WEST WINDSOR, N.J. -- With four brilliant rows in one day, the Columbia men's lightweights surged into Lion rowing history at the IRA National Men's Lightweight Championships.
Not only did the varsity eight duplicate its performance of last season when it won the bronze medal at the national championships, but the Lion four-oared shell nearly out-did its varsity counterparts when it won the gold medal in the Varsity Lightweight Fours two hours earlier.
Columbia's showing not only produced the first lightweight gold ever at the IRA, but also the first gold medal by any Lion crew in a national championship event since the famed men's heavyweight crew took gold in the 1929 Intercollegiate Regatta, predecessor of the IRA.
The varsity race for the bronze medal went off at 12:15 Sunday, when the starter intoned "Attention … Go", but it actually began two weeks earlier, moments after the second-seeded Lions had finished fourth in the Eastern Sprints, one place short of a medal. The disappointment was deep among lightweights personnel.
"It was a very tough two days after the Sprints," head coach Nich Lee Parker said. "We tried to [figure out] what we could do to improve in the two weeks from the Sprints to the IRA."
Parker and his staff considered, and tried, many changes.
"We had a lot of discussion, tried a lot of combos in those two weeks," he recalled. "We made changes to help the crew to a higher level of execution. A key was [to improve] their ability to execute the race plan."
They made two personnel changes, bringing coxswain Yih-Jen Ku up from the second varsity eight, and moving sophomore Colin Ross up from the 2V as well.
"Colin added good power to the crew," Parker said. With the coxswain change, he said, "We had good calls by the coxswain, good response by the crew."
On Sunday morning, you could see the improvement almost as soon as the opening heat began. Columbia started well, and moved out smartly. When top-seeded Cornell, the Sprints champion, moved into the lead, the Lions held back, preferring to conserve their energy for the Grand Final. Nevertheless, they successfully held off Harvard, taking a lead of open water over the Crimson. The three Ivies finished the heat 1-2-3, all qualifying for the Grand Final, with fourth-place Navy sliding to the Petite Final.
In the old IRA format, the lightweight Grand Final would not have been held until late afternoon, usually the final race of the regatta. In the present format, there is little rest for the weary -- just four hours after the boats crossed the finish line for the heat, they were back on Mercer Lake for the 12:20 Grand Final.
The field included Cornell, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Dartmouth, all ranked in the top 10 nationally. And all went out competitively in the opening meters.
But Cornell soon took the lead, opening it up to half a length by the 1000-meter mark. Yale and Harvard were the Big Red's closest pursuers at that point.
In the third 500, though, Columbia moved into second, as Harvard pushed Yale out of third. The Cornell eight, undefeated all season, covered the final 800 meters in first, but not without pressure from its two pursuers.
As the Big Red crossed the finish line in 5:47.921, Harvard separated from Columbia, and captured second in 5:48.463. The Lions, riding the changes instituted during the past two weeks, earned their second straight IRA bronze medal in 5:49.962 for third place, 2.5 seconds better than Yale's 5:52.483.
Princeton was fifth in 5:55.362 and Dartmouth took sixth in 6:00.706.
Although Columbia had lost the silver medal to Harvard, Parker had much appreciation for his Ivy League foe. "Harvard really put it together," he observed. "They made a big jump in their ability to perform at the championship level."
The race not only gave the Lions their first lightweight victory over a Yale eight, but marked the fourth time Columbia had placed ahead of the Tigers this year -- twice in regular-season meets, and once in the Sprints Grand Final.
The varsity lightweight four matched its varsity counterpart in speed and form. It moved very well off the starting line in the opening heat, soon taking a lead it would not relinquish. The Lions drew high praise from one of the broadcasters doing the streamed telecast of the regatta.
"Columbia is putting on a clinic," he observed admiringly. "They're making it look real easy."
The Lions won in 6:37.902, comfortably ahead of a fast-closing Wisconsin four, with Yale and Georgetown following.
The clinic continued in the Grand Final, which went off at 10:10 a.m., fewer than two hours after the lightweight heats. Despite a race stoppage in the opening meters which necessitated a re-start, all crews moved out well, but none as smoothly as Columbia.
By the halfway point, the Lions were in the lead, trailed closely by Wisconsin and Harvard. With 500 meters to go, however, the race was all Columbia's. It led by 3/4 of a length at that point, and expanded it to an open-water lead by the race's conclusion.
"They really took ownership of the boat in the morning heat, as well as the Grand Final," Nich Parker said. "They have an awareness of what is going on in the race, and [of] their ability to respond. Our assistant coach, Jesse Foglia, did a great job preparing them."
It had been a memorable weekend, an even more memorable two weeks including Columbia's two gold medals at the Eastern Sprints. "In five varsity championship races over those two weeks," Parker marveled, "we earned four medals -- three golds and a bronze.
"That is the best set of team performances in the history of Columbia Lightweight rowing."
And the rowing world sat up and took notice of the men in Columbia Blue. "We received great compliments all day," the coach noted, "from other coaches, even from U.S. Rowing people, on the depth of our crews' technical ability to row well."
Or as former Navy heavyweights coach Rick Clothier, serving as one of the TV race callers, observed, "All of Columbia's crews are looking smart today."
Such success requires more than oarsmen and coaches, of course.
" I want to thank [Director of Rowing] Scott Alwin for his leadership and our alumni for their support," Parker said. He particularly singled out Dr. M. Dianne Murphy, Columbia's Director of Intercollegiate Athletics and Physical Education.
"I want to thank Dr. Murphy," he said, "for her ongoing belief in our achieving championship-level performances."
National Lightweight Championships
at the IRA Regatta
Sunday, June 1, 2014
Mercer Lake, West Windsor, N.J.
Varsity Eights - Grand Final
1. Cornell, 5:47.921
2. Harvard, 5:48.463
3. COLUMBIA, 5:49.962
4. Yale, 5:52.483
5. Princeton, 5:55.362
6. Dartmouth, 6:00.706
Varsity Eights - Opening Heat 1
1. Cornell, 5:45.361
2. COLUMBIA, 5:48.310
3. Harvard, 5:51.089
4. Navy, 5:53.333
Varsity Fours - Grand Final
1. COLUMBIA, 6:28.935
2. Harvard, 6:30.323
3. Wisconsin, 6:30.374
4. Cornell, 6:32.699
5. Yale, 6:38.050
6. Princeton, 6:44.824
Varsity Fours - Opening Heat 1
1. COLUMBIA, 6:37.902
2. Wisconsin, 6:39.275
3. Yale, 6:41.868
4. Georgetown, 6:44.972
5. MIT, 6:58.069
6. Drexel, 7:14.845
Today's Columbia Boatings:
Yih-Jen Ku, cox; Griffin Whitlock, stroke; James Winford, 7; Fredrik Aasaaren, 6; Jacob Buczek, 5; Colin Ross, 4; Petros Krommidas, 3; Connor Dougherty, 2; David Mottola, bow
Erica Cunningham, cox; Anders Smedsrud, stroke; Lane Brokaw, 3; Matt Bellesheim, 2; Steven Boyle, bow