The 2016 NCAA Championships got underway today, and if the chatter on the shores is any indication, it is going to be a good one for race fans. The question I heard most often today was "So, what do you think, who is going to win?" Despite some pretty strong candidates, no one can quite bring themselves really to pick a favorite –and given the "A beat B beat C beat A" nature of the racing this spring, it is an almost impossible question to answer, so we'll have to let the crews show us the way.
Conditions were superb overall (despite some reports of debris explained in the From the Racecourse notes below), with flat conditions for the first three or four races giving way to a puff of a cross headwind off Lane Six for the middle of the day, to a bit more steady crosshead as temperatures climbed toward the noon end of racing. For the afternoon reps, the cross was a bit more insistent, giving some crews in the usually favored lower lanes a bit of bump to contend with.
The D1 heats went mostly to script, with the only overturned seedings coming in the fours where Stanford came second to advance over Wisconsin, Texas came second to advance over Brown, and Michigan came second to advance over Princeton. Otherwise, the finish orders very closely tracked the seeding from lane one to six, with most finish orders mimicking lane assignments.
The heat times indicate that we will see very good and tight racing as the week progresses, which is no surprise, but this might be a tighter and less predictable year than most. The regular season results support this, with no V8 coming in undefeated, and a number of crews having swapped wins and losses from early season to late.
In the afternoon reps, Wisconsin had an especially good go, winning both their eights reps and placing second in the four. After the reps had all come down the course at the end of the day, 10 schools had put all three of their crews into the A/B semis, more or less a requirement for getting your team on the podium when the points championship is tallied up. They are: Brown, California, Michigan, Ohio State, Princeton, Stanford, Texas, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin.
row2k talked to a couple D1 coaches about some of the challenges and joys of championship season racing; see Kevin's Sauer's approach to drawing the "hard heat" here; we also talked to Michigan coach Mark Rothman about peaking, and the experience of having a young team.
Michigan Coach Mark Rothman on Peaking and Having a Young Team
The art of peaking for any athletic event is a black art that most good coaches figure out in some way or another, but still remains elusive. The Michigan varsity crews have been improving all season, and have had a really good May, a fact head coach Mark Rothman attribute to some lineup changes mid-season. Inspired by current stroke Louisa Freeman posting a five-second PR that took her from the 2V to the 1V stroke seat, a reshuffling of the members of the crew put them in seats they started to excel at, and then the crew finding a rhythm they had not yet discovered.
"I think it was just kind of a tipping point of being able to row the rhythm we want to row," Rothman said. "Having just a little bit more skill and a little bit more experience, that kind of tipped it to where the whole boat got the rhythm. The younger athletes did a really great job of improving a lot, and Louisa, Kate Wright, Kendall Brewer, and our five-seat Tessa Yurko, who has really come on this year, have really kind of allowed that to happen."
On showing up at the championships ready to go, Rothman confirmed it remains as much a black art as ever.
"It's different every year; last year, I think we peaked at Big 10s, and some years we don't seem to peak at all," he said with a hint of a pained but accepting smile. "This year, these kids have trained really hard, which I think allows you to peak. It's not an exact science, for sure. One thing that's exciting about this team is that it's really young."
For certain the Michigan squad is a young one, with only two seniors competing here on Natoma (the 2v coxswain and six-seat). We talked about the wondrous naivete that younger rowers can bring to a team.
"I remember when Kate Johnson was on the team, a bunch of the older rowers were talking about how this team's really good and that team's really good, and Kate was a freshman and she stood up and said, "We can beat all of them!" I was thinking, "Who's this freshman?" But, you know, she just brought that kind of confidence," he recalled.
"This freshman class is really good - good kids, good work ethic, good rowers, good students, kind of the whole package," he said. "But sometimes, I think they have been good followers. A lot of them had done a lot of successful things before, but they kind of came in and were eager to learn and eager to follow the leadership, and I think that has been really , so I think that makes it easier.
Virginia Coach Kevin Sauer on Drawing the "Hard Heat"
In the D1 eights, three of the four heats looked somewhat "routine" in nature, in that a quick scan of the lanes would give you a fairly close sense of which two crews would advance. In the fourth heat, however, seeing Princeton, Virginia, and Washington lined up in lanes 1-3 definitely gave some athletes and coaches pause.
