Wisconsin women meditating before practice Wednesday morning.
Just after the sun peeked past the lingering clouds and painted the sky full of pastel brilliance over Nathan Benderson Park in Sarasota, Florida, Rachel Engel took a moment away from her Ohio State teammates to reflect on the fact that Friday morning would begin the last competition of her collegiate rowing career.
"It's the culmination of my four years here," said Engel who will be heading back to her home in Melbourne, Australia when the racing is ended.
"And, yeah, it is emotional. Racing is emotional," she said. "And we talk about that, about how racing is an emotional event, and anything can happen on the day, so it's really important to harness those emotions in the right way and to race with some heart.
"Obviously there is a lot going on here, so I think that for me personally, it is really important to just stay within my boat and have trust with the girls I'm with, to just stay relaxed and enjoy these last few races," she said.
"It's meant a lot to come to Ohio State and spend the last four years here, and then to come here and have the last three days that you will ever have to race with your team. That's really important for me."
Engel was not alone in her thoughts. The boatyard Thursday morning was filled with athletes from across the country that had begun to gather here Wednesday and set up camp within the team-only area that, for now, was a place of calm and high hopes.
Ohio State launching to practice
There is little doubt that when the racing begins with opening heats Friday morning at the 2018 NCAA Women's Rowing Championships, that vibe of eager anticipation and dreams of fulfilling a season’s worth of work and commitment will change depending on the success or difficulty of the first run down the course.
Across the boatyard, Virginia junior coxswain Izzi Weiss, was expressing a lot of the same, pre-racing emotion. Weiss, who grew up in Chicago and was a coxswain in her high school program, The Latin School, has been with Virginia long enough to know how an NCAA Championship can begin with the idea that the best of the year is about to begin, but that the results will be the final determination if that is actually the case.
Weiss was part of the team that finished 11th overall last year and said her team is committed to a better showing this year.
"It's exciting," Weiss said. "And it's kind of scary because you've worked all year for it. Everyone wants to win, everyone wants their season to end really well. But we've had a lot of great parts to the season so far and hopefully that all finishes really strong.
"But, I've learned that it's not just about this moment," Weiss said. "I use to think it was, but I have a little bit more perspective now just having gone through it. I've learned a lot from my teammates, and from being in this sport, and being with this team all year.
"And now, it just gets to be fun. We've put in all the hard work. So waking up here today is unreal. We're in a sweet hotel. We're seeing all our friends from high school, and all of that, and it's just fun to get out there and race against the best teams."
Virgina varsity eight on the water in Sarasota
Breaking it Down
Getting ready to race Friday morning are 36 of the top women's NCAA teams still competing this spring. Every one of those teams earned their place in Sarasota, either by winning an automatic qualifying bid in conference championship racing, or by distinguishing themselves as formidable squads during the dual and conference schedules.
At the Division 1 level, there are 22 teams. Ranked in the top five in the final season polling results are Washington, Cal, Ohio State, Texas, and Stanford. Of those teams, only Ohio State goes to the line Friday with an undefeated varsity eight.
That, however, is not enough to have them considered the favorites. Washington is the defending national champions and swept the 2017 NCAA finals in every event, the first team in history to do that.
Under then first-year Washington coach, Yasmin Farooq, Washington was coming back from eight years of finishing away from championship podium, and some last season speculated that the perennially deep Seattle-based program was sparked by having a new coach, and that 2018 would be different.
Not so far.
Farooq and Washington have proven this season that the UW has taken their role of defending champs seriously and are seen again by the rest of the field as the team to beat.
"You never know until you get down the race course," said Ohio State head coach Andy Teitelbaum. "I think the seedings speak pretty well toward the way most of the people view the way the racing season has gone.
"What we saw last year out of Washington seemed to kind of reestablish a different standard for collegiate rowing, just in terms of the top eight and how fast they can go, and also the second eight and how close to varsity eight speed your second eight can be," he said.
"We took notice of that at last year's championship, and I'm sure we're not the only ones just having watched the racing all over the country this year. And, Washington has, I think, positioned itself where they look like they are every bit as good as they were last year, if not better.
"It will be interesting to see how good a job Ohio State, and Texas, and Cal and everybody else have done in sort of bridging that gap and moving towards that standard."
For Washington, the spotlight might be on them, but it is not keeping them from seeing the path ahead here in Sarasota.
"I don't feel like the spotlight is on us. I don't," Farooq said. "I feel like we're here to have our own best races and on Friday, after the heats, everyone is going to make predictions based on that day.
