The Head of the Charles rumbled to close Sunday, after two days, nearly 2000 shells taking the course, and lots of tromping around in the mud that was just about the only adverse condition of the whole weekend.
The finals awards ceremony of the weekend saw some constant champions--Marin, Williams, and Wisconsin's light women--and some crews well accustomed to winning elsewhere, like Harvard and Virginia, breaking through for the win. That's right, the Head of the Charles might be one of the few races Harvard heavies have not dominated in the last half-century: Sunday was just Harvard's third HOCR win in the 47 years of the regatta, and their first since 1977--but that is the Charles for you, and a testament to both the vagaries of this race course and the changes in how the colleges have gone after this event over the years.
Starting the Fiftieth Out Front
The regatta no longer ends with the Champ Eight, but the logistics of getting Harvard down to the awards tent meant that at least the ceremonies ended with the fastest boat to ply the river this weekend. Harvard won here with a strong race--bearing down on defending champ, and IRA winner, Washington right from the first bend--but the Crimson made the race about a bit more than avenging last year's IRA loss with the "50 YEARS" message spelled out on their homemade race-shirts. This is indeed legendary coach Harry Parker's 50th year and, despite his widely reported health issues, Coach Parker has been out with this crew daily, as much a fixture on the Charles River as ever. Parker's tenure, of course, pre-dates even the regatta itself, by a canvas or so of 3 years, and so it seemed quite fitting here that the Crimson oarsman had earned the right to let one institution acknowledge another when their win brought Parker himself to the podium to accept the trophy.
So this is Head Racing
The day had started very much on the other end of the experience spectrum: two relative newcomers to the sport, Jacqui Kapinowski and Tony Davis, racing in the first- ever Trunk & Arms Mixed Double event. The race was not only their first race on the Charles--and quite a leap up from the 1000 meter distance the duo raced at Worlds as the USA TAMix 2x--but also the first head race ever for Kapinowski. There was some grumbling earlier in the week about adding the Adaptive double ad four in lieu of the traditional recreation event, which allowed a wide range of shells and competitors, but the HOCR's move adds some nice support to Adaptive Rowing in the US, and gives this new group of athletes a place of their own here at the regatta.
Flight of the Kiwieagle
Kapinowski, like all Charles newbies, talked about getting used to the turns and bridges of the Charles, and even took the pilgrimage to Weeks to "check things out" during the racing on Saturday. Knowing the turns of the river, of course, the big home turf advantage of the local scullers, so Harvard's Andrew Campbell should have been all set for his quad race . . . but you try learning how to toe-steer in a quad powered by World Champ Mahe Drysdale. Campbell is a pretty talented lightweight--he made both the Senior and U23 Worlds teams and took second in the Champ Double on Saturday--but on Sunday he found himself strapping into a rocket: the mixed, all-elite "Kiwieagle" quad, with Drysdale at three and Gevvie Stone, the other Champ singles winner at stroke. Two seat, Emma Twigg, "only" has a pair of Worlds bronze medals to go with her Junior and U23 titles in the single. So there was some some serious horsepower under Campbell's golden toe, and the quartet came just shy of winning the non-mixed men's quad event outright.
Campbell couldn't say whether the quad was faster than some of the eights he's rowed in on this river, but did admit "that quad was hauling." "This was my first time toe-steering a big boat," he laughed, perhaps with relief, "and with that boat flying down the river and going through those hairpin turns, I was under the gun."
Colleges Take the Stage
A college athlete's trip to the Charles generally involves a lot of waiting around until Sunday afternoon, then suddenly they are out, down the course, and on their way home in the space of a few short hours.
Lately, the college results in the Champ and Collegiate eights have begun to look a lot like the IRA and NCAA results, so no one takes the race lightly, and there are a lot of crews out there hoping to make a statement with an HOCR win to start the year. We can assume the IRA was very much in mind as Harvard drew up to overlap Washington on the men's side, and Virginia's win in the women's Champ Eight will do its part to set the stage for the 2012 NCAAs.
Virginia's win, their first HOCR title in the Champ 8, might "just" be a fall result, but it is worth remembering that head race wins like this have set up the Cavaliers for big things in the past--like Virginia's win at the Princeton Chase in the fall of their run to the Hoo's first national title in 2010. UVA took the top college spot in Four as well, behind Vesper, so there looks to be both depth and speed in Charlottesville again this year.
Williams College, a familiar Charles champion of late on both the men's and women's side, took both Collegiate Eights simultaneously this year. For the men, it was a return to the top after falling to a feisty FIT crew last year, but now the Ephs are three for four since 2008--and winning here so often, in one of the few races that pits the top NESCAC schools against the big collegiate club men's teams like Virginia and Michigan, is a significant accomplishment for one of the smaller schools in this event.
