The 107th running of the IRA Regatta, notably the first on the west coast, and perhaps even more notably the first in the new, considerably scaled-down format, concluded today with undefeated seasons in the two lightweight eights, and a spectacular near-sweep of the men's heavyweight events by Washington; the squad won all three eights events, one of the two fours, and placed second in the other fours race - obviously resulting in bagging the team trophy as well. You don't get much better days than that at this level.
I talked to the winning coaches from every event on the day; following is some information on how the races unfolded, as well as their thoughts after the racing. In order of racing:
Like their Varsity four counterparts, the Washington open four seems to like to race from behind, with a measured but relentless push that tends to get them ahead not so far from the finish line. The racing style wasn't taught, but did end up to work well, according to Washington fours coach Ben Fletcher. "I don't know if the guys like to race that way, and it's really stressful to watch, but they've been doing it well all year, and I'm really happy that the Open four was able to get through," he said. Fletcher was happy to be at the service of two fours in the medals; "I'm really appreciative of everything I have learned from Mike Callahan and Luke, and that they gave me the opportunity and allowed me to do with the guys. The depth of the program is all thanks to their efforts, and I learned a lot and owe them a lot for the chance."
The crew trained side by side with the Varsity four that placed second; Fletcher put up his fists to describe the sparring that they did back in Seattle every day. The Open four also includes a local hero; bow-seat senior Peter Carlson grew up in the foothills of Sacramento across from the finish line.
Cal took the Varsity four with a front-loaded race plan that was able to withstand the Husky four's patented late charge for the first time in several meetings this year. "Washington has a really good boat, and they have a great second 1000; our crew lost to Washington every time we met this year, and we always had the lead with 750 to go, Cal fours coach Luke Agnini said after the race.
"We made some lineup changes, and did a lot of work on the second 1000 the past week and a half. Then the same thing happened in the heat - we led Washington for 1990 meters, and they got through us in the last 10 strokes - but they guys did not have a great piece; in the sprint they were working hard as individuals, but not really as a unit. We knew that if we just held things together better at the end, we could hold them off. We had to do it the hard way through the reps, but I knew they could do it today when they had to."
In terms of experience and raw talent, the University of Washington frosh crew may be the most talented frosh eight ever at the IRA. The stroke was a U23 crew member for Germany, the seven seat was in the 2008 German Olympic pair that placed fourth; both are in their early 20s. And at the age of 18, the six seat was in the Canadian U23 eight that also won the Grand Challenge at Henley last year (he had been on the Canadian junior team previously, so opted to try out for the U23 team for the extra challenge).
But the crew is not completely full of internationals; the five-seat is a walk-on football player from Colorado whose sister rowed at Wisco, and had given the rowing coaches a call over the summer. Are they the best frosh eight ever? "They're pretty darn good, but things change so much over time that it would be tough to say if they are the best ever," said UW frosh coach Luke McGee. "I would think they would be up there for sure, at least." If anyone thought that a W in the frosh eight was a done deal with that much talent on board, McGee was careful not to take anything for granted. "I think our experience last year where they came up a little short in the last race of the year helped a bit. And it's a good mix of experience and new guys, so that kept them on track as well.
"Last night I told them they didn't have to do anything different, and just to keep things normal - if they usually wake up three hours before the race, then wake up three hours before the race. If they usually have a bagel before the race, have a bagel before the race. But I also said that a good boat can win a lot of races, but it takes a great boat to be champions, and that they would have to show up and race today."
The crew didn't have a completely smooth showing on the day; when the coxswain hoisted the trophy overhead, she was not aware that the trophy was not attached to the wooden base, and the trophy flipped backwards behind her right into the water.
Second Varsity Eight
The Washington 2v started to make a Husky eights sweep a possibility with a runaway victory over the field. The crew made a couple switches after a loss in San Diego, and hasn't lost since. "We changed things around just a little bit, and the crew took off," said UW assistant coach Wyatt Allen, who had been helping with the 2V and frosh in the early season, and then focused on the 2v starting a few weeks back. "They really found a rhythm, and a couple of the bigger guys found their length, and that did it."
