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The Hopes and Questions for the Season Ahead

BY ED MORAN
PHOTO BY SPORTGRAPHICS

For most of the last few months, Boston University women’s head coach and Collegiate Rowing Coaches Association president Madeline Davis has spent her time running practices on the Charles River and participating on Zoom calls in her office.

On the water, Davis was encouraged by the resilience of her team and the way they embraced their school’s Covid-19 protocols–the twice-weekly testing, socially distanced workouts while masked–and especially the way they embraced learning to row in singles.  

“I was pleasantly surprised by what we were able to accomplish this fall as a team and as a university,” Davis said. “We practiced most of the fall. The kids stayed healthy. We had a bunch of kids banging around in singles with no idea what they were doing, but they learned.”

Her experience left her closing the year with hope and rising certainty that there will be rowing in the spring. And she knows from her position as head of the CRCA that coaches across the country are working hard to find a way to get their teams on the water and in competition.

But Davis also knows from the endless Zoom meetings that there are more questions about what the 2021 spring season will look like than answers. Nor can she be sure that her gut sense that there will be rowing of some kind this spring won’t be scuttled ultimately by the continuing spikes in infections and hospitalizations this winter.

Every decision will depend on the course of the virus and the battle to control it, how each region of the country handles it, what restrictions are enforced on travel and social gatherings, and whether schools will open campuses and bring back students.

But there is real reason to believe that by late spring there will be racing, and maybe even before.

There is certainly hope.

With vaccines being distributed and therapies to treat the sick and reduce the severity of the illness coming with each passing month, and because professional sports and big-revenue collegiate teams demonstrated there are ways to compete by testing and eliminating spectators, race plans are being made.

The biggest decisions–the ones that will determine whether there will be conference and regional championships, an NCAA and IRA championship, a youth racing series, and a youth national championship–are still unanswered and will be made in the coming weeks.

But, in the meantime, coaches and administrators across the country are forging ahead, setting dates, making plans, and staying as upbeat as possible.

“From the conversations I’ve had, I feel more optimistic than ever before,” University of Washington women’s head coach Yaz Farooq said in December, before joining a online meeting to begin planning the May Windermere Cup and the 50th anniversary of opening day.

As for an Olympics and the summer international and domestic trials season, athletes from the Oakland and Princeton national-team training centers, both men and  women, are at the Elite Athlete Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif,, operating within a safe bubble and being  tested regularly while preparing for the postponed 2021 Tokyo Olympics.

Matt Imes, director of high performance for the U.S. national team, is confident the Games will take place. 

“The IOC is highly confident. Japan is highly confident. They’ve got multiple layers of multiple variations of what the Games could, and will, look like.” 

“Even if they have to ban all spectators, they’ve got multiple levels they would go to before they take the Games down. They’ve been living with Covid for nine months now and they feel they could bring in athletes, test them, quarantine them for five or six days, and have the Games.

“I’m not saying it’s best for swifter, higher, stronger, but I think they feel they can do it. So I feel highly confident, well above 90 percent, that it’s going to happen.”

In the year ahead, the level and type of racing will be different and evolving each month. Based on interviews with coaches and league administrators, here’s a look at what emerging from Covid-19 and the rowing season might resemble and what realities will guide decisions.

The Collegiate Outlook

From the beginning of the pandemic, university coaches and administrators across the country have been sharing information, trying to plan contingencies, and even scheduling racing.

There are no announced plans for regional and national spring championships yet. Some schools have already decided how their spring semesters will unfold, and what percentage of undergraduates will return to campus. Some have not.

Harvard University, for example, will be inviting only the senior class back to campus. For schools that have invited the entire student body back, such as Princeton University, classes and lectures will still be conducted remotely. At many schools, some student athletes are choosing not to return to preserve a year of eligibility.

The size of the returning student population and the number of available athletes will determine what schools have the ability to muster competitive teams.

“The issue is every one of these universities has a different protocol,” said Yale University men’s head coach Steve Gladstone. “Every one of these universities has a varying number of people on campus.

“The Yale undergraduate population [normally] is 6,000. We had 1,800 on campus last semester. In heavyweight rowing, we had four freshmen and five seniors. We’ll have fewer this second semester.

“So I don’t know what kind of championship we could have. So much depends on the vaccine and how it’s rolled out, but even if the university-age population was able to get vaccines by the end of March or early April, that’s not going to cut it.

“You just can’t go out on the water and race. Harvard has one class. Yale has two classes, Syracuse has four classes. It’s too cockamamie. I’m not anticipating a season. What kind of Eastern Sprints would it be, and what kind IRA would it be?