The win by the Williams women was "just" a repeat but, with a new head coach in Kate Maloney, even keeping their top spot for another year was notable. Williams' run atop Division III--six straight championships at this point--has not always translated to wins at the Charles, where they face some good competition from outside their division. Grand Valley State got them here just two years ago, but Williams responded with a course record in 2010 to reclaim the top spot the held onto today. When asked about this powerful winning habit at Williams, team captain Kate Shaper remarked that, "we don't expect to win, but we hope to win, and we put ourselves out there every time."
Another consistent performer, Wisconsin, continued to own the Lightweight Women's Eight. The Badgers torched the field, finishing so far ahead in the final race of the day that they had the home stretch all to themselves for a good minute or so. Even getting to race up through the pack did not help national champion Stanford match the Badger's pace, and Radcliffe--despite some high hopes under new coach Michiel Bartman--managed just third again this year.
A windy week on Lake Mendota kept Wisconsin from practicing as much as they would have liked, and they raced here with two freshmen in the stern pair, but junior Abby Knight said, "We put all our faith in [the freshmen] and they did a great job. It was just a really good race--it was really aggressive."
Not So Fast, Youngsters . . .
Colleges did not run the table entirely in the premier events this year: US National Team crews took the light men's events, with a lineup that included the light men's four from Worlds taking it to the colleges in the Light Eight, and the Pan Am LM4--racing in their club colors as the New York AC--winning the Light Four. Both came up through the pack, too, and, in the bow of the USRowing eight, Jimmy Sopko found his Charles win a bumpy ride: "We were in wakes for 99 percent of the race, but it was a good, aggressive piece."
Most years, US Training Center crews flood the Charles with elite crews, but the US team was far less of a presence this year. The US women skipped the team boats entirely--though they were "Charles-ing" in full force all weekend as they sold, and autographed, their latest Power & Grace calendar--and most of the top men stayed in Chula Vista to train. Tom Pezcek, from the Men's Pair that took 9th at Worlds, stroked the USRowing Champ eight to a strong second behind the Harvard undergrads, but that boat was largely athletes from the Oklahoma City training group.
In addition to the New York Athletic Club's light men's four, Vesper also struck a blow for the clubs, grabbing the top spot in both the Light Women's Four and the Champ Women's four. Each knocked off a few strong college crews to take the win, and Vesper's Grace Latz, after the win in the Champ four, said, "it was really fun to jump in [with the colleges] and [be] really competitive."
And Some Fast Youngsters
Before the Champ events could throw down, there was the not-at-all-small matter of the youth sweep boats--all 302 of them--plus a mere 74 youth doubles. Taking a win when the field is upwards of seventy boats is "almost surreal." This according to the coxswain of the victorious Men's Youth Four, Sarasota's Grant Golub, who added, "I can't believe we won."
Marin defended in the Men's Youth Eight, with what what three seat Julian Golden called "probably the best 5k I've ever rowed. Six seat Sam Seder was more blunt: "for the most part, we pulled our brains out," he said, calling it a "solid victory."
Oakland Strokes kept things "Bay-side" with a win on the Women's side, coming up from bow number ten to upset both the hometown favorite--and defending champ--CRI, as well as a Marin crew with a heap of junior national team experience and a Youth Nationals title to their credit. This, of course, is a new year, and it would certainly seem that coach Derek Byrnes has his Oakland Strokes group back in the mix heading into 2012.
Notes from the Banks
The weekend was not kind to all the home crews: at least two Riverside Boat Club entries rode hefty interference penalties all the way to last place. Hopefully, the club's "Fantasy Charles" betting pool and their good friend Ned Devine provided some consolation.
We heard that a few of the Club champions ran afoul of the eligibility rules after collecting their medals and had to turn them back in. Sounds like it might have just been inadvertent "cheating" but certainly not the way anyone wants to move up into first place--read those rules, folks!
One row2k spotter picked out some Occupy Boston folks up by the BU Boathouse, which may be the first time the Charles has included that sort of protest. There was also a strangely wafting, smokey smell in evidence up near the start: apparently just some beekeepers up-wind, smoking their hives, said the BU coaches. Well, ok, then.
Finally, if--for any reason--the HOCR itself was not enough of an annual reminder that Boston is a prime candidate for the center of the rowing universe, the story of Matyas Zetek should seal it: this young man, now a high school senior from Pardubice, Czech Republic, saw Boston as the place to be if he wanted to row at a US college, so he took it upon himself to find a high school in Boston, then got himself here and out on the river. Put that together with his pretty emphatic win in the Youth portion of the Club Single event, and young Mr. Zetek may well see his "Boston or bust" plan work out quite well.