BY BRACKETT LYONS
PHOTOS BY ED MORAN
The same day that Princeton University women’s lightweight rowing team was ranked number one in the country for the first time in their history, the entire season was canceled.
Today — more than a year later — Isabelle Chandler, four-seat of the Princeton women’s lightweight eight, stood with a first-place medal dangling around her neck that her team won at the Intercollegiate Rowing Association Championship Friday.
“From the day that our season got canceled last season, our coach told us we were training for IRAs 2021,” said Chandler.
“I’m so grateful that we got this chance,” added Chandler’s teammate, Lauren Sanchez. “And so grateful for this team and all the work they put in. The training through uncertainty was really tough, but we’re tough girls. We’re really proud of the end product.”
Princeton’s win came on the first day of the 2021 IRA National Championship Regatta. In a normal year, the lightweight championship races would have been rowed on the same day as the men’s heavyweight events.
But this is no ordinary year, and no ordinary IRA Championship. Rescued from months of canceled races, the 2021 IRA was shortened to two days, with time trials for the men’s heavyweight events taking the place of heats, and the lightweight events slated for straight finals rowed on the first morning of the regatta.
And they were the highlight of the day.
After a morning that was mostly warm and calm, the lightweights rowed to the line under a building wind that made conditions challenging. But it was not enough to stall the event and the lightweight championship got started with a win in the double for Boston University, followed by victory for Standford University in the four.
In the men’s racing, the United States Naval Academy was a dominant force, taking gold in all three events, the varsity eight, second eight and varsity four.
In the premier lightweight eight event, Navy lead in the last 500 meters, but the University of Pennsylvania gained and was within striking distance. Navy looked somewhat out of steam down the final stretch but managed to hold their lead for the win with a 2.6-second margin.
The victory sealed the sweep for Navy head coach Shawn Bagnall. The Midshipmen gave credit to their coaches who helped them prepare for and excel in the rough conditions.
“Our mantra throughout our training this camp has been diligent in preparation and savage in execution,” said Navy Coxswain Jack Ransick, “and I think we went out there today and did that.”
Coach Bagnall pointed to his team’s discipline and technique for why they excelled in the high winds.
“Given the conditions, I feel like all three boats really rose to the occasion. We attacked the headwind,” said Bagnall. “We felt that staying long and staying composed in those conditions was going to be important today. And I think all three boats went out and nailed it.”
Delving into the tactics on the water, Bagnall said he knew every team would be taking different approaches to overcome the wind, but the key for his rowers was to stay locked in on their own boat.
“[The strategy] For us was to stay composed and internal in what we were doing. Not to look left and right and watch other crews and what they were doing, and then deviate from our plan. We truly stayed internal and focused on our mission and our race plan,” said Bagnall.
That internal focus that Bagnall mentioned was needed after Navy’s varsity eight fell behind early. Princeton set a blistering pace out of the gate, and Navy had to keep their heads and trust their strategy would win over the full 2,000 meters. It was even more challenging for Navy as Princeton dropped off and the University of Pennsylvania came roaring up to within a half-length of the lead in the last 500 meters.
Bagnall said his team had to be ready for high-level competition from Penn and Princeton, but once again, his rowers’ preparation was the difference-maker.
“We knew it was going to be a hard-fought battle with those two teams [Princeton and Penn] all the way down the racecourse. So, it was a little nerve-wracking there, but I had confidence in our preparation.”
All the hours of training culminated in a title for Navy, and Rinsick put all the emotion of the last year into words.
“It’s a really big moment for me—a really big moment for all my guys. We had a lot of confidence going into the 2020 season, which we all lost. So, it’s really special and a true honor to be out there and be able to win that race today. It’s a true honor to be on the team, to be on 150, and to bring that cup back to Annapolis.”
Following the morning championships, the regatta focus was the semifinals — and the weather.
There was some talk that the building winds and coming rain would force the regatta to either go straight to finals with seeding dependent on the results from the time trials. But the decision was to race the schedule as it had been set and stick with finals Saturday morning.
It was a long two hours of racing with driving rain and cold winds making the conditions on Mercer Lake unpleasant. All of the eight semifinals were run, but it was decided to forego the semifinal for the fours and seed them to the championship from the time trials results.
If the same had been done for the eights, the time trials results would have been sufficient. Eleven of the top 12 crews from the morning earned spots into the finals from the results of the semifinals, with Washington, Dartmouth, Stanford, California, Syracuse, and Northeastern going to the men’s varsity eight grand final.