PENNSAUKEN, N.J. -- Although the skies were leaden and the winds brisk and cold Saturday morning, Columbia's varsity lightweight rowers could not have been much happier as they completed the opening heat of the 2012 National Lightweight Championship.
Five hours later, Cooper River Park was bathed in a pleasing sun, but the Lions were anything but pleased. Despite high hopes generated by three weeks of intensive training, and the solid opening heat, Columbia had fallen behind early and finished last in the Grand Final, nearly 15 seconds behind champion Harvard.
"They were optimistic after the morning heat," head lightweight coach Scott Alwin noted. "It had been a good race. They felt the boat had been 'light', which rowers use to describe a race in which the shell seems to float on or above the water.
Despite the exertion of finishing fifth in an extremely quick heat, he said, "They were confident for the Grand Final. Someone said that we still had another gear to use."
Indeed, the Lions had been impressive in the heat. Their time of 5:49.581 for the 2000-meter Cooper River course was just 2.9 seconds behind Harvard and Dartmouth, who finished in a virtual tie for first. Columbia's fifth-place finish beat its seed by two places, earning it a better lane for the afternoon Final.
Almost from the opening strokes of the Grand Final, though, Columbia slipped to the rear. The seven-boat field quickly became a six-boat race, a nail-biter which saw Harvard win the gold medal by just 97/100 of a second over Dartmouth. Third-place Yale was only 3.6 seconds off the leader, while Georgetown was fourth, 1.3 seconds in back of Yale.
Cornell, fifth in 5:42.397, and Princeton, sixth in 5:43.358, were in a battle of their own, but Columbia trailed all in 5:47.795.
"[Our rowers] were surprised," Alwin said. "They felt their boat was heavy, all race. Right from the start, it felt sluggish and heavy."
Alwin sighed. "They did not do anything wrong," he said. "They did everything they could do. But you're going to have bad races."
The Lions' misfortune, he continued, was to have it in the Grand Final. "I've told them many times, you can never expect that your best performance will be on Race Day."
Columbia's varsity four turned in two of its best performances Saturday, both in the morning and afternoon competitions.
The fields for the fours races were determined by blind draws, and it was the Lions' bad luck to be placed in the strongest heat, one boasting the second, third and fourth finishers in the Eastern Sprints.
Needing to make the top three in the heat to advance to the Grand Final, Columbia fought hard, but could not match the speed of the frontrunners. It finished fourth, better than Georgetown, but well behind Wisconsin, Cornell and Yale.
The Lions rowed a vastly better race in the afternoon Petite Final, finishing first, ahead of Georgetown and a newcomer to national rowing circles, the Milwaukee School of Science and Engineering. 
Alwin was pleased with the four, noting that three rowers and the coxswain will return next season. Competing in the championship means that they'll boast three weeks of additional training, plus two big races.
But as the coach drove away from the championships site, he noted how disappointed he was.
"I'm not," he added quickly, "disappointed in them, I'm disappointed for them, especially for the seniors. They will not have another chance to come back from this."
The Lions' seniors who saw their final collegiate action Saturday included James Kammann, Daniel Kirrane, Graham Pupo and Bruno Salemme from the varsity eight, and Noah Buckley from the four.
Today's results:

National Men's Lightweight Championship at IRA Regatta
Saturday, June 2, 2012
Cooper River, Pennsauken, N.J.

Varsity Lightweights Eights, Grand Final

1. Harvard, 5:33.059
2. Dartmouth, 5:34.035
3. Yale, 5:36.671
4. Georgetown, 5:37.966
5. Cornell, 5:42.397
6. Princeton, 5:43.258
7. COLUMBIA, 5:47.795

Varsity Lightweight Eights, Heat One
1. Harvard, 5:46.667
2. Dartmouth, 5:46.729
3. Princeton, 5:47.093
4. Yale, 5:47.574
5. COLUMBIA, 5:49.581
6. Georgetown, 5:49.756
7. Cornell, 5:51.040

Varsity Lightweight Fours, Petite Final
1. COLUMBIA, no time
2. Milwaukee School of Science and Engineering, no time
3. Georgetown, no time

Varsity Lightweight Fours, Heat One
1. Wisconsin, 6:23.510
2. Cornell, 6:24.286
3. Yale, 6:25.954
4. COLUMBIA, 6:38.922
5. Georgetown, 6:50.325

Today's Boatings at the National Lightweight Championship:

Varsity Eight
Stone Cao, cox; Daniel Kirrane, stroke; Roger Stone, 7; Connor Dougherty, 6; Bruno Salemme, 5; John Hold, 4; James Kahmann, 3; John O'Mara, 2; Graham Pupo, bow

Varsity Four
Logan Pirkl, cox; Steven Boyle, stroke; Blake Pinell, 3; Curtis Kachline, 2; Noah Buckley, bow