BY LUKE REYNOLDS
PHOTOS BY LISA WORTHY
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At almost the same time an announcement was broadcast to the athletes and coaches at Nathan Benderson Park to clear the launch area due to the possibility of lightning, a tweet went out from the University of Washington’s rowing account that read: “One race to go for Washington. Through 2 races, UW has 66 points; Stanford 63; and Texas 60. The winner of the V8+ grand final gets 66, second place gets 63, etc.”
With only the DI first eight grand final left in the regatta, all crews were forced off the water to await the passing storm.
It was the ultimate cliffhanger.
After a morning of Husky dominance, Washington would need only a victory in the grand final and the points trophy would be theirs. But the delay threatened to interrupt their momentum.
Nearly two hours later, the crews returned to the starting line, and, with a slight headwind, the racing resumed. Michigan lead early, then it was Stanford that took control and seemed well-positioned to win.
The University of Texas, however, had other plans.
At 5:32.6 seconds into the race, announcer Mary Whipple said “It’s still Stanford in the lead, but here comes Texas,” and before the clock reached six minutes, Texas had taken control. In the last twenty strokes of the 2021 NCAA Women’s Rowing Championships, the Longhorns secured their victory.
With that victory came 66 points and when coupled with Stanford’s second-place finish it created a three-way tie between The University of Texas, Stanford, and the University of Washington in the final team standings.
In the event of a tie, the winner of the first eight grand final becomes the national champion. And so the day belonged to Texas.
“As I was finishing grad school, I remember Texas Rowing’s first team members standing in front of Gregory Gym, stopping women students who looked athletic, asking them if they’d ever tried rowing,” University of Texas President Jay Hartzell said on Twitter. “From that start in 1997 to national champs in 2021. Remarkable! Hook ‘em!”
Texas’ first national title victory is set against the backdrop of the pandemic and the challenges that came with it. On Sunday afternoon, as the eights came down the course, the hardships that the athletes had endured seemed to have vanished as spectators and teams cheered for the crews as they barreled towards the finish line.
Despite the weather delays and lingering Covid precautions, Sunday’s racing was a triumphant celebration for all crews.
Stanford and the University of Washington who ultimately came in second and third in the final team standings put up solid results throughout the event. Stanford pulled off three second-place finishes in the DI four, second eight, and eight. Washington finished first in both the DI second eight and the four.
“I’m really proud of the effort of all three of our boats,” said Washington’s head women’s rowing coach Yas Farooq “At end of day, the varsity eight race should be what determines the national championship.”
And it wasn’t just the top-three teams that had reason to celebrate.
Southern Methodist University, just a few hundred miles north of the University of Texas, in their first appearance on the national stage, won the DI first eight C final and took second behind Brown in the second eights petite final finishing 11th in the final team standings.
On Friday, The Mustangs lost by less than two-tenths of a second in the DI first eight rep narrowly missing a place in the DI first eight A/B semifinal.
“They did great,” SMU head women’s rowing coach Kim Cupini, said. “They [the athletes] kept really focused and did everything right. The first eight had a heartbreak losing to Syracuse to make the A/B so they were a little bummed about that but they come out and did awesome getting 13th which was the highest they could get.”
For Cupini, the NCAA Championship represents an opportunity to put SMU on the map.
“It was a huge jump for us. I just looked at the 2016 AAC’s results [the American Athletic Conference Championships] SMU was dead last in every single boat by a lot of seconds so the program has sincerely gone from being one of the worst teams in the country to here. I think this is just the beginning.”
For the DII Championship, the University of Central Oklahoma went into finals poised to defend their national title after a flawless performance on Friday earning the Brochos a direct path — including a rest day on Saturday — to the grand final in both the DII eight and four.
“Everyone was feeling good,” head women’s rowing coach Brian Ebke said. “It’s a lot of regatta with not as much racing so I think everyone was really ready to race and itching to get out there after six days of doing our routine.”
“One of the cool things about the NCAA is that it’s a team championship so it’s not just about individuals. We have our individual boat meetings but right when we got to the course today we pulled the whole team together and said ‘hey, you build up and support the four and you build up and support the eight and cheer for each other and send positive thoughts. You’re not going to win without the other boat so let’s go win together.'”
The cohesive demeanor paid off for the Bronchos in the form of a third straight national title.
In the DII eight, UCO defeated runner-up Mercyhurst by a commanding 14-second lead.
“Central Oklahoma is just going to light this lane on fire,” Whipple said as the crew came down the course.
Florida Tech came in behind Mercyhurst with a time of 6:59.295 in the intimate three-boat final.
For many athletes racing in today’s event, including UCO six-seat Shelby Wackerly, the race will mark the end of their college career, the nostalgia amplified by a year of lost racing due to the pandemic.
“As a senior, I am obviously a bit sentimental. Five years just really doesn’t feel long enough,” Wackerly, said after their heat on Friday. “I am so proud of this team and how hard we have worked to get here. There is something so special about this program and what we have accomplished, I am so grateful to have been a part of it.”