The night before the final, Allen reminded the crew of how much racing they had done this year with the varsity and frosh eights. "They had never really had a day where in practice they did not put on a solid showing," he said. "So we wanted just to do what they had done in practice, and to perform to that potential."
Lightweight Women's Eight
The light women's eight was Wisco's race all the way, as have been most of their races this year. The race for the silver was one of the most dramatic of the day, however, with Stanford racing solidly in second until the final 15 strokes, when the four seat caught several crabs in a row, and seemed unable to get up and down the slide. If that wasn't enough, with 10 strokes to go the Stanford bow seat stopped rowing and laid down in the bow section, apparently passed out. With Wisco at least a couple lengths clear of the field, the six remaining Stanford rowers lugged the boat toward the line, Bucknell glided past them on the last stroke of the race to take the silver by 0.2 seconds.
The Wisco lineup included the same personnel from the Sprints, but in slightly different configuration, as the five and six seat from Sprints sat in the stern pair, and the stern pair from the Sprints sat in five and six.
"We had been going back and forth since Sprints, and I even thought we might switch back once we got out here, but I liked what they were doing and thought they would be okay the way we had it," Wisco coach Erik Miller said after the racing. It didn't seem to change things too much, as the crew raced with a very similar profile all year. "One of the things we have been working on since I started coaching is consistency throughout the year, and it has been better than ever this year," Miller said. He credited the three seniors with some of that progress, including bow seat Lane Benes, who Miller said has not lost a race in the V8 since the crew placed third at Sprints in 2006, and stroke Margot Schoellkopf, who would be a four-time winner if she had not been injured in a bike accident last year. "It was really tough to make this boat, and there are some really good people who had to stay home." Wisco also has an excellent incoming freshman class next year
Lightweight Men's Eight
In a one-shot seven boat final with no preceding heats on the weekend, it was Princeton all the way, as it has been for most of the year this year; I believe the only closed water race they had this spring was the Sprints final - including today, when they won by almost five seconds rowing away despite a serious brawl for silver, which went to Yale just over Harvard; Yale lost to many of the crews in the race this year, and placed fifth at Sprints, so they were understandably happy with the ingot.
The Princeton crew has dominated nearly every contest they entered this year, but coach Greg Hughes looks back to last year's less stellar campaign for the wellspring of this year's triumphs.
"Last year we had a good year, and we were really close to the front, but did not seem to be able to take care of the big things," he said after the racing. "They had been working hard, but this year they took a new approach to everything they did right from the start of the year. "I give a lot of credit to our captains (Tom Paulette and Justin Teti) because they led by example, and it really made a difference. I think also the sophomores in the crew last year learned a lot when things didn't go perfectly, and they had another chance to get it right."
In past years, there has always been a morning heat and an afternoon final; with only seven entries this year, it was decided that the championship would be decided in a seven-boat final only. With so much on the line for an undefeated crew, how did the crew deal with the one-shot nature of the final?
"We said that for 60 or 70 years at the IRA, they would get 25 crews together, line them all up across the lake, and shoot off a cannon to start the race," he said. "We had never seen let alone got to be a part of that, so it was a thrill to race it this way."
For 1250 meters, the Varsity eight final looked like a Cal-Stanford dual, with a whole lot of boats rowing a length behind in a second race entirely. But once Washington broke from that following pack, they picked up a sense of momentum that carried them until they were level with Cal with 10-12 strokes to go, and they kept going all the way to the line and the national championship, including a sweep of the eights events and the team title.
After so many close races this season, and not all of them wins, the Washington varsity clearly enjoyed their victory here - stroke Will Crothers crawled the length of the hull just over the finish line to embrace every guy in the boat.
