Men’s National Champion: WASHINGTON
It takes some pretty admirable guts to come to a regatta loaded with the fastest crews this side of the World Championships and wear a warm-up shirt that tells everyone you plan to win, even if you are the undefeated favorite UW Huskies. But coach Mike Callahan runs a program that is as direct and not shy as any. "We tell the truth to each other," he said. "That's the mantra of our team." Part of that truth was the fact that they lost in 2010 final, but Callahan's approach let his team talk about what he called "the elephant in the room" and be, as he noted, "direct about what we were after."
A title in 2011 and an IRA without the drama of an upset win by Cal or Harvard then was the singular focus of the Husky squad all year, and that is why they wore their "FINISH" shirts so proudly. "We were just going to 'call it out,'" Callahan said of the warm-ups. "This is what we wanted to do: we wanted to have a good race on the final day of the year."
Callahan admitted the shirts put a lot of pressure on his guys, but pointed out that "it is a big pressure situation, to win this race. It's a tough one to win." Indeed: for all the tight semis, flat out racing and even hard training put into the year across the 18 programs here today, there remain only four programs to have won the V8 in the last 13 years--and for all of Washington's dominance here today, UW has only won four of those, and will be hard at work to win a fifth because any "hold" on an event as competitive as the IRA is far more fragile than it might appear.
After all, racing in eights is an outdoor sport, subject to the whims of the wind at times, and where every successful race depends on thousands of perfectly executed movements by nine extremely fit individuals. Any one of those movements, if just a little off, can open the door just a sliver to another crew, and that is what keeps the premium on "getting it right." It also ensures that anyone who has ever rowed has to respect a crew that has pulled it off, and even envy them a little.
Winning this race did require a complete effort by Washington, which is a credit to both strength of the competition and the reserves of talent UW possessed to make it happen: "We needed to have a good first thousand and a good second thousand," Callahan said. "Cal is a very fast starting team. They dictated the race last year, and we wanted to make sure we had a counter to that. We also knew that Harvard is very strong in the second thousand: their third 500 and last 500 at the Sprints were very good, so we had to have a good part of our race plan for that, too." In the semis, Harvard was able to play that second thousand card in the sloppy water, according to Callahan: "Harvard rows really well together and has incredible timing. They really move well together, and were able to take advantage [in the semi] when we fractured a little bit."
Washington's "re-focus" on the complete race was the difference in the final: Cal took the lead off the start, but the Huskies countered with a strong first 1000 that pushed them into the lead in the second 500. The Huskies already had as many as seven seats across the thousand when Harvard, up from as far back as fourth, started to make their second half charge.
To Fred Schoch in the chase launch, it looked in the third 500 like Harvard was done being patient and "sensing it was time to go." Go they did, revving up as high as 39 stroke per minute, but the Crimson could not shake the Huskies hold on the pace of the race. Cal took advantage there, clawing back into second by 1500 meters, but UW still had too many seats in hand and neither crew could mount any real threat from that point on. Harvard had one final rally left in them to save the silver, while Cal took bronze, just ahead of Wisconsin boat that stormed through the field in the second half.
"Washington is really good," said Cal coach Mike Teti. "We raced them three times this year and our guys had a really great effort today." Cal graduated a lot of talent last year, and Teti admitted this year was always going to be a bit of a struggle. "We only had one guy under 6 minutes in the whole crew" he noted, "but they worked hard, and they did everything I asked. In the end, if you have a group like that, you feel pretty blessed."
All the boats making the final here were, as ever, exceptional crews, and even the Princeton, who wound up sixth, had the lead one point in the first quarter of the course. The best early go in the race was by Brown, who bet the farm on their opening salvo and was the first crew to the 500 meter mark. Brown has been the quiet but fast crew all year: competent, ready, and tough to beat, the Bears very much embody their soft-spoken coach Paul Cooke, who has kept Bruno relevant at nearly every championship since taking over the program.
Wisconsin was the other revelation here in the final: third at Sprints and, for the record, 14th at last year's IRA, the Badgers just let the race come to them today. The Badgers are a younger crew, in terms of varsity experience, and Coach Chris Clark told his guys to be relaxed. "I don't want you to make one call, about anybody, until after the thousand meter mark," was his advice to the coxswain, who told him afterwards: "I've never been in last before and felt totally under control." Wisco started mowing folks down in the second half using the fearsome fitness bred by the kind of erg mileage only a Wisconsin winter can inspire. "Three seconds out of these guys? That's not bad," Clark said. "When you know the pedigree of these recruits [at the top three] compared to the walk-ons in our boat, it's impressive, and I don't get impressed that easily."
