Squeezing the Most Out of its Potential, U Men’s Heavyweights Excelled at IRAs
HEAVY LIFTING: The Princeton University men’s heavyweight varsity eight shows its form in a race this spring. Earlier this month, the top boat placed sixth in the Grand Final at the Intercollegiate Rowing Association (IRA) national championship regatta on Lake Natoma in Gold River, Calif. (Photo provided courtesy of Princeton’s Office of Athletic Communications)
By Bill Alden
Having coached in the Princeton University rowing program since the late 1990s, Greg Hughes boasts a reservoir of experience in bringing boats together.
But Hughes knew he had to be innovative this spring as he guided the Princeton men’s heavyweight crew, with the Tigers having graduated a number of key seniors and thereby breaking new faces into the lineup.
“It was an interesting year for me,” said Hughes, a former Princeton lightweight star rower who started as the coach for the Tiger freshman heavyweight crew before guiding the men’s lightweight program from 2006-09 and then taking the helm of the heavyweights in 2010.
“It was my 22nd year of coaching and what is so cool for me is to realize that you are still seeing new things and still learning. This was definitely one of those years.”
The key focus this spring for Hughes was to learn the best ways to get this group of rowers on the same page.
“Rowing is a special sport because you have to put nine people into that boat and they have to work together,” said Hughes.
“It has to mesh, you are going to have different personalities and different racing profiles, where some are stronger in the race and where somebody else is stronger. The assets have to all contribute to the whole and everybody has to be willing to recognize that. It needs to be selfless, that is a big ask.”
The Princeton crews meshed at the Intercollegiate Rowing Association (IRA) national championship regatta earlier this month on Lake Natoma in Gold River, Calif. All four of the Tiger top boats made their grand finals at the event with the varsity eight and second varsity eight both placing sixth, the third varsity eight taking fourth, and the varsity four placing third.
Coming into the regatta, Princeton benefited from getting a week of intensive training at the University of California boathouse before heading down the coast.
“It is such a cool spot, it is a reservoir up in the Berkeley Hills,” said Hughes.
“It is just perfect; we just had this gorgeous place all to ourselves. You have this total focus. The guys are relaxed. They get to actually spend some time hanging out with each other.”
That preparation resulted in each of the boats hanging in there on the way to the grand final.
“I feel like across the board, the team raced really well at the IRAs and I was very proud of the results,” said Hughes, whose squad placed fifth in the Ten Eyck Team Trophy standings for the second straight season, scoring 162 points.
“We knew going in, that we were going to have to fire on all cylinders to make the finals in those events and we achieved that goal. We were the only team from the East Coast that put boats in all four finals, Cal and Washington were the other two. That is a big deal for us.”
While only one of the Princeton boats made it to the medal stand, the rowers relished testing themselves against the best.
“We knew to go and have a run at the very top end was going to take our absolute perfect race and maybe some mistakes from some of the others,” said Hughes, reflecting in the competition which saw Yale win the varsity eight, Cal take first in the 2V, and Washington posting victories in both the 3V and the V4.
“Those boats raced well, we saw their best races at the national championship and that is where we were this year. We got our best races, which was great. You saw that we were in that mix that was a big push for those guys.”
The varsity eight got a good push from two freshmen, James Quinlan, a native of Ireland, and Charlie Miller, who hails from Australia.
“They stepped up beyond their years, it was awesome to see,” said Hughes.
“They were mature, levelheaded kids. As we were moving through the season, they were progressing really well and both were invited to their respective U23 camps and they are 19 year olds. They have done an amazing job. I knew they were good but my expectations weren’t that they were going to walk into the door and be immediate varsity eight rowers. I would not hold them to that standard. They just totally did it; they were super consistent and just awesome kids.”
Senior captain Andrew Morgan played a key role in helping the team maintain a consistent effort throughout the season.
“He fought his way up through the ranks during the season; he was on the 4V for a race or two, fought his way up into the 3V, and then finished Eastern Sprints and IRAs in the 2V,” said Hughes.
“He isn’t a big guy, he is probably 6’0, 170 pounds, but he is a really scrappy competitor. That was his leadership style — to come in and lead by example and give more than might be physically possible. He pushed that edge every single day and he was a good motivator. He was able to sniff out those workouts, or those days or individual pieces where we might be on the ropes and rally the squad.That played a really important factor in us being able to meet the potential that we had.”
Morgan’s approach exemplified the mindset that helped the Tigers get the most out of their potential.
“There are no superstars in rowing and I think this year was the year that really proved that,” said Hughes.
“We didn’t have anywhere near the horsepower on the ERG that we had last year. The 2018 average was 5:52 for our varsity eight and this past year it was 6:02 and yet they were putting up speeds that were comparable.”
In the view of Hughes, his rowers haven’t reached their ceiling despite their admirable efforts this spring.
“While we can look at it and say we tapped the potential that we had, we need to recognize that there is still more to gain,” noted Hughes.
“We know what is going on at places like Yale, Harvard, Washington, and Cal. There is an upper end there that we know we want to go and compete against. There is work for us to do and the summer time is the time you can start getting to work on that. You can’t be satisfied with how it finished and then step back and say we have got to catch our breath and go and relax for two months. It is a long time.”
Making the most of their time this summer will help the Tigers do better against the upper echelon of college rowing.
“We do a challenge with the team, shooting for a million meters on the ergometer over the summer,” said Hughes.
“It sounds like a massive number, but then when you go and do the math, it is 8,000-10,000 meters a day five days a week. That is like a 40-minute effort. What we know about rowing is that it does require some aerobic base fitness and that is something we can really work on in the summer. Rowing rewards steady, consistent work. It does not reward people who just have amazing skill that they can pull out at the last minute. You have to be fit enough to get yourself into a position in a race where you can use that skill. If you are not fit, you aren’t going to be able to use it.”