“This is just one person’s opinion, but a good alternative would be informal races. What if a group of guys from Dartmouth went down to Princeton, or a group of guys from Princeton went up to Columbia? I think that would be a good scenario.”

According to Gary Caldwell, commissioner of the Intercollegiate Rowing Association, what happens with IRA schools will depend on the decisions schools make about class size and restrictions on travel and social distancing.

As of mid-December, 21 states had implemented some form of travel restriction.

“What definitely is going to change no later than the first week of January is we’re going to learn which schools are going to decide not to bring the kids back to campus. Or do what Harvard has done and rule out, effectively, any meaningful spring sports because Harvard is bringing back only the senior class and selected juniors. You can’t run meaningful baseball, lacrosse, softball, and rowing teams if you have only a class and a half back on campus.”

But Caldwell and the IRA coaches have not given up trying to envision some form of race season.

“I feel committed to trying to do something for the kids who stuck it out. We can’t even start to plan for something like that until we know what kind of numbers we’ll have.”

What Caldwell believes can happen is what Gladstone talked about, a dual-race season within geographic regions.

“For instance, BU and Northeastern, which row out of separate boathouses in Boston, if they get permission for a full practice from their respective schools, what’s to stop them from showing up at the starting line down at the Basin at the same time, 80 feet apart, and racing?”

That doesn’t mean there’s no planning for a full season and championship regattas, Caldwell said. 

“We continue to move ahead with the assumption there will be racing. To plan any other way and wait for this to sort out would be irresponsible.”

Because of current social-distancing and travel restrictions in places where some of the major championships are hosted, such as the men’s and women’s Eastern Sprints and other conference championships in Worcester, Mass., there’s no way this early to predict whether those races can occur.

And if the regional and conference championships are restricted or not allowed, can the IRA championship take place on Mercer Lake in West Windsor, N.J.?

“The answer is, we just don’t know right now.” Caldwell said. Decision time stretches from late January to March. “We all just have to be patient.”

Among NCAA teams, coaches and administrators are also moving ahead, planning and trying to envision ways to hold safe races, which largely means no spectators and entire teams socially distancing.

According to Washington’s Farooq, planning is under way for several large regattas, including the Lake Las Vegas Collegiate Invitational on March 6 and 7, and the Windermere Cup in Seattle in May.

“Our thinking for Windermere is that there will not be a crowd on the shore. But our hope is to run the regatta, and the key would be to livestream it. We want to create a fan experience by creating awesome online coverage all through the Pac-12 network so we can include anyone who would want to be here on race day and also the huge following around the world.”

Planning among NCAA teams is not restricted to the Pac-12, and coaches across the country are coordinating and sharing information.

“If we all share knowledge, we can help one another figure out a path forward,” Farooq said. “You might find something in another conference or school you could then share with your administration and possibly find a solution for a roadblock.”

Boston University’s Davis, is also optimistic about a racing season.

“We are all working incredibly hard to try to make competition happen in some form in the spring. That could be everything from conference championships to just scrimmaging in singles and pairs.

“No competition is everybody’s worst-case scenario. There are a lot of coaches talking about how we can salvage some competitive opportunities for our athletes, even if we are still limited by boat size and travel.

“I think we’re going to be able to line up and race this spring. Is it going to be a dual-race season, then Sprints, the Patriot League championship and NCAA? I don’t know. But I feel optimistic we will be able to find some races, and some meaningful races.”

Being in Boston helps for teams like BU, Boston College, Northeastern, and Harvard, which all row on the Charles River and would not have to worry about travel restrictions.

Which is why Davis feel positive.

“If it’s us, Northeastern, BC, we can race. And if we can leave the state, that gives us a couple of more options, and if we can leave the region, that gives us a couple of more good options.”

Despite no fall racing, BU had a good few months of training, Davis said. The campus was open to both in-class and online learning, and a sizable portion of the rowing team was practicing.

 “I think racing will happen, but the NCAA [championship] is probably the hardest one to predict because it requires so much organization that is beyond the control of the rowing coaches, the rowing teams, and the universities. They’ve got to decide in February if they are going to have it.

“The real heartbreaking thing is if we are in a position in February where we don’t think we can have an NCAA and it’s canceled and then we get to May 28th and we could have held it. That’s going to be heartbreaking, but it might be unavoidable.”

Youth and Scholastic

The outlook for the youth season hinges on all the same concerns as the collegiate season: rates of infection, state and local travel and social-distancing restrictions, and the vaccine rollout timeline.

Chris Chase, who heads USRowing’s youth component, doubts there will be a full youth rowing season, given the level of infection this winter, but he’s hopeful there could be some form of a season as the vaccine rollout moves toward the late spring and early summer and infection rates come down.

