While Varsity 8 Just Misses Medal at IRA Regatta, PU Men’s Lightweights Show Continued Progres
Casey Ward believed that the Princeton University men’s lightweight varsity 8 crew was primed for a big finish as it competed in the grand final at the intercollegiate Rowing Association (IRA) national championship regatta last Sunday on Mercer Lake.
Having been bested by Cornell and Columbia in the regular season and the Eastern Sprints, Ward and his boat mates were determined to overcome their rivals in the season’s penultimate regatta.
“The race plan was to concentrate on utilizing the faster start we developed over the last two or three weeks,” said senior captain Ward.
“It was really trusting in cumulatively taking inches every stroke with faster paced speed that we felt we had developed since sprints by keeping the blades in the water a little bit longer. We were really focused on just rowing our own race and trusting that 100 base strokes in the middle thousand would add up to something more.”
Midway through the grand final last Sunday on Mercer Lake, the Tigers were right there with Cornell and Columbia. But over the last 1,000 meters, Princeton faded to fourth as the Big Red won its second straight national title with the Lions second and a hard-charging Harvard boat coming in third.
“To be honest we got caught a little flatfooted in the third 500 by Columbia and Harvard presses and didn’t respond in a unified way that produced more boat speed,” said Ward in assessing the race which saw Cornell post a winning time of 5:38.989 over the 2,000-meter course with Columbia taking second in 5:41.042, Harvard coming in third at 5:41.965 and Princeton next in 5:44.708.
“We responded in a scratchier way, we knew we had a good last 400 in our back pocket which I think we showed. It was from the 1000 to the 1700; it wasn’t the base speed we had planned on.”
Afterwards, Ward and his teammates huddled for minutes with heads down and arms interlocked as they listened solemnly to head coach Marty Crotty’s final words of the season.
“The post-race message is that the Tiger lights keep improving every year,” said Ward.
“If you look at the IRA finishes in the last three years, sixth place, last year fifth place, and this year fourth place peppered in with the gold medal in the men’s light 4 yesterday. The future is bright. The seniors who graduate this year, myself included, are good workers but we are not irreplaceable. I think these young guys are going to be awesome. They are a fiery group. We would have liked to have had a medal. It is okay to be upset with the result because you want more for yourself but don’t be disappointed because you can hold your head high and trust in all of the hard work that you did.”
Reflecting on his Princeton career, Ward is amazed at the improvement he made as a rower and a leader.
“I was recruited from a small club in Atlanta, Ga. and if you told me in my senior year in high school that I would be captain of the men’s lightweights at Princeton, I would have told you you were a liar,” said Ward.
“Physically, I developed in leaps and bounds with Marty’s guidance. He is a terrific mentor for creating peak athletic performance in terms of ergometer scores and what you think is possible there, shattering barriers. As a leader, there were some really good mentors in the generation of lightweight rowers before me who have stayed in touch with me to this day. They check in with me all the time.”
Princeton head coach Crotty believes that Ward emerged as a very good mentor in his own right, in and out of the water.
“He was at the cornerstone; any time you needed great leadership or any time you needed a guy to step up and support the locker room and hold things together, he was there” said Crotty.
“This is a tough business, what these guys do day in day out is really hard, win or lose. It is just as hard for Cornell as it is for the Princeton guys who got 4th today. Rowing teams go through some really tough times and you need a great captain and a great leader and Casey has fit that bill for us. He gets an A+ in addition to improving as an oarsman. I think where he was freshman year to where he ended up, he has showed tremendous improvement. It is always nice to get that out of your leader because obviously you want the younger guys to be able to emulate him athletically as well.”
Seeing his guys in the varsity 8 fall just short of a medal in the grand final was tough for Crotty. “Losing to Cornell and Columbia isn’t fun but the guys persevered and they keep a good attitude,” said Crotty.
“I think all the way up to the end, we were training toward being able to overtake them. Even taking the line today, we felt like we could overtake them. I have got to hand it to the guys, they never lost hope. They kept at it, they persevered, they were determined. Cornell and Columbia are flat out good; Harvard had a good last 1,000 like you are supposed to. I think we just stayed the same speed. It wasn’t us going down or falling off. It was a matter of we had to get up to get a medal and weren’t up to it today.”
In Crotty’s view, the result on the last day of the season can’t dim what the team accomplished over the course of the spring.
“Always after this race, I kind of reflect back on the season as a whole rather than just the race today,” said Crotty, whose varsity 4 with coxswain took fifth in its grand final.
“You are left with the dreaded unsatisfied feeling after this race but I think the season on a whole was productive. We made progress as a team, similar to last year and we sprinkled in some high points. Maybe this year, they were a little higher.”
The Tigers enjoyed a major highlight on Saturday as it varsity 4 without coxswain earned gold with a win in its grand final.
“Yesterday watching (senior) Fabrizio (Giovannini Filho) win a gold medal was good,” said Crotty. “I would call that a high point. Obviously we would have preferred to do that in the 8 but I am really happy for those guys.
Looking ahead, Crotty is happy about his program’s prospects. “We have got six guys returning from the 8, three guys returning from that 4 and three guys from the other 4,” noted Crotty.
“We have a really deep team. We have some great guys coming. We are excited. I think it is a situation that is full of promise. I have had emptier situations post-IRA than this year, that is for sure, that is my general feeling.
Ward, for his part, leaves the lightweight program feeling great about his experience.
“You remember the regattas at the end of the year because those are the championship season and that is the hardware you bring home,” said Ward, who will be working in Mexico City after graduation for a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO).
“But I will always remember knocking heads on Lake Carnegie with the heavyweights and the lightweight guys. I race Cornell, Columbia, Harvard, and Yale, once or twice every year but I race the other guys at Princeton every day, day in and day out and we are competitive. I will remember having a group of guys around me who always pushed me to be more than I thought I was capable of and always demanded more from me. I will carry that forever.”