From across the country, busses and white vans full of rowers filed onto the venue at Lake Natoma in Gold River, California Thursday morning. For the crews from the cold weather states of the East Coast and Midwest, the California sunshine and warmth was a welcome reprieve. It's been cold and wet, and cold and wet and windy back home - pretty much all Spring.
"I'm so done with that," said Navy assistant coach John Flynn. "This is nice."
For the West Coast crews, Thursday was mostly another day in the sun, and something they seemed more than happy to share. "It's just the way it is here," said California men's coach Mike Teti.
Now, the weather was nice and a subject everyone unloading and rigging and getting ready to set out onto the flat waters of the lake was talking about. And it is certainly a uniting topic on the venue. Still, it wasn't the reason why 36 men's and women's crews were gathering lakeside.
This weekend is about pushing for a national championship, putting all the months of training and racing on the line in the hope that on finals day, win or lose, each crew can say they rowed their best possible piece. That, besides the weather, is the agreed upon mantra at the 2017 IRA Championship.
Everyone has expectations, many earned, some that can be reached, and some that will not be reached. Yale University knows about that. The last two seasons, they were seen as one of the crews that could win, but went home disappointed.
Yale again has expectations. Coming off a Sprints championship two weeks ago, they have the speed and the personnel to make some big noise. But they are not the top team in the men's heavyweight picture. That belongs to the University of Washington, and right behind them, California.
On the day before the regatta begins, swing rows, good food, mental checkpoints and sober reflection on expectations are what is most important.
"This is like any other race," said Yale head coach Steve Gladstone. "You have to prepare thoroughly over a long period of time, and that means years. You to have the right people, people who are committed and strong enough physically to match the teams here on the West Coast.
"The last two years, our expectations were higher than what we achieved, particularly last year. To win, I think, it takes time in the saddle, and having people that have the experience and all the other components to get it done.
"And, ultimately, the objective - the winning is sort of out of your hands - the objective, which we haven't met the last two years, is to have your best race. I'll be well content if we lay down a great race. I'd be very happy if that great race turned out to be a win. But, I wouldn't be disappointed, truly, if that was our best race and it didn’t match the best race of Harvard, Cal, Washington. But, who knows."
And that about summed up how most coaches looking at the start of the 2017 IRA Championships were thinking on Thursday morning. That might all change on Friday after the heats, where a slip could mean that making the A/B semifinals will take a live or die row in the reps.
But today, the lead up is all about story lines, rivalries, school pride, expectations and the elusive best possible race. Here is a look at some of the story lines that will play out when this year's best men's IRA crews and women's lightweight teams get to the line.
Going into the racing, the University of California will be carrying with them the memories of the championship they won last season on Mercer Lake, where California won both the varsity eight (for the 17th time in the school's rowing history) and the Ten Eyck Memorial Trophy - the IRA team title - for the second time in program history and the first since 2006.
The varsity has six athletes back from last year's varsity boat and they have helped the first boat to an undefeated regular season highlighted by a win over Washington on the Montlake Cut for the Schoch Cup earlier in the dual racing season.
"I think there are some really solid teams here," said Teti. "Look, let's get through the heats first and then worry about the semis. You must approach it one race at a time. We have a good team. But good isn’t going to win. You are going to have to be exceptional. I think that whoever wins it is going to have an exceptional three days here."
While Cal is a notable possible winner among many, and is the defending national champions, it is also entering the weekend as the second seed behind their historic rivals from Seattle. The University of Washington sits on top of not just the overall polls, but is the top seed in all three varsity eight boat classes.
UW earned that distinction on the strength of their regular season and a Pac-12 Championship race that saw the Huskies eat up a California early lead and then power through to an open water victory.
But head coach Mike Callahan is "not talking about that right now. We're talking about boat speed and coming together as crews. Right now, this is just preparation for the first heat and getting started in the right way."
And this year, the heats are going to be harder to advance from in good position, Callahan said.
"It's the quality and the depth of the field," he said. "There are more teams and more and more boats at a higher level and training at a higher level, so it's getting harder. That's great for the sport. It creates more parity in the sport. As is said, high water raises all boats. And I think we're seeing that. The standards are really high right now."
The competition to take the title is going to come not just from Cal and Washington but some very strong squads from the Sprints League, including Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Boston University, Dartmouth, Brown and Northeastern, just to name the top ten crews in the pre-race coaches seeding polls.