After having already won three of four events going into the varsity eight final, Washington head coach Mike Callahan said he mostly was very happy for the athletes in the shells, but he also had a sense that it was likely that the training all of the crews had done together in the weeks after the Pac-10 had been on track. "Similar to the Pac-10, in the end it came down to the last race, but I had a good feeling seeing the other crews win," he said." "I was confident that our training over the past few weeks had put us in a good position."
And Washington's brutal schedule, in which they raced Cal and Stanford multiple times, as well as Wisco and Harvard, had helped them understand who they were up against. "Last year we hadn't seen Wisconsin, and while we had some tough races this year, at least we had seen most of our competition," he said. "It was hard for us along the way, but we stayed focused on our end goal of getting better every week to try to put it all together at the end, and it seemed to work well.
"After the Pac-10, we knew we had to do something different, and it really helped that we have some mature guys that we kept trusting to stay positive while we took a hard look at ourselves," he said. "We did a lot of racing between the two varsity boats along with the freshmen, and with the freshmen as a really consistent marker, we were able to keep getting better. And they came up with a better answer in their last regatta."
In the end Callahan made a few changes inside the boat. "We shuffled the port side, putting Jesse (Johnson) at six, with BJ (Bart-Jan Caron) at four," he said. "Jesse had rowed six behind Will as a freshman, really backing him up, and BJ rowed four in that boat, and in the end it just seemed like that was where they should be." Callahan specifically mentioned the seniors in the boat as having had a big impact at Washington. "They have meant a lot to Washington rowing, and to me personally," he said. "They left a great mark here, and were rewarded with a championship. But it is part of the beauty of college athletics that athletes move on and everything starts over, and you can never count on anything. Getting synergy in a crew is always a challenge, and you never know what will happen. Next year will be a new year with new challenges, and you have to be up for it."
With a stellar frosh eight coming up, Callahan remains circumspect about the future. "I am really humbled by the position I am in, and especially thankful to Bob (Ernst) for the opportunity," he said. "He has been a great mentor to me. And all of our coaches work really closely together, which has been really fun, and for which I feel very lucky. I think also there was tremendous parity in the field this year, which is incredibly exciting. With Mike out here, it is a massive new challenge; I rowed for Mike and he is a great coach, and they brought out a lot of things in us. Craig just keeps getting better, and with Harry, Paul, and Tom in that final, it was great to be a part of."
Flotsam and Jetsam
For the final two days of the regatta, a launch carrying the US flag blasted up and down the racecourse during the National Anthem; it was a unique and dramatic way to start the day, and folks were even applauding as the anthem concluded.
Somewhat on the same topic, a group of former Navy lightweight oarsmen returned from Iraq a week ago, rented an RV, and drove it to the races at Natoma. They set up in the parking lot with a Naval Academy flag flying from the back of the RV, and set up to watch the races. I didn't see any dress uniforms around the compounds, so think they were taking their leave fairly seriously, I'm sure with very good reason.
In the alumni race, winner Syracuse looked particularly strong coming down the course, with blades going to the water very nearly as crisply as any of the crews racing on the weekend. After the race crossed the line, race announcer Fred Schoch commented "If the Syracuse crew could report to the drug testing tent, we will validate their victory." Fred and Bob Jaugstetter have been splitting up the course all week, with Bob announcing the top 1000, Fred announcing the second 1000, so in response, Bob noted that his launch would have to pick up the racing at 400 gone for the next race, "not because the last race took so long, of course. I'm not saying, I 'm just saying we're picking this one up a little late." Bob and Fred are dedicated members of the masters racing community, and the ribbing among friends is all part of a great show the two have put on for the past three days.
Lot of folks on-site today; the parking lots were full by 7:10am. Presenting the Varsity 8 awards was Sacramento mayor and former Phoenix Sun Kevin Johnson.
And so ends row2k's complete IRA coverage; we hope you had enjoyed it.