"And then the next day, with those smoking semis, a lot of opinions will change about a lot of boats. And it's our hope to try and advance each day. I can't even think beyond the first race," she said.
"I just think it's just really different this year," she said. "Last year it was a new team with a new coach, and you're just trying to figure out what you can do. We went this whole season not really paying attention to the rankings. I heard that we were one, and then two, and then one, and I really can't tell you when that happened. I didn't really look at it."
The one, two, one thing undoubtedly happened as the season progressed and Washington and Cal went at it in the dual schedule and Cal's top boat beat Washington's top eight at Redwood Shores in California, April 21.
Indeed, the following poll result had Cal moving past Washington to the number one spot. Those positions held until after the Pac-12 Championships when Washington swept the field. Cal's top eight finished third behind both UW and Stanford, while the rest of Cal's crews finished second behind Washington.
That result would seem to prove that Washington is as good overall as they were last year, with one notable exception; Cal was without one of their top women - Dana Moffat - and not having Moffat, a 2017 silver medalist in the US at the 2017 Under 23 World Rowing Championships not only drained a key oar from Cal's varsity eight, but forced a juggling of crews down the roster.
Moffat, who was accidentally struck on the head by a boat being unloaded from a trailer, was placed in concussion protocol by the University medical staff and she was unavailable for the Pac-12 Championship.
Moffat has been back with Cal for more than a week, and the Cal crews are realigned the way head coach Al Acosta wants them.
"Dana was out for the Pac-12, but she is back and has been in the boat for about a week," Acosta said. "It all looks pretty good. We had to make some tough decisions to sort out the four and the second varsity, and the more that we are down here, the more that we see those crews coming together, we feel good about those decisions.
"It's nice to see the varsity with Dana back, getting some rows together under their belt. I think all the boats, the four, the JV and the varsity have all shown good speed throughout the season," he said. "We certainly hope we can reproduce that, if not go a little faster when it matters most."
Of the seven teams racing, the University of Central Oklahoma finished the season ranked first in the polls. Based on that, and the speed of their top eight this season, they are the favorites going into the heats.
Western Washington will certainly challenge that, as will the rest of the field.
"It's going to be tough," said Western Washington head coach John Fuchs. "I think every school has a shot, and it's going to be really close racing all weekend. Our season progressed well. We had a few hiccups here and there. The weather was a factor a couple of times, and the rest of it was some poor planning on my part. But I thought everything else went great. The spring we had in Bellingham was awesome.
"I feel like we're ready to go. Central Oklahoma has shown the most success," Fuchs said. "It's been quite a while since they've raced. So who knows. But everybody is going to be at the top of their game," he said.
Central Oklahoma head coach Montia Rice agreed with Fuchs.
"It's going to be great racing from day one," Rice said. "There is going to be no just getting through to the final on this one. I'm going to be stressing through the weekend, but it's good. It's fun. It makes it worth it.
"The season, over all, went really well. But, we thought it would with only graduating only two seniors, a coxswain and one rower. So, it kind of picked up where it left off. And, with the training they put in all winter, this is the strongest boat we've ever had. The season has gone the way we had hoped."
Bates women practicing starts
The second largest division with eight teams has been led in the polls and seeding by defending champion Bates College. After dominating the competition in 2017, Bates has kept up the pace during the dual schedule and in conference racing, where they swept their events.
The pressure from Bates is going to come from across the field, with some teams hoping to gain enough points to challenge for the overall team win, and others leaning on their strength in the varsity eight.
Ranked right behind Bates in the final regular season poll is Ithaca College.
"I think the biggest thing is we've really been focusing on is our own boat speed," said head coach Becky Robinson.
Ithaca head coach Beck Robinson
"If you are at top end speed, then you're talking about tenths of a second (between crews racing), and tenths of a second races are races anyone can win. So we're really talking about our own top end speed, talking all year about the faster we go, the harder it is for someone else to beat us.
"Yes, Bates is out there," she said. "On the team end of things, I don't think we will stand up to Bates, because I don't think we have the depth that they do. But we're going after them in the 1V."
Bates head coach Peter Steenstra said he is well aware of the challenges his team is facing, and the level of competition assembled on the venue.
"I'm thinking this is going to be a very exciting Division III regatta," Steenstra said. "It's all fast boats and it's very competitive, which is fun. There is no throwaway crew in this lineup, which is nice, so it's going to be a great racing experience for everyone."