Chase noted that there are states like Florida and Texas that do not have restrictions and could see a full spring schedule, but with most schools and clubs pointing to the larger regional and national championships, it could be another disappointing spring.

Chase is hoping there will be racing again by June and that there could be a season-ending youth nationals, especially since it’s scheduled to take place in Sarasota, Fla., at Nathan Benderson Park.

“I do have hope for June, July, and August, and getting a full summer season in,” Chase said. “I could also see some regional [championships] happening, maybe in different formats

Holding the Youth National Championships is a possibility, Chase said, and one variation might be to make it an open regatta instead of an invitational that requires qualifying in regional and state contests.

“I’m just throwing around ideas, but we earmark a certain number of slots per region and then fill slots with teams that want to make the trip and can make the trip.”

Olympics and International

The portion of the season that will benefit most from the vaccine timeline is the summer and the Olympics. It is expected that by the time athletes begin traveling to Japan, they will be vaccinated.

But getting to that moment safely and ready to compete at an Olympic level will take careful planning and execution.

Right now, what’s most important for the U.S. squad is winter training and staying healthy. Through most of March, the men and women from the national-team training centers will be in Chula Vista, existing in a safe and monitored bubble that will allow rowing in team boats.

While the Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center is a private entity, the health and sports-science component is operated by the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee, which is overseeing all testing and housing of teams at the center.

“They run all the sports-science services there, so they are in control of how people access the facilities and how they come in and out,” said USRowing’s Imes. “The USOPC has a six-day quarantine period with two tests to come in, and once they’re in there, it’s basically like a bubble. There are other teams that come on and off site, but we don’t interact with those people.”

The plan as of December included a speed order and national selection regatta for pairs racing.

“It may happen that the events do not take place if California goes into a full stay-at-home situation, and even staying in Chula Vista could come into question depending on the rate of the current infection surges,” Imes said.

“If the numbers continue to go up, we may have to look at an alternate training option, but our best bet to train now in groups is to utilize that space at Chula Vista.”

The first step in selecting a team are the two Olympic trials. Olympic Trials l is scheduled to take place in Sarasota, Fla., February 21-25, and includes racing for the men’s and women’s singles, men’s double, and the lightweight men’s and women’s doubles. Of those five boat classes, only the women’s single is already qualified for the Olympics.

The second Olympic trials is scheduled to take place on Mercer Lake in West Windsor, N.J., April 12-16. Those trials will determine the crews in the men’s pair, women’s double, and men’s quad. Of that group, the women’s double has qualified.

Also contested at that trials will be athletes in three Paralympic crews, the men’s and women’s PR1 singles and the PR2 mixed double. All unqualified Olympic boat classes must race for a place in Tokyo at the Final Olympic Qualification Regatta in May.

“The first Olympic trials are scheduled for February in Florida, and as long as Florida is going to allow the event, we feel we can run a safe event in singles and doubles and socially distance everybody,” Imes said.

“Our biggest concern is travel and lodging. If people are living four to a hotel room, that’s a concern. But in terms of racing and being on venue, we feel we can separate everybody.”

Once the Olympic trials are completed, the next scheduled events for the national-team athletes will be the final qualifier in Lucerne, Switzerland, May 16-18, followed by World Rowing Cup II, May 21-23, also in Lucerne.

Between the qualifier and world cup, the U.S. is planning to have a large contingent of athletes traveling to Lucerne, and it’s uncertain what the situation will be in Switzerland in May.

World Rowing will begin posting updates every month beginning in January, Imes said, and is confident about conducting a safe regatta after having run the European junior, U23, and senior world championships last summer.

 “They ran the European events, but that was all travel on one continent. Having people travel from another continent makes the picture different.”

If the U.S. has the highest numbers of infections and spikes do not abate, travel from the U.S. could be restricted. Switzerland currently has a mandatory quarantine for people traveling from the U.S. It is not clear whether exceptions can be made for the two regattas.

“At this time, we are planning on going,” Imes said.

Other questions could arise if the regattas are canceled: What happens to crews that are not qualified? And how prepared will the U.S. be to compete in Japan with no international races in two years?

World Rowing has not yet addressed the contingencies if the final qualification regatta cannot be held, Imes said. One likely scenario will be to fill the available spots based on the racing results from the 2019 world championship.

As for the overall readiness of U.S. crews, the athletes are fit.

“We’ve had really good training, and our workouts have verified that we have been able to stay fit,” Imes said. “All credit to our athletes and coaches for being super-resilient and incredibly adaptable, but there’s no question it has affected how we train, and by no means has it been an ideal buildup for the Olympic Games.

“It’s not ideal at all.” 

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