After all of the debate, polls, and speculation, a champion has finally been crowned. This year many would agree that the finals were not quite as predictable or to script as in the recent past. In almost every grand final, there were surprises at every turn, making the 2014 IRA Regatta definitely one to remember.
After all of the challenges rowers faced on Saturday with the wind, Sunday morning began with glass-flat water. The weather gods smiled upon Mercer, as the ideal water conditions of Friday returned with much warmer temperatures. Princeton and Wisconsin had the BBQ fired up, and as the scent of bratwurst filled the air, fans crowded the finish line with their cellphone cameras ready to capture the action.
The lightweight women's 4s was the first of the grand finals, with Wisconsin coming off of the line very high and maintaining their lead through the finish for the win, followed by Stanford about a length off, and Fordham rounding out the medals.
The men's heavy 4s were up next, the first heat of which on Friday happened to feature Washington, Cal, and Brown. Today for the finals those three crews appeared together yet again. This time the Huskies of Washington pulled out ahead, but it was Brown that took it from Cal's 4 for the second place finish. The result of this race may have proved to be an omen of events that would transpire later on in the competition.
With the light men's fours racing only 90 minutes after their heats, the quick turn around and the importance of the moment may have lead to yet another jumped slide by Wisconsin at the start of the race, and the crews were called back to try again. The Columbia lights have had a brilliant spring season, winning two golds at Sprints, which equals their total over the last 70 years. Today, Columbia went on to win IRA gold in the light 4 after the restart, followed by Harvard and Wisco.
In the previous two IRA championships, the only team to take home gold in any of the heavyweight men's events had been the Washington Huskies. Today that streak of complete dominance came to an end with the 3V final. This was the first time in IRA history that this event had been run, and Cal walked away with the victory.
During the freshman final, Washington was able to turn the tables, however. Cal and Washington shot out to an early lead and remained even with one another through the 750. About 15 strokes before the 1000, Washington made a brilliant move, gaining almost a seat per stroke, and then maintained the lead through the finish.
Washington assistant coach Rick Gherst spoke with row2k at the finish. "Today was a pretty strong performance," he said. "We knew everyone would try to run with us as long as they could. We just had to be confident especially in the second 500. We said there would be two moments. One would be in the second 500 where they would need to stay strong, and a moment in the 3rd 500 where they needed to change the race, and they executed that perfectly."
Up to this point, Washington had taken the 4, then Cal won the 3V, then Washington won the freshman 8. Could Cal return a jab back at Washington and repeat the success they had against Washington at Pac-12's? In short, yes. What came as a bit of a surprise, however, was that the team challenging Cal for the title wasn't Washington, but Princeton. Princeton was outpacing Cal early on in the race, which is rare for how high and hard Cal starts a race, but the Tigers were unable to hold back the Bears for long. Cal exploded in the second thousand to take control of the race.
Now the battle for silver was between Princeton and Washington, with the Huskies in a position of playing catch-up. While Washington was able to close the gap, they were unable to push ahead before the finish line, and the Tigers took the silver, looking almost in happy disbelief as they went to collect their medals.
For their part, as Cal rolled up to the awards area, you could see their excitement in stopping Washington's 7 year stranglehold of the 2V. Cal's 3 seat celebrated in the most appropriate way possible… a backflip out of the boat. He had done something similar in the shallow water along the Cooper River two years ago, and left a lot of his blood in the water; fortunately this year while completing the backflip, he avoided busting his head open.
Cal's assistant coach Scott Frandsen said "I was just so proud of how they held in there in the beginning with 4 boats across. It was just an intense race. They had great composure in the beginning and stuck to our race. Then in that second thousand, they began to push out… they always finish really well and as soon as they hit that last 500 with a lead I knew they could do it. I am just so happy for these guys."
With all of the hype surrounding the heavy weight men's final, the best finish of the day may have taken place during the lightweight women's 8 grand final. The Stanford Cardinal were going for a five-peat in the lightweight women's 8, and were the favorites going into the final despite a very strong field. And early on it looked at though Stanford had this race under wraps with an early boat length lead. The battle appeared to be for silver between Bucknell and Radcliffe, but going into the last 500, both Radcliffe and Bucknell closed in on Stanford as they went after one another with an incredible sprint. Stanford's freshman 6 seat actually passed out as her team crossed the finish line trying to hold off the two charging crews in a photo finish. Way to put everything out there! Everyone sat at the finish unsure of who had won. Once the winners were announced, Radcliffe went ballistic with excitement. Radcliffe finished .6 seconds head of Stanford who finished .3 seconds ahead of Bucknell. Lou Berl in her first year as Radcliffe's coach may have been more excited than her ladies. After the race she said "I knew they had it in them."
