BY ED MORAN
PHOTOS BY SPORTGRAPHICS
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After weeks of planning, more than a year of Covid-19 shutdowns and lost regattas, 26 collegiate men’s rowing teams have responded to the call to come to Mercer Lake in West Windsor, N.J. to race in the IRA Championship, May 28-29.
In a vote taken by the IRA Stewards Wednesday, a proposal put forth by league commission Gary Caldwell March 10th was approved after Caldwell secured commitments from the schools that they would attend and have submitted entry packets.
Caldwell said the racing will include lightweight events, but that the entries for them will be named later. To date, there are three women’s and three men’s lightweight teams planning to attend.
“I think everybody is very juiced up about this,” Caldwell said. “It’s been a long slog for all of us. I can’t imagine going literally almost two years without competition and trying to keep kids enthused and safe, and all the other stuff these coaches are trying to do.
“It’s expanded their appreciation for the process,” he said. “I’ve seen tremendous growth on the part of a number of coaches who have had to deal with things they have never even thought of before,” he said.
“There is a lot of work left to do between now and the last week in May, but we have a clear path forward now as long as people stay healthy. On a local level our kids to make good choices and recognize the bad choices other people make and not get caught up in that inadvertently,” Caldwell said.
“There is a lot of work left to do between now and the last week in May, but we have a clear path forward now as long as people stay healthy. On a local level our kids need to make good choices and recognize the bad choices other people make and not get caught up in that inadvertently.”
“The other thing is we have to hope for is that the downward trend the first quarter of this year continues and that the sickness overall doesn’t go the other direction.”
It’s a given that this IRA will be different in many ways. There will be only two days of racing, with Friday morning time trials and afternoon semifinals, followed by Saturday morning finals. There will not be spectators, no big screen, alumni tents, or food vendors, but there will be live streaming of the racing.
And the competition is not going to be at the level it normally is. All eight Ivy League schools, including defending champion Yale, have been handcuffed by both a lack of full rosters and a decision by the Ivy League to ban championship participation for all sports.
However, according to Caldwell, several Ivy League schools have expressed an interest in racing if they can get individual institutional approval. That, Caldwell pointed out, would be dependent on the local state of the pandemic for each of those schools.
Caldwell added that the number of schools attending could be expanded pointing to the fact that the New England Small College Athletic Conference is having a full schedule of spring racing and a championship weekend prior to the regatta and that two men’s programs could be added.
With the Ivy League decision, and the impact the pandemic has had on rosters and teams, this regatta will be unique in that it will open opportunities for schools that don’t normally gain entry or have ever participated.
“It will not be the IRA from a competitive standpoint the way that we normally see it, and given the implications the pandemic has had on individual schools and their rosters, any conventions that people have about who should be great and who is not going to be great, or is competitive, get thrown out the window,” he said. “That is going to make a difference. The depth of some of these schools is going to be different.
“In terms of giving an opportunity to open the regatta to schools that don’t always qualify, this is a pretty big deal. Fairfield University has never sent a varsity eight to the IRA and they will this year.”
Caldwell said he also believes that the two-day format that guarantees that every team will race three times will create a more level field.
“Quite frankly,” he said. “In some ways, this might be better than our regular format from the standpoint of determining who should get to the semifinals. The time trial is going to lie a lot less than heats that are made up out of polling.
“Coaches and athletes will have to make determinations as to how hard they want to go and where they are willing to put themselves in the pack, how much they want to save for the next round. Three races in two days are not easy.
“And, it does eliminate the built-in advantage that traditionally happens when the first and second place crews in the heats bypass the reps and go directly to the semifinal and end up racing one less time than everybody else. This year the format ensures everybody races the same number of times.”
The regatta, which was canceled last spring because of Covid 19, was close to being lost for a second year by the winter virus spikes, state-to-state Covid restrictions on travel, and increased regatta costs due to projected reduced entries and Covid testing and mitigation fees.
But through Caldwell’s persistence and the desire of the colleges to race no matter what the format of the regatta looked like, the IRA was saved. And, the news was welcomed by coaches across the country.
“Never before have I seen our students so committed to something so uncertain,” said University of Washington head coach Michael Callahan. “It has been a real act of faith and trust, some of the most important values in our sport.
“Never before have I seen our students so committed to something so uncertain. It has been a real act of faith and trust, some of the most important values in our sport.”
“We are both humbled and thrilled by the news that there will be an IRA,” he said. “We are incredibly grateful for the opportunity to race and feel deeply indebted to Gary Caldwell, the Stewards, and everyone across the sport who have come together to make this happen. It is no small feat and racing for a national championship is a gift we will never take for granted. We will cherish this opportunity.”
In Berkley California, Cal head coach Scott Frandsen, echoed those sentiments:
“We are excited to see the IRA Championship firmly at the end of the spring racing schedule,” Frandsen said. “Through all of the ups and downs of the past year, many of our programs have continuously adapted to the latest adversity while training towards an uncertain future. Giving all of our student-athletes this light at the end of the tunnel to focus on and train towards is really motivating for everyone involved,” he said.
“I am grateful to my athletic department for all of the effort that has gone into allowing our team to train and to Gary Caldwell for all of the work that he has done to make this possible.”
In Boston, BU head coach Tom Bohrer said he was also excited to have the regatta back on the schedule. “I think it’s great that schools want to do it, just realizing that of that has happened during Covid time, it wouldn’t surprise me if some of the teams that said they want to go won’t go because of something happens along the way,” he said.
“But I think it will be good for rowing if we can do it and I am cautiously excited about it.”
Covid mitigation and safety protocols required for participation include regular testing prior to arrival and on-site testing when teams get to the venue. In addition, all teams will be restricted to their hotel rooms and the regatta site and will not be allowed contact with anyone outside of the regatta bubble during the event.
“People are grateful just to have this opportunity,” Caldwell said. “Everybody’s assumptions about what they are entitled to and what’s a gift have changed in the last 12 months, mine included.
“My staff have all worked really, really hard the last couple of months to get us to this reality. It’s taken a ton of work. We’re really happy we’ve gotten here. Now we’ve got to cross the finish line.”
To that end, Caldwell has one plea for parents, alumni and friends:
“Just stay home. Do not come down to the site and think you can find a place to perch where you are not going to get noticed. You can’t have contact with your athletes. If you do, you put them at risk and you put us in a position where we may have to shut a whole team down.”