at the awards dock to pick up their trophies and plates in all but the first varsity races. However, presenting to the winners for her twentieth year (or so she remembers) was Gill Perry, with her granddaughter Lexi. Her late husband Hart wore many hats in the rowing community on a local and national level, but amongst the high school league, he is remembered as the long-time Kent coach. Today, Gill counted three boats at the regatta named after Hart.
Though she herself is a horseriding coach, Gill comes down to the dock each year—rain or shine (and this year with an extra dose of rain!)—to present medals to each athlete. Her relationship to rowing is not through her own experience in a boat, but through family connections, as are many of those who attended today's regatta. As the new blends in with tradition, the history of NEIRA continues to thrive.