If an extra hour of sleep for a 7am championship final would seem to be an effective palliative for fatigue setting in at the end of a long head-racing season, it sure seemed to have worked on Mercer Lake Sunday morning, as final after final of tight races came down the course at the first Collegiate Small Boat Challenge.
After a concern about high winds due to an incoming cold front had caused the event to switch from a one-day Sunday regatta to a two-day weekend regatta – the scheduled Sunday morning time trials were held Saturday afternoon, and the scheduled Sunday afternoon finals started at 7am - conditions overall held up well all the way through the F finals for the regatta, in which Participants from 16 programs boated 106 crews total in the three contested events, the pair, the single, and the double.
The regatta is borne somewhat of a stated desire to encourage more small boat rowing at the collegiate level in the US, as well as for smaller and upcoming programs to feature some of their better athletes in small boats where their talents might be able to shine more brightly than in eights and fours, where overall program size and depth becomes a critical factor. These strategic and philosophical underpinnings were crowded out, however, by the upbeat spirit and casual approach of the athletes themselves, many of whom came into the racing with almost no expectations as to what might happen out on the water, rowing in what were very nearly pickup boats and doing a pretty darn good job of it.
The pair event was won by sophomore Katie O'Connell and junior Chloe Laverack of Northeastern, who emerged as the top Husky pair this past Monday after the team did a week-long pair matrix immediately following the Head Of The Charles. Their first row together was "rocky – rocky and fast," according to Laverack, but came together fairly quickly as the week went on. While laughing describing it, they admitted it was almost fall-in-the-river rocky, with set and steering issues, but "as we started practicing together, it started really to flow," said O'Connell.
"Our coach was really great," Laverack said," and had us do a lot of steady state, and then some middle thousands, and then when we practiced the sprint for the first time, it went really well, and gave us a lot of confidence." O'Connell noted that their coach, Joe Wilhelm, said that the pair's strength at the front end of the drive matched up well, and once they cleaned things up a bit, the boat took off. Then when the pair saw on Saturday evening that they had won the time trial, their confidence surged again to help them surge away early for a wire-to-wire win, despite some persistent pushes from a very tight pack behind them.
O'Connell has some bona fides in the pair, having been in the spare pair for the 2012 US junior national team, and Laverack, who was a walk-on athlete at Northeastern, trains with a good friend in small boats during the summer at home.
Rebecca Soja, a senior at Syracuse, has been rowing the single regularly since attending a junior national team freshman development camp her freshman year in high school, and still spends summers in the boat. Soja and many of her teammates spent the whole of the fall season in small boats.
At the beginning of the fall season, the Syracuse team did a 30-minute test on the rowing machine, and based on the results split the team up into groups, with the "A" group rowing almost exclusively in small boats – singles, doubles, and pairs.
Soja and teammate Holly Johnston raced the Champ Double at the Head Of The Charles, placing fifth overall with the top collegiate finish position. After the Charles, Soja moved back into the single for the Princeton Chase and this regatta, but credits her training with Johnston for some of her racing speed in the single.
"I love the single, but sometimes I struggle with rating in the single, just bringing the hands around the finish," she said. "Holly is really strong around the finish, so rowing in the bow seat behind her really helped a lot, and I tried to translate it into the single when I was on my own." Johnston rowed the double today, placing fifth.
Soja has been at the front of the singles pack at home, and had placed a strong second in the time trial yesterday, but didn't have quite a dominant race in the final – at least not at first.
"Honestly I am kind of shocked I could pull it off, because at the start I was down, in maybe fourth or fifth place," Soja said. "I've been trying to keep my stroke rating up, because I know if I have the rating the speed will come with it, but I was at 28 for part of it. I didn't let it get to me, because I wasn't really falling back, but they were ahead of me for a very good long part of the race. I didn't notice when I passed the 1000 meter mark, because I didn't see the buoy, but then I saw the pavilion coming up and I thought '500 to go!' And at that point I just thought I need to go, to get my rating up and go. So I pushed up to 32 and got out in front, and just tried to stay in front."
By the finish line, Soja had a solid five second lead; the tactic sure worked.
If the old adage that doubles are born and not made holds any truth, then the sister double of Kelsey and Erin Reelick from Princeton had a bit of a head start on the field this weekend. So naturally it went well the first time they rowed the double together four years ago, when Kelsey was a senior and Erin a sophomore in high school, right?
"No," Erin said definitively, albeit with a laugh.
"I just remember getting in the boat and saying 'okay Erin, it's left over right,'" Kelsey said.
"The only other double race we did was when you were a senior and I was a sophomore in high school," Erin recalled to her sister. "I think we came dead last," Kelsey remembered. "So this is quite a turnaround."
Rowing at Connecticut Boat Club while in high school, they had both done some sculling and sweep rowing, including together in the CBC eight the same year they rowed the double the first time. Now with Kelsey a senior and Erin a sophomore at Princeton, when they got in the boat together this time, just yesterday morning for a quick lap on the Carnegie, the familial bond kicked in quickly, three years after they had last rowed a double together.
With Princeton having the past week off due to fall break, and only that one practice together hours earlier, they did not know what to expect, but managed to post the best time in the Saturday afternoon time trials.
"The time trial was a huge boost for us," Kelsey said. "We had a good time, and it felt really good. Today was a little tougher; the conditions were a little weird."
"We spent most of the warm-up trying to decipher the conditions," Erin noted, and the duo trailed the field for the first half of the race, finally nudging into the lead crossing the 1000 meter mark. "We hit the wind around 700 meters gone, it was a bit of a messy race, but we got it done."
So the question has to be asked – do they argue in the boat? "Surprisingly no," Erin laughed. "If we were stuck in a double together every day, maybe, but since the final was only our third time rowing the double, it was fine." "We get along pretty well, but I guess it might get a little feisty," Kelsey continued. With an open water win in today's racing, it will be all celebration, no arguments this weekend for the sister double.
By regatta's end, the positive sentiment for the event among the participating athletes and coaches was pretty unanimous, and a sequel is pretty certain to happen next year. After several weeks of almost too-big big boat regattas, some of the charm of this small boat championship was certainly its somewhat small size in this inaugural year; although it is bound to grow in the future, the organizers were already talking about ways to have that growth be manageable and workable.
One coach noted that the regatta also gave some of their charges an opportunity to be a bit more self-reliant and responsible on the day, as they set and executed their own launch times, warmups, race plans, and more, a lot of which might typically be the responsibility of their coxswains. Several athletes also mentioned the novelty of training, selecting and racing in the small boats; this is a great time of year to mix things up, and the regatta offered a great reason to do so. The local crew kicked off a round of "small boat team" photos, including a solid leaping photobomb by a coach and a host team photo to close out the proceedings, offering certain proof that this first edition was a clear success.
And you could see the learning curve steepening and flattening for a lot of athletes right before your eyes – recovering from big crabs and then dragging your boat back into the hunt, or getting steered by officials when you don't really know what the white flag is for, or getting to the line on time on your own, or even simply figuring out the margins in a tight pack of singles can be an especially dramatic experiences in a small boat, and as the event advanced from A to B to C finals right on through the F finals, for a lot of the athletes, getting small was a good, deep, and big learning experience.