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2021 IRA’s Set to Kick Off, Make History

BY BRACKETT LYONS
PHOTO BY SPORTGRAPHICS/LISA WORTHY

Williams College doesn’t often look across the water and see Princeton, Dartmouth, or Boston University. The Division III school has a student body of a little over 2,000. And yet, this year the Purple Cows will enter the fray against the top rowing teams in the country at the 2021 Intercollegiate Rowing Association(IRA) National Championship. 

“It will be a great opportunity to race Division I programs we normally don’t get to line up against,” said Marc Mandel, head coach of Williams men’s rowing. “Our hope all season has simply been to get faster from one race to the next, so that is our ultimate goal at our IRA.”

The competition was opened this year to anyone who wanted to row, unlike previous years which required qualification. League commissioner Gary Caldwell said changes had to be made to ensure racing would happen this May. Caldwell said the original goal was 20 schools. 

Spots needed to be filled after the IRA lost the Ivy League, which Caldwell calls a significant piece of the puzzle in standard years. The Ivy League banned championship participation forcing the IRA to look elsewhere. 

“Most years, for the heavyweight varsity, they [the Ivy League] comprise a third of the field. And on the lightweight men’s side they’re like three quarters,” said Caldwell. 

The IRA sent out feelers to see how many schools would be willing to compete. After hoping for 20, Caldwell said 26 programs said they would come. From there, it was getting signatures and checks to balance the budget for the event and get competitors locked in. 

As the planning stage continued, more programs and conferences softened their positions on competition. New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) moved forward with a conference-only schedule. Eventually, even the Ivy League relaxed its competition guidelines. 

“Over a period of time from mid-April to the end of April We had three NESCAC teams finally make the decision to come and, ultimately, five of the eight Ivy League teams will be represented,” said Caldwell. 

The ranks of the competition were now flooded after fears that too few would participate. 

“All of a sudden we went from 26 in our 31 schools in the heavyweight eight, which is the largest field we’ve ever had. There were times in the 80s and 90s where the field was 12 to 15 schools so 31 is a pretty huge number,” said Caldwell.

The competitive field will be unlike anything the championship has seen. 

Teams are coming from all over the country, some of them perennial powerhouses, others small programs looking for a taste of the big time. 

The field is packed, and most view it as anyone’s game. Schools haven’t had the chance to test their metal against one another. The feeling of going into the unknown can be anxiety-inducing, but Dartmouth head men’s rowing coach, Wyatt Allen, said he’s looking forward to it. 

“It’s going to be interesting because there’s so little info on how fast the competition is,” said Allen. “There are certainly a few programs that raced more than others and have shown some really good speed, but there are a lot more unknowns than in a normal year in terms of how the group is going to stack up. So that’s fun.”

Caldwell expects a jumbled field. 

“I think we’re going to see a vastly muddled middle. With some schools that traditionally are looking up at more established programs, where some of those positions are going to be reversed,” he said. 

As for the favorites, Caldwell has some names to keep an eye on. 

“There are some schools at the top who have shown pretty consistent results. Certainly, California and Washington from out West showed as recently as last week at the Pac-12 that they’re the beasts of the West, and Syracuse and Northeastern have certainly had good quality racing on the East Coast. They’re probably not well above the rest of the pack but right now I think they would be the early favorites coming out of the east.”

The unknown is an advantage for the small schools that have an opportunity to shock their competition in the time trials. Those who have gotten water time will look to capitalize on their hours of practice, but those who have had seasons will feel the strongest at Mercer Lake. 

Caldwell sees an opening for small schools because of their hours in the boat. 

“I expect that there will be schools that are petite level finalists under normal circumstances that have been able to have a program all year who have had significantly more practice time than some of the traditional schools like some of the Ivy League schools and even some of the schools out West.”

Williams couldn’t compete in the fall but, with loosened restrictions in the spring, put together strong performances in the NESCAC. Mandel said he used the season’s results to gauge whether his team was up to the challenge of IRAs. 

“Despite the IRA being an open invitation this year, we did want to create some internal metrics to ensure our boats were moving well prior to submitting our entries,” said Mandel. “After winning the NESCAC Championship against quality crews in Trinity, Bates, and Tufts, we felt entering the IRA would be an appropriate senior send-off opportunity for our graduating athletes, and a great development opportunity for our younger athletes.”  

The word of the day is opportunity. Teams don’t know what to expect, but they all know that they have an opportunity to compete with the best schools in the country for the first time in two years. Tom Bohrer, head coach of men’s rowing at Boston University, said he is thrilled to compete against such a large field. 

“When we talk about schools that haven’t been to the IRA, I think it’s really exciting that those schools are actually coming this year. I think it adds a whole other element,” said Bohrer. 

For some, like Bohrer, the opportunity to race after such a tough year is worth more than any potential results. With so many teams coming together after so long spent apart, the mood around college rowing is one of celebration. 

“You know it’s going to be what it is. I’m sure a lot of schools are kind of going with that attitude,” said Bohrer.  “It’s whatever the results are going to be just because you know some schools have got a certain amount of their roster back or how much [practice] time they’ve had. Everyone had their challenges, but I think the element of having so many teams there just brings excitement. Just that we’re doing it again and that I feel like it makes our sport look bigger and stronger with that many crews that want to come to this race.”

Caldwell agrees that the chance to race is this year’s true prize.

“Everybody deserves a reward for the extra steps they’ve had to take in order to pull this off.”

The event will be live-streamed here with results here.

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