Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXV, No. 27
Wednesday, July 6, 2011
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GUIDING LIGHTS: Princeton University women’s lightweight coxswain Yuna Sakuma, second from left, celebrates with her boatmates on the Tiger first varsity 8 after it won the Eastern Sprints title this past May. Sakuma culminated her Princeton career by guiding the boat in the Henley Women’s Regatta in England in late June.

With Sakuma Developing Into Top Coxswain, PU Women’s Lightweights Landed Henley Spot

Bill Alden

Yuna Sakuma focused on endurance sports during her prep career at Phillips Exeter, competing in distance running, swimming, and cycling.

But some of her high school friends thought Sakuma was ideally suited to play a key role in another grueling activity.

“A bunch of my friends on cross country at Exeter also rowed and they told me I would be a perfect coxswain because I am very small, loud, and athletic,” said Sakuma, a native of Tokyo, Japan.

While Sakuma didn’t take up crew at Exeter, she decided to take the plunge shortly after matriculating to Princeton University in the fall of 2007.

“They do a big recruiting push outside Dillon,” said Sakuma, referring to the Princeton crew program’s annual effort to attract walk-ons in the first weeks of each school year. “I decided to give it a shot.”

Although Sakuma possessed the qualities to succeed as a cox, it took her a while to find her voice.

“I didn’t know what I was getting into; I didn’t have all the skills and I was with these girls who are some of the best in the country,” said Sakuma.

“For someone who was never in the sport, to tell them what to do was terrifying. It taught me a lot of things; I took and swallowed a lot of criticism.”

Applying those lessons well, Sakuma emerged as a critical part of the success of the Tiger women’s lightweight program over the last two years.

In 2010, Sakuma steered the Tiger first varsity boat to second in the Eastern Sprints and third at the Intercollegiate Rowing Association (IRA) national championships.

This spring, Sakuma and the Tigers did even better, as Princeton went undefeated in the regular season before winning the Eastern Sprints and taking second at the IRA Regatta.

Last week, Sakuma culminated her Princeton career in special fashion by competing in the Henley Women’s Regatta near London.

For Sakuma, switching from the open program to the lightweights got her on the medal-winning path.

“The idea was put into my head at the end of my sophomore year,” said Sakuma, who coxed the open novice 8 as a freshman and then guided an open 4 as a sophomore.

“I wasn’t sure where I could go with an open program; I saw more of an opportunity with the lightweight program. I got into the first lightweight 8 on our winter trip to Austin junior year. I was on first varsity 8 all spring.”

Sakuma made the most of her opportunity as she helped the lightweight eight to the medal stand in both the Eastern Sprints and IRA.

“It was exciting; it took years of building up by the older girls,” said Sakuma reflecting on the 2010 season. “It was not something that just happened that season. We had a strong core of girls who were relentless and dedicated.”

That dedication was evident from the beginning of the 2010-11 school year.

“We only graduated one senior from the varsity 8, so we went into the season with a big senior class,” said Sakuma.

“We had an internal accountability; we were all on the same page in wanting to move forward. It is tough especially in the winter when everyone is inside and it is the same thing everyday. We did a lot of work as a whole team together for sessions. Paul [Princeton head coach Paul Rassam] did a great job of designing workouts to build endurance and toughness.”

The first varsity wasted no time showing its toughness as it beat defending Eastern Sprints champ Wisconsin and IRA title winner Stanford on the first weekend of the season.

“We had no idea of what kind of speed we had; Paul said we were fast but we didn’t know until we faced those teams,” said Sakuma of the weekend in California which vaulted the Tigers into the No.1 spot in the national polls.

“We loved the underdog mentality. It was rewarding for the rowers to see the hard work over the summer, fall, and winter pay off.”

The Tigers got another big payoff when they won the Eastern Sprints title for the first time since 2003.

“We were the favorites but some people were in disbelief at where we were all season,” said Sakuma. “We wanted to show that it wasn’t a fluke.”

While Princeton fell just short of a championship double as it lost by 0.68 to Stanford in the IRA grand final, Sakuma had no qualms with the boat’s effort in defeat.

“We went out and executed; we did our best,” said Sakuma, noting that the Tigers trailed early in the final before pulling even with Stanford and battling the Cardinal head-to-head all the way to the finish. “The whole boat showed a toughness.”

Sakuma and the Tigers got the chance to execute in one of the storied regattas in rowing as they culminated their season by competing in the Henley Women’s Regatta.

“It was really exciting; it was not something that was on my mind at the beginning of the season,” said Sakuma.

“Henley was totally different with rolling hills, weeping willows, and cows. Paul told us before we went to make sure to look around and soak it all in.”

The winding and narrow Thames River course tested the cox skills Sakuma has developed over her Princeton career.

“Everyone was scared of the booms, the walls on the side of the course,” said Sakuma.

“It was tricky getting the boat into the lanes; we were able to use the Oxford boathouse. They had a five-mile course with no straight stretch longer than 800 meters.”

The Tigers ended up losing a tight race in the first round as it fell to eventual finalist Molesley/UL/Oxford,

“It was really the Great Britain under-23 open boat; it had a bunch of good girls including some who had rowed with the top U.S. programs,” said Sakuma.

“It was a great experience to row against a crew of that caliber. We wanted to get off to a quick start; we had two or three seats on them at the beginning. We had a very good piece to the first barrier; we were only six or seven seats behind. They gradually pulled away; it was tough with the head current and the 20-mile head wind.”

For Sakuma, the crew experience at Princeton has steeled her for the challenges that lie ahead as she moves to Boston where she will work at a healthcare consulting firm.

“It challenged me to think about a lot of things at once and keep a cool head at the same time,” said Sakuma, reflecting on how crew has changed her. “I think I am a tougher person and I hope I am a more mature person.”

And it is clear that Sakuma’s high school friends were on target with their assessment that she had what it takes to be a cox.

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