To win a race like this, UW's Callahan concluded, "We had to live within the boat. We had to trust each other and that is what I told them: 'This comes down to trusting each other and the race plan and when the time comes, we go.'"
Lightweight Men’s National Champion: YALE
It has been a five year run of repeat IRA champs (four of whom won Sprints the same year: Princeton in ’09, '10, Cornell in ’06, ’08), which is something pretty rare in the razor-margin world of lightweight collegiate rowing. 2011 finally saw a return of what we like best about the light eight: parity, and the beautifully bold racing and tight finishes that only six evenly matched crews can churn out.
This final was epic and, for gold and silver, on par with the best ever: Yale surged in last six inches before the line to snatch gold from Harvard. Close finishes we've seen before, of course--in fact, in 2001, it was Harvard over undefeated Yale on that year's last stroke--but this one was between two crews nearly a length clear who, wait for it, BOTH trailed by as much as a length on Dartmouth with 750 to go. That is some hard-core late speed, to be sure, and mostly north of 39 in these crews.
The Big Green even had a sliver of that lead left with just 30 strokes to go, and Dartmouth coach Dan Roock was proud to see his guys gunning for the win. Dartmouth poured their guts out in the body of the race with an impressive commitment to getting the win, but Roock admitted they were “going maybe harder than it looked.” “When it came time to lift, we didn’t have anything to go with,” Roock noted, “but we knew we had to [race this way]: we knew that Yale and Harvard were going to be really fast.’
“That’s the way a lightweight race should end,” proclaimed Yale coach Andy Card: “nobody knew what happened at the finish.” Yale had worked “”under the radar all year,” he said, and after losing to Dartmouth and then coming third at Sprints, he and his guys knew they had to make some changes. “They said ‘that’s about as fast as we can go’ so we changed some stuff up and I guess it worked,” Card said, shaking his head.
“We said we had to break 5:40 to do it,” Card continued, and they did, going 5:39, “but the two crews are the level speed we saw today. We got a little bit ahead, so we got the cup. It is a real honor to be, at least today, ahead of crews like this.” Card praised the league and the quality of the racing, but also took the long view: a decade ago, his 2001 varsity saw their perfect season end just a hair short, to Harvard no less, at the IRA: “It’s like when the Red Sox won the World Series, they did it for the ‘75 guys and the ’86 guys, and we are sort of that same way with 2001 guys.”
Yale alum Dave Vogel pointed out that the four man, Will Zeng, is Oxford-bound as a Rhodes Scholar, which may be the first time in a while (or ever?) that anyone has pulled off the double of an IRA lightweight gold and a Rhodes Scholarship in the same year. We trust our readers will get back us on that one.
Back in the field, defending champ Princeton came just fifth, after a regular season that put them ahead of everyone but Harvard and seemingly on track to defend the 2009 and 2010 titles. The end of the season was not so smooth for Princeton, who struggled just slightly enough at Sprints to open the door and then rowed here with a different crew after some late injuries. Just being off by a bit is all it takes in this league, further proof that this league is never gifted to anyone, regardless of talent or recent history.
Part of the reason why the lightweight league can be so tough is that no one seems to stay out of the mix for long. Cornell took fourth today, but after missing the IRA altogether last year and taking just fifth in 2009, the Big Red have clearly begun to make themselves relevant again. Columbia reasserted themselves as well: even in sixth place, the fact that the Lions were at the IRA at all showed some determined commitment to the process by athletes and coaches alike at Columbia. At Sprints, the Lions' season was all but over after the morning heats, but gutsy row in the petite won them the final IRA bid over Penn. Columbia continued that surge in the IRA heats, sending last year's silver medalists, Navy, to the petites. This is how the standings in the league get shaken every year, with the six boat final and IRA bid process keeping the competition for both the top and middle of the pack as tight as ever.
Lightweight Women’s National Champion: STANFORD
In the light women’s eight, Stanford went right to the playbook that stunned Wisconsin in 2010 to get win number two. Last year, a great start, and the relaxed rhythm that followed, was all Stanford needed to control the race and win. Stanford got out again this year, taking the win wire-to-wire (this in a boat named “The Wire“) but winning was “harder the second time,” according to relieved Stanford coach Al Acosta.