On paper, at least, this was the "hard heat," an almost routine occurrence in regattas that feature a deep field, of which the NCAA is sometimes an extreme example. On Thursday evening, I spoke briefly to Virginia coach Kevin Sauer about the "hard heat" challenge, and after his crew came out on the sweet side of the two-to-advance progression, we talked in more detail about how coaches and athletes might deal with this common challenge.
row2k: Yesterday we talked about how, on paper, this might be the hardest heat, although you never know what is going to happen. As a coach, when you see that , and when your athletes see that – we know the athletes check the heat draws as well, and know what they mean – how have you learned to deal with that over the years?
Kevin Sauer: As you said, we all look at the heats, and we can analyze everything to death. So when they say "We got a really hard heat," and I go, "Yeah, we do, but everybody is fast out here." I think that if we're really going to strive to win, it doesn't matter what the heat is. It doesn't matter what the semi is. We're not worried about that. We're worried about going fast, staying in your lane, maybe using the boats on either side as motivation – but staying in your lane to try to from start to finish as fast as you can.
That's all you can control. You can use the other crews as motivation, but if you get out of your head a little bit and start worrying about what other people are doing, then it's not going to be as good. So, if you want to go fast, you have to focus on what you're doing.
So, focus on that and not on how hard the heat is and what's this and who's that and who's going fast and all that kind of stuff. Focus on what you can do, and that's what the beauty of sport. It's all we really have control over.
row2k: I can remember from learning these lessons as a young athlete, you can tell yourself this in your head, and tell yourself again on the line, and you're still telling yourself this when it is 700 meters to go and you're dead even, and you think, I guess I really have to do this. Have you found a way to get from the abstract idea of this being what you have to do, to the fact of it, and then doing it?
Sauer: We actually talked about it last night, that we all know it was going to be hard. Even if we have never really rested all year, and we rested a little bit for this week, and they're going "Oh my gosh, I feel light on my feet, we've never felt that." After ACC, one of the kids wondered what a taper is worth, and I said 'In the first thousand, nothing. In the second thousand, two or three, maybe four seconds."
It doesn't mean it's going to hurt less. It just means that you might have a little more to give in that second thousand with a little more rest. So when you have a challenge like this one, you try to embrace that, and believe you will be ready.
Wellesley was the undisputed performer (and 1v surprise) of the morning as they were the only crew to win their heats in both the 1V nd 2V eights. Their top-seed 2V won their heat easily, and then their sixth-seed V8 win their heat from Lane 3 over second seed Bates and third seed Pacific Lutheran.
Wellesley Coach Tessa Spillane on Having a Deep Team, and Keeping Clear Heads After a Heat Win
Wellesley coach Tessa Spillane credits the fact that the team is deeper than they have been in the past with their ability to show up strong this morning.
"We have a really deep team and they've been pushing each other all year," she said. "Our 2V was remarkably fast in the New England championship, and then again at the NIRC regatta, and we knew that there was some speed to be had. So we end up making some significant lineup changes, in the effort to do this today. They've all been on the same page all year to be in the spot they're in right now, so I think their calmness is a testament to the fact that they've just been working really hard with each other and competing all year. They're just excited."
I asked about the occasional temptation for athletes to give too much credence to the heats results, and Spillane nodded in understanding, but said they won't let it happen.
"We're never going to say we got this; we're never, ever going to say that," she said. "They know they're going to need to race. From the moment they get hands on for launching, it's all about what they can do to execute in the grand finals."
And how does a coach help to make sure that happens?
"Gosh, just remind them that their fitness is there," she said. "They've got the fitness and they've got the poise, and they just demonstrated in the heats what they're capable of. Both boats feel they have another gear, so you know, if you've got that other gear, then just go and do it in the final."
Williams Coach Katie Maloney on Having So Many Top D3 Crews in New England
Williams also placed both of their crews directly to the Grand Final from the heats, as did Bates. Based in Massachusetts, Williams sees many of these same crews nearly week in and week out; which can be tricky business, as the top crews tend to be fairly well matched. We talked about how crews might handle knowing so much about one another when they arrive at a season-ending championship.
