NEW YORK – Just two years removed from an IRA National Championship, this year’s Columbia lightweight team is proving that the program is built to last. The Lions’ varsity eight has medaled in four of the past five years at IRA’s, but were kept off the podium last year, leading to some extra motivation coming into this spring.

“Coming into this season, there was definitely a desire to win,” said junior Sebastian Krappe. “Last year, our performance wasn’t as indicative of what our team thought we could achieve. From the beginning of this year, people have been like, ‘we’re not going to let that happen again,’ and have been really motivated.”

The varsity eight bounced back in a big way, dropping just one race and sweeping all of its cup races for the first time since 2003 and the second time in program history.

With a young group that features only one senior, Columbia spent the fall and early spring building chemistry and finding a rhythm to shine once the regular season began. When the spring break trip on Lake Lure in North Carolina commenced, the Lions took advantage of the extra time by showing signs of what was to come.

“I knew we had the talent, but to harness all of that this year with a somewhat inexperienced group is kind of a lot to ask for,” said head coach Nich Lee Parker. “Ultimately, it’s what the guys choose to do, and to their credit, they are extremely dedicated. Over spring break, you saw the work was starting to get more focused and we realized they could be a contender at EARC Sprints and IRA’s.”

Fast forward through eight weeks of battling less than ideal conditions, the Lions earned the No. 1 spot in the USRowing.com Coach’s Rankings twice, including on May 1, the final regular-season poll.

“With the success we’ve had during the regular season, there is some pressure building, but our team is dealing with that pretty well,” stated senior Ben Landis. “The 2016 crew had to deal with some of that too because they were so close (to winning the title) the years before. Now that we were able to get over that hump, some of us older guys know what it takes. We’re really focused and excited to race at Sprints and IRA’s.”

Landis also added that he sees similarities between this varsity eight crew and the team that took gold in 2016.

“Obviously, that crew was very young, just like this one is,” the two-time captain said. “We had three first-years in that IRA-winning boat and four in the boat that competed at Henley. Both groups really enjoyed being together and racing.”

In the second varsity, Columbia posted an unbeaten mark of 12-0 in eight regattas. It is believed to be the first time that feat has ever been achieved by a lightweight JV boat. The accomplishments of that crew have created an even more unified unit, which should only help the Lions as they aim to reclaim their spot on the medal stand at EARC Sprints and the IRA’s.

“I was in the second varsity eight in 2016, which did not have as successful a year as the varsity,” Krappe said. “We were so happy for those guys that won at IRA’s, but honestly, it was a little bittersweet because as a competitor, you want to be successful. Seeing our second varsity go out there and win has been so much fun. It’s really made us more cohesive as a team.” 

“Our second varsity has impressed me so much this season,” added Lee Parker. “(Assistant coach) Andrew Hess, has to get a lot of credit for that. He did a great job recruiting a lot of these guys and they all have great attitudes, work ethics and represent the program very well. It’s also really special that the shell they race in is named after (former Columbia lightweight head coach and director of rowing) Michael Zimmer. Sometimes it looks like there’s a 10th person helping push that boat.”

Add to the fact that the Lions only have three seniors combined in the varsity and second varsity eight boats, there is hope that more success will be on the horizon in the years to come.

“For me, it’s awesome to have the confidence that this team is going to do even better after I graduate,” said Landis. “My hope is that I can look back and say I was part of the team that really turned this program around. I don’t see any reason they can’t get even faster next year.”