Yale comes in as the Sprints champions, and Harvard chased them across the line in second.
Harvard's silver was the first medal at Sprints in the 1V since 2014m and it earned them the fourth seed for the IRA. Princeton took bronze in that race and is the five seed. But they were just 0.2 seconds ahead of Boston University, the sixth seed.
Harvard head coach Charlie Butt said his squad was building off of the Sprints racing, but also from having exams in the rear view, and the California vibe.
"This is a beautiful place to race," Butt said. "We've had some good training. We feel good about the improvements. We made some changes in the second varsity and that appears to be going fine as well. We feel good about all the boats.
"We've had more time and more rest because you're not coming out of exams," he said. "We have guys doing astrophysics. We have guys doing engineering, and a lot of the guys in humanities are writing extensive papers, right up to the moment of the Sprints," Butt said.
"So it's a moment for them to decompress and to row with their buddies and not have the pressure of their studies. For a few weeks in their life, the rowing is very important and we do everything we can to support them."
Given that the IRA lightweight men's rankings are based on the men's Sprints results, Cornell is the top crew in the fight. Riding an undefeated season into Worcester, Cornell won the varsity eight to keep their streak alive.
Harvard won the Jope Cup for the light men's Sprints team championship, but nothing in the rankings means a lot when the heats are finished and the next round begins. Remember last season. Yale won sprints and then Columbia won the IRA.
"Like everybody else, we're looking for more speed," said Yale men's lightweight coach Andy Card. "It's the end of the year and you want to put fourth your best effort. The format of two separate days is really intriguing. We like it.
"The Sprints is a traditional race, it's all in one day, and that's the way it's been for all eternity, and we like it as well," he said. "But this race is unique; it gives you some time to look at some things between the heat and the final.
"So, we're just looking at it as everybody will be a new crew. There are different lineups in many of the crews, as far as I can tell. I know our lineup is different and it will be interesting to see how it plays out. It's like two different regattas," he said.
"So, we're in a wait and see mode. Really, everybody is chasing Cornell. That's our mode."
Having a target like that on their backs "is the territory that we exist in. And we have to own it," said Cornell lightweight men's coach, Chris Kerber. "We can't crawl into a hole and think it's going to go away. We have to embrace it.
"You can only control the controllable," Kerber said. "And that's what we will always come back to. Control your effort. Control your mood. Control your preparation. All that other stuff is just being mature."
With the NCAA women's open results in the books following last weekend's championship on Mercer Lake in West Windsor, N.J., the only women's events remaining are in the lightweight ranks.
Stanford is ranked at the top and is the two-time defending champions. What's new for Stanford is the head coach. Right after the Rio Olympics, Kate Bertko retired from competition and landed at Stanford. And she understands expectations.
"I think the only expectations I have for the team is that they race their hearts out," Bertko said. "I guess I expect them to perform like they do in practice. Put their blades in and pull hard, nothing too special. It's busier than our boathouse, so we're just trying to keep them cool," she said.
"It's really been fun," she said. "But I think I am more nervous watching racing than actually racing."
Both Harvard-Radcliffe (second seed) and Boston University (third seed) can be viewed among the serious challengers to Bertko's group. Boston University, under head coach Malcolm Doldron, has been building toward being a national championship contender over the last five seasons.
The Terriers were the 2016 Women's Sprints overall champions and finished second at last year's IRA. This year, BU stumbled a bit in the Sprints and finished 4th in the varsity eight and fourth in team points race.
They bounced back to win Dad Vails and are feeling better about this weekend.
"Every year is a little different for us," Doldron said. "This is our fifth year as a program, and this is our fourth IRA. The neat thing about this year is our senior class has been here every year and they understand what to expect, and they are bringing great leadership to the group.
"It's been a heavy year of adversity for us. But that's the sport. It happens to everybody. We've had everything from some weird attrition in the lower boats to freak medical things that are beyond our control," he said.
"It's been a next person up mentality and they have been able to embrace that. We're really excited about where we are right now. Another part of that adversity is we have had this solid trajectory. Every year, every race, we're gotten faster and at Eastern Sprints we had a flat race.
"That's the first time for that on that kind of stage. They didn’t do what they could and it affected them," Doldron said. "But we have finally found that stride again, and it's better."
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