Indeed, Stanford was no surprise this year and the Cardinal had a hard race on both ends of the course. Off the start, Wisconsin came out much harder, something coach Erik Miller knew all year that the Badgers would need to do. Even the strong press on Stanford early was not enough for a Badger win, though: Stanford still had too much real estate in hand for the Badgers to overcome.
All the way at the other end of the course, Stanford’s title run had to weather another stiff challenge, when Princeton unleashed maybe the best 500 meter charge we've seen in a while on the Cooper. Stanford rowed with some real confidence throughout, but perhaps no where more so than in that last 500. Amazingly, the Cardinal stayed at base in the face of the Princeton charge, and really let Princeton come back into them. When Stanford finally responded, in the final 10 strokes, all that was left was a deck’s length to keep them champions. “I wasn’t sure how much gas we had left in the tank at the end,” Acosta admitted, “because we went out pretty high.”
“That was one of the best finishes to a lightweight race that I’ve seen in ten years,” said Acosta. “An amazing effort by Princeton: they were as much as seven seats down and to come back like that shows a lot of heart.”
It was a rough end to a great season in which the Tigers spent pretty much every stroke in front of every crew they faced, including this Stanford boat at one point--but credit the Tigers: they were down by a ton, clearly both in second and feeling their goal slip away and then rallied to nearly take it all back. They "only" won silver, but that last 500 was otherwise a textbook-quality illustration definition of "rowing like champions."
The lightweight contenders in the past three years or so could not be much farther apart, geographically: half a continent separates Stanford from Wisconsin from Princeton, but Acosta says preparing for this championship doesn’t require meeting the competition too often. “We have four big races a season, and that’s enough: you don’t need more than four big ones,” he said with a laugh.
Wisconsin came third, after battling with a game Radcliffe crew that battle hard to try and figure in the medals, but this was really three boat race all the way.
IRA Champions & Exhibition Races
In the rest of the heavyweight finals, there was, yet again, a decidedly west coast flavor, with UW repeating in the 2V8 and V4, and adding the Open Four to its bulging trophy case, while Cal's frosh lived up to a some pretty high expectations to complete a perfect season ahead of Washington and Harvard.
The second varsity race went 4:11 to the 1500 meter mark, thanks to the ocean of open water Washington and Harvard were putting into the field in a bid to win this one. Washington controlled throughout, but needed every bit of their depth here to outlast Harvard. In the pack, Wisconsin led 4-5-6 by a length for bronze. The last three crews crossed together, all in 5:50, Princeton 0.7 seconds over Cornell, who nipped Cal by 0.01 seconds.
The Freshmen eight was dominated by Cal, who made good on promise of their season once the final started, and the Bears were out in front with a strong boat that had a decidedly "normal" pedigree compared to what we have been seeing at the top of the frosh racing lately. Cal‘s eight was a bit of an old-school mix of both walk-ons and recruits, molded by good job of frosh coaching by Wyatt Allen, a guy who knows a thing or two about walking on as a freshman and taking a lack of junior rowing all the way to the top of the Olympic podium.
“We had some solid recruits, but mostly these freshmen were a lot of average kids who got way better with Wyatt,” said Head Coach Teti, who is excited about the enthusiasm of this class and the way it “energizes the boathouse.”
Allen felt that his eight executed the race “exactly the way we wanted it to unfold.” Giving credit to Washington, who did “a great job” and “a very good Harvard crew,” Allen admitted that, “if the crew was vulnerable in one area, it was the sprint, so we never felt secure until they crossed the line.’
Harvard was again the crew on the defensive here, but has had enough gears to run folks down the few times they have been caught behind. Today, however Harvard never managed to match what Cal was laying down. Instead, it was the Washington frosh who found themselves feeling it and they walked through Harvard for the silver.
The Grunties did have the only "miss" of the day for the Huskies, but for a group that had some real struggles finding a rhythm against Cal all year and in the early races here, silver, over Harvard, was a triumph of a different sort. Coach Luke McGee said he talked to his guys about “getting better and better through the regatta. We had a tougher heat, and a better semi, but definitely had our best race in the final.” Getting this medal required a bit of a coaching adjustment from McGee: “In past years, we’ve been able to lead from the front and then dictate, and in this boat, they had to be okay with that they were going to have to row some people down and come from behind.”
With Harvard, the class of the eastern set, in third, the boats in the rest of the field, who had been bedeviled by Harvard all year, were never in the medal hunt. Princeton ran a strong fourth, as they did (on time) in the semis, and the "surprise" finalists BU and Brown may have found their trip through the reps a bit telling here when it came to go with the leaders.