"We do each other quite a bit, through the regular season and then two weeks in a row (in May)," Williams coach Katie Maloney said. "We all know that in this sport, when you meet ten times and it's an equally-matched crew, it can go six and four, five and five, nine and one. It just depends on who's on on what day.
"So the preparation for coming out here and seeing the same people again, whereas it's different in other divisions, is that you have to continue to stay on the boiler," she noted. "A win or a loss doesn't necessarily indicate what's going to happen the next weekend or three weeks later, because everybody has time to sort of tweak and fuss and change.
"So when I talk to my crews, it's about staying in the process of what we're trying to do over time. And the results of that process do change week to week, because every week we're getting faster and we're getting better."
Talking more specifically about how this approach applies to her squad, Maloney noted the crew has been improving steadily this season.
"I kind of like the trend that we're on," she said. "Third place at New England's, first place at NIRC's, and I think that we have the capacity to go faster and get better. We're just trying to stay internal in our process, because if we focus too much on the external, it's stuff that we've been through before and we know, and so it's really more about saying within our boat and our program and moving forward."
With the D2 heats progressions sending only one crew from each heat directly to the finals, Barry was the only team to avoid the reps entirely today by winning the V8 and V4 heats, by open water in each case.
The Western Washington V8 won the other heat with the fastest time of the D2 events, and it wasn't too long ago that the WWU crews were thought to be almost unbeatable, so they will be formidable come Sunday.
Barry Assistant Coach Lindsay Shoop on Returning as Champs
Barry returns to the course as defending champs after winning their first ever NCAA championship last year. This year's team is made up of many of the same faces, but the experience of chasing your first championship is extremely different from defending it, let alone calling it an attempt to "repeat." We talked to Barry assistant coach Lindsay Shoop about the differences that a year can make.
"Coming into this championship this year was interesting, because did have a lot of the same kids back," she said. "But the mentality is different. Watching them over the course of the last year take on new tasks in terms of what we were asking them to do on a regular basis, it was a little bit foreign to them initially, but now they've really taken ownership of it. We kept it very, very simple, but just asked them to do the basics really, really well. Sometimes we throw the same drill at them and we're like, 'This is how you can do it better, so now let's execute this much, much better.'
"So this year we have been here before, but it's completely different every time, because you don't know what your competition is doing, and more importantly you can't control what your competition is doing. And it doesn't really matter, because if you start thinking, "Oh, well, what are they doing and what are they doing?" it distracts from your ability to focus on what you feel moves the boat very, very well.
"Boban (head coach Boban Rankovich) does a really nice job of keeping up the interest, quite honestly, to keep them dialed into why we train the way that we do and that we have specific goals for every time that we go out, so they know it is part of getting us there.
"Here at the championship, it's nice to see them come down the course and think, 'You know what? We're not that big. We're nothing super special, but we do the basics very, very well.'"
Notes from the course:
Among the teams attending this year, only Duke are first-timers, although there are a few teams that have not been in a while; Syracuse, for example, is back at the championship for the first time since 2005.
There were a lot of reports of debris on the racecourse, with at least three crews reporting they suspected having been impeded by debris during the racing, including one that yanked a clump of stuff off their fin over the finish line that they showed to the officials.
USC changed their V8 lineup around from the morning heats to the afternoon reps.
After one victorious crew came off the water, and while they were carrying their boat back, their teammates were coming down the course in the next event, the announcer was saying things like "This team looks like they showed up to race in all boats," and "This crew looks every bit as serious as their teammates who raced 20 minutes ago" – to which one of the members of the crew responded in turn: "Yeah we are." And then – "You got that right." And then – "Uh huh." And so on as the race came down the course.
Comment from a completely unfazed but also unimpressed coach to one of his team members: "Your van left two minutes ago." Clearly wasn't the first time.
Announcer Bill Zack was given the absolutely unenviable job of reading off the names of the crew members of every crew on the starting dock; he soldiered on admirably, but it still makes you wonder if they'll ever get anyone else to volunteer for that job, whew; that is tough work.
Best family member/fan comment of the day, overheard after a win by a crew in the afternoon repechages: "The streak starts now!"