The lightweight men's IRA format has them waiting until the last day of the IRA to take to the water, racing the heats in the morning, and the finals in the afternoon. The heats for the lightweight men progressed more or less as expected, with the Eastern Sprints champs Cornell and the runner up Yale winning their respective heats. Nothing too surprising about these results, but the finals were a different story. Cornell may have some of the most vocal fans at this years IRA, and they let their crew hear it as their incredible undefeated season continued today to being home the lightweight men's 8 championship.
After the race, Cornell coach Chris Kerber said, "They are definitely special athletes. We have 4 seniors in there that have been working really hard all season. We had to deal with a lot this season, and these guys kept figuring it out. They bought into the extended winter training and I think that paid a pretty big dividend during our regular season and today."
The surprise of this final wasn't the champion, but the crews that followed them. Harvard came almost out of nowhere to take a second place finish, and Columbia went home with the bronze. No one outside of Boston thought Harvard was ready to put together that type of race after 5th place finish at Sprints. Coach Kerber noted "As far as the race today, hats off to Harvard who put in a courageous effort there at the end. It goes to show you just how competitive this league is. It's anyone's race until the final stroke."
Heavyweight Men's 8
Coming into this regatta, Washington was the favorite in the HM8 again this year, but their second semifinal finish behind Cal yesterday left some wondering if Washington had another gear they could click into for the final. Washington responded to that question with a commanding performance.
All of the crews shot off of the line at an incredibly high stroke rating, most right around 50 strokes per minute. This year Cal has consistently pushed out to an early lead during races, but here Washington was stroke for stroke with Cal through the first 500. Yesterday, Washington seemed to cap their rating for most of the race, but today Washington open things up and pushed ahead of Cal before the 1000. Washington seemed to have control of the race, but not without a challenge from Brown, who was charging up from behind. Brown overtook the Bears of Cal as cheers of Bruno came echoing from the finish line, but could not reel in Washington; through the finish it was Washington, Brown, then Cal for the medals.
Brown head coach Paul Cooke said "I thought they had really good control over the boat today. They were able to make a really good push under control, but also really aggressive. It was exciting to see them make that push in the middle of the race. Those Huskies are tough…. I was just really proud of the way they raced."
While Brown had a brilliant IRA final, the dominant force in collegiate men's rowing at present, the University of Washington took home their 4th strait title, although this victory was not as inevitable as it has seemed in the recent past. After the race, Washington 5 seat Henry Meek said "We knew it was a three day regatta, so it is important to perform every day. We didn't have the best of showing yesterday, but we knew that if we kept with what we had been doing, we would be in a pretty good position to capitalize today."
In the beginning of the spring season many believed that Washington wasn't at the same level that they had been in the past after a tough showing (for Washington) at the Head of the Charles. Washington head coach Mike Callahan said "The season started off super rocky. Let's just call it what it is. That first regatta on the Charles, it was almost really healthy for us in some ways. The Charles always motivates the guys to practice all summer to do well, or you get smacked like we did. I think after the Henley last summer everyone took a break and just relaxed, and no one did anything. Maybe they needed it, maybe they needed to step back before they could step forward. All of this sparked us. We changed the training program, and we changed how we were doing the little things. We didn't have a lot of seniors so we needed a lot of other guys to step up. That regatta ignited us, we came back with a pretty salty taste in our mouths we didn't want that to happen again."
As far as Sundays final Callahan said "I thought the execution today was spot on. I think we have been saving this last card to play. We have been running even with California or maybe behind then coming through. We wanted to flip it on its head a little bit today. I don't know if we really wanted to lead, but we wanted to be with them. I think we all knew that Brown was getting better, and Princeton was super dangerous, and Harvard has been incredible all year and had an undefeated season, and that has escaped a lot of people I think. We definitely recognized their incredible season. We wanted to press from the beginning, which we usually don't do. At 400 we went and I think everyone struck together and everyone committed to it."
The power and passion of this event is not just evident in the rowers, but the spectators in the stands. National teamers, recent graduates, and the general public make the annual pilgrimage to this amazing event because of how significant the IRA is. The IRA has survived 112 years because of the moments that can't be described in a couple page write-up. It's about completely giving yourself to a moment and coveting that victory as long as you live. While many of these senior athletes may never take to the water again, the memories they made this weekend will live with them forever. Those memories will keep all of us coming back every year to line the shores of next IRA and all of those regattas that follow.