Washington took the Varsity four again, controlling the free-for-all going on in the packed field to keep a lock on the Ten Eyck trophy with the depth of its squad. “It's the depth of our team,“ said Mike Callahan after the day’s racing. “The second eight and the fours were right behind [the goal of a national title]. They performed outstanding today, but all year they've been the heart of our team.”
This was a great final, with every boat running in the medals at one point. Brown recovered some of its speed from the heat to take silver, after narrowly escaping their semi with third in a four boat photo finish that could have shut them out completely. The field was so tight that it took a brave mid-race push from Drexel to lock up the final podium spot.
Drexel’s bronze was the first IRA medal of any color for the Dragons, capping a year that included a win over Temple, and this four, with two frosh aboard, offered further proof that Coach Paul Savell’s program is trending upwards. Savell knew it would be a tight race off the semi times: “The guys in the boat said that every time they made a charge, they were only able to move maybe six inches and then somebody else would take their charge. But the guys put themselves in a position to be successful coming into the last 500, where it was still anybody’s race.”
Bow man Kyle Fabel, a senior in his last race, talked about what it meant to be racing at the IRA: “to compete at this elite level, against guys who represent their countries, is an honor.” To succeed at this level is “humbling,” added Fabel, “and really made all of the hard-work and sacrifices throughout the year worthwhile.”
The Open Four was more of a two boat race on the lead, and Washington had to fight a bit harder for gold, forced to push away from a determined Wisconsin four before winning this one. Harvard ran third the whole way, but the Navy crew took a real charge at Harvard with what looked like a flying start mid-race: the Mids cranked it up to 40 or so in a bid for bronze, but Harvard had yet another answer to that and held on to their podium spot.
In the lightweight women’s four, Wisconsin dominated by twelve seconds over an otherwise pretty competitive field. Stanford took silver by half a length over Radcliffe, with Loyola--last year’s champ--just another half-length back in fourth. The fours race showed that Wisco, who ran away with all the "lower" lightweight events at Sprints as well, is still doing lightweight rowing on a whole different level, even if top end speed was missing in the Badger eight this year.
The Light men’s four made its debut as an exhibition event this year, and Harvard took it by opening up some solid open water early. Princeton took silver by just a bow ball after a good fight with Cornel that suggests both programs will have some guys looking to be helping their eights get right back in the mix next year.
Also of note:Fully six members of the 2004 Olympic champion eight were on hand at the 2011 IRA: Pete Cipollone, Dan Beery, Jason Read, Wyatt Allen, Beau Hoopman, and Bryan Volpenhein. Allen (Cal) and Hoopman (Wisconsin) were coaching here, while Volpenhein is also behind the megaphone these days for the US National team. Seeing them all in the boatyard was a nice reminder that their triumph in the Olympic eight very much got its start in the crews racing the IRAs of a decade or so ago.
Lanes were again switched before the last set of finals, in a carefully considered decision by Regatta Director Gary Caldwell. Making sure the best crews from the seedings and the progressions get the fairest lanes is priority for the folks who run the IRA, and even Saturday's much lighter winds seemed to be favoring the high lane numbers, with the exception of lane 6. The shift used was the same as Friday's, seeding the lanes in the 5-4-3-2-1-6 order.
The Wisconsin men raced the V8 final in a shell dedicated on-site for Wisco alum and National Team rower Ryan Torgerson. Torgerson, just 38, passed away suddenly at home just as the crews were gathering for the IRA this past week. Class of 1994 with the Badgers and then a seven-time national teamer for Mike Teti, “Torgy” was all about the kind of racing we saw here today: he was a “flat-out, go ‘til you can’t, do not be denied” racer.
“He just willed it,” Teti said of Torgerson’s success on the National team, which included three medals from Worlds and a seat in the USA M8 in 2002 and 2003. “He was what we were trying to accomplish with the National Team back then: work hard, no matter who you are and just dedicate yourself to it. So, if there is a metaphor for how you want to live your life, it’s Ryan Torgerson.”
Coach Clark confirmed that the boat had been unnamed before the regatta, but felt the gesture was the right thing to do, in a low key tribute to a man he had “never heard one negative word ever said about, ever. Everybody just loved him.” He added that “eventually, we will have a boat named ‘Ryan Torgerson ‘94’ probably a brand new one--that one we raced? We’ll leave that ‘Torgy ‘94’ on their no matter what.”