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An IRA Championship Unspoiled by Rain and Cold

BY ED MORAN AND BRACKETT LYONS
PHOTOS BY ED MORAN

All through Saturday morning, a cold, wind driven, rain flew straight into the faces of the athletes coming down the course on Mercer Lake. Combined with the fog rising off the warmer spring water, it was nearly impossible to see the crews until they neared the final 500-meters and began to charge through to the finish.

The conditions had been like that since Friday afternoon when one of the largest fields of eights went to the start platform for the semi-finals of the 2021 Intercollegiate Rowing Association Championship.

There was every reason for the hundreds of athletes to be unhappy. They were soaked through to the skin, coxswains were having a hard time keeping their bows pointed down the course and locked onto the start, with wind gusting from the side and the boats bobbing up and down in waves that washed over the gunnels.

They were anything but.

In every race, from the semifinals, through the finals, the joy of racing, of sharing an event and a moment, that was at first not to be, was clearly what those athletes were feeling. It was not the cold. The wind. The rain.

While they sat waiting to start, they banged their gunnels, shouted encouragement to each other — to the athletes in the boats next to them — and then raced.

There could not have been a more fitting end to the long, hard, months of Covid lost seasons, isolation, Zoom classes, and uncertainty, than what took place in Mercer County Park, in West Windsor, New Jersey Friday and Saturday at the IRA Championship.

It was, without question, not the championship it is in normal times, with rosters depleted by students who could not be at school, or with entire powerhouse teams absent because of the havoc the Pandemic has caused.

But it was nonetheless an historic IRA, a true celebration of sport and camaraderie, and all taking place in the worst of weather conditions.

“The anxiety all went away once we were on the water,” said Temple University senior George Torvik, who rowed in Temple’s third varsity eight. “It feels like home out there.”

And so it seemed to every athlete and coach.

From the Varsity Challenge Cup and Ten Eyck Trophy winner University of Washington, to Torvik’s Temple teammates who worried that their team would even be able to compete because of a positive Covid test result among one of the students, being at the IRA this weekend was worth every minute in the rain.

And every Covid precaution.

Spectators were banned. Alumni tents were banned. There were no vendors. No big screen broadcasts, and masking was mandatory on the venue. But it did not detract from the racing or the celebrations and camaraderie.

As far as the racing goes, Saturday belonged to the University of Washington, which took home the Varsity Challenge Cup, won four finals and amassed 360 total points. Washington was followed in second by the University of California in both points (344) and the top varsity grand final, and by Dartmouth College, third in points (340) and in the Challenge Cup final.

Dartmouth was one of the top performers both days, finishing second to Washington in the time trial, and sweeping all three of their semifinals Friday afternoon to gain those respective top final races.

For Washington, which has placed second to Yale University the previous three years the regatta was contested, the victory was rewarding, even if Yale was among the crews not present this year.

It was especially so for two students who stayed in school for a fifth year for another chance at an IRA championship.

“It’s unbelievable,” said Samuel Halbert, of Redmond, Washington, who is one of those fifth-year athletes. “I came back and had to give it one more shot. To finally do it. This is my third year in the varsity eight, and I’ve fallen short twice in a row. To finally pull through and get it. It’s incredible.

“Luckily, all the guys were really committed to this, right away,” he said. “We were all pulling together, training together, even during quarantine. We pushed it, and once the season started, the battle after that wasn’t the self-motivation, it was more the battling the Covid, and the logistics of that. And this whole year we didn’t have one single case,” he said.

 “For the year and a half, we have had, this is incredibly rewarding,” said head coach Michael Callahan. “These are incredibly dedicated student-athletes, and they have been the whole time. What we challenged them to do lifestyle-wise, and training-wise, was something,” he said.

“We almost didn’t know if we could do it. Asking young people to entirely change their lifestyle, move back to campus, and train all year with uncertainty, is difficult.

“But we had no Covid interruption at all, none. The first thing we wanted to do was defeat Covid, and the second thing was to really enjoy the process. You had to be ready for it to be taken away from you again,” he said.

“A couple of years ago, in 2019, we kind of felt like we were just looking for results and we had to get back to enjoying the journey of it, which is kind of cheesy, but I think that’s what this was. Just enjoy the camaraderie. As a coach, I think this is the most rewarding path I’ve had, And I hope [the student-athletes] feel the same way. It’s just really, really special.”

Even without a full field of the top contenders of the past.

“Absolutely. The IRA didn’t have Harvard and Yale for many, many years. And I know that [Yale head coach Steve Gladstone] when he won in those years, he cherished those. That was out of our control. What was in our control was our boat speed and making it a special team – our own strokes and our own gunnels. So, we focused on that.”

Callahan also felt that because of the circumstances — of being grounded with the rest of the world — that this IRA was significantly historic and a testament to rowing and the crews that came to race.

“You have to commend all these students here,” he said. “Everyone has had to make a choice to be with their teams, in their dorms doing Zoom classes. That’s a testament to rowing.

“There was a challenge there and we persevered. That’s what rowing teaches us. That’s exactly what we want the sport to be and here we are as a camaraderie of intercollegiate rowers coming together and having a race.”

Of those who should be credited for this weekend taking place, IRA Commissioner Gary Caldwell is high among them. Caldwell worked tirelessly with the IRA Stewards to rally the schools to come and then helped draw up the covid mitigation and regatta details plan so the event could take place.

In the end, Caldwell said he experienced grateful coaches, athletes, and officials.

“Well, I think that pretty uniformly, the word I use is grateful, and I think that’s how pretty much everybody feels,” he said. “I haven’t had a single negative conversation with a coach who thought that we made decisions that were not in the best interest of his or her athletes.

“Even with the bad weather yesterday, watching people come off the water, kids were really happy with the opportunity to race. I watched all the races [Friday] except two, and although the conditions up at the starting line were pretty gnarly, boats were coming off the water dry, and the level of racing was pretty outstanding. You can’t ask for more given the weather conditions.

“Wandering around the athlete area it’s pretty clear that people were pumped.”

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