May 26, 2021

Tiger Men’s Heavyweight Crew Competing in IRAs, Focusing on Joy of Racing to Make Most of Opportunity

HEAVY DUTY: The Princeton University men’s heavyweight varsity 8 crew pulls hard in a race earlier this season. The top 8, along with the second and third varsity 8s ,will be competing in the Intercollegiate Rowing Association (IRA) national championship regatta this weekend at Mercer Lake. (Photo by Ed Hewitt/Row2K, provided courtesy of Princeton’s Office of Athletic Communications)

By Bill Alden

Greg Hughes doesn’t know what to expect when his Princeton University men’s heavyweight crew competes in the Intercollegiate Rowing Association (IRA) national championship regatta this weekend at nearby Mercer Lake, and that’s OK.

“I don’t even know how to compare it, it is just so just different,” said Princeton head coach Hughes.

“Normally we would have seeding, and the seeding would come off the regular season and championship results. We would get a ranking nationally based on our regular season every week and then after the Eastern Sprints. There is no way to really seed it when people haven’t raced that much; there is not any way to cross reference.”

The IRA competition will using a different format this spring in view of the disruptions to competition resulting from the pandemic, featuring time trials and an 18-boat semifinal rather than the typical series of heats leading the semis and finals.

“The clock starts when you go through the end of the starting block, so you have the lane to yourself and you go,” said Hughes in assessing the time trial piece of the regatta.

“You are separated by 30-40 seconds, everyone is going single file down the course like a 1,900-meter head race. The top 18 of those boats will go to the semifinal so it will be three semis with six boats each. It will be the top two from each to the A final, the second two to the B final, and the third two to the C final.”

Adding to the uncertainty for Hughes is the fact that Princeton did not have any fall training or head races and the rowers did not get to work together in person until the students returned for spring semester.

The Tigers started training by doing ergometer work this February outside the boathouse in pods of 10 athletes. After braving a wintry month on the deck, the Tigers hit the water in singles in early March. They progressed to pairs after that, affording some fine-tuned rowing.

“It is incredible training; with national teams, that is normally what you would do,” explained Hughes of the pairs work.

“You would train in pairs all fall. It is one of the best ways to train in sweep rowing. It is really difficult to do with college kids, you don’t normally have the time because you get on the water and you are racing. It is something we have always talked about but never had the guts to do. For those freshmen, the amount of development that they got was really awesome.”

In mid-April, Princeton finally got to train in 4s and 8s. Two weeks later, they competed in the season opening regatta on the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, topping St. Joseph’s in the first set of races and then coming back later in the day to defeat Drexel

“They were pumped; it was crazy as you are looking at the group, you had all of these freshmen and sophomores who had never raced for Princeton,” said Hughes, a former Tiger lightweight star, reflecting on the regatta which marked the program’s first competition in 22 months.

“It was such a strange year and so many different kinds of challenges. I feel how they responded to those challenges was really very inspiring. They kept me motivated because I got to do this for four years and this is my 25th year of coaching. I have had these experiences again and again. Their opportunities are so finite and they want any they can get. There was no ‘this isn’t as good as it should be and I feel slighted.’”

Showing that they took advantage of the flexible training schedule through the pandemic which featured high volume, low intensity to build up aerobic capacity, the Tigers made more progress in their second outing, posting victories over Holy Cross and Navy on May 2 at Overpeck Park near Ridgefield Park in Bergen County.

“They would re-tailor their workouts and their volume and then they actually discovered why they love it,” said Hughes.

“As guys came back for spring term, they were in great shape and they also were also self-motivated with it. They weren’t motivated because they felt like they had to earn a specific seat or to be on the ergometer sheet at this spot. Those were oftentimes big motivators and that creates a little bit of pressure and a little bit of stress. What was so cool about those races was that it was just the pure excitement and joy of going and being in that situation and not being concerned about what could happen.”

Since that weekend, Princeton has been training hard with the hopes that it would get invited to the IRA.

“We have been able to get good training in May but we have been coming at it in a lot of different ways,” added Hughes.

“We had two rows on four days last week, the boats are moving. We are winding down on that this week.”

As Hughes looks ahead to this weekend, the emphasis will be on the joy of rowing more than winning medals.

“My biggest thing is to get every single person that I can the opportunity to go to the line,” said Hughes.

“My focus in this year had been very different. Yeah I want to see them go as fast as possible, and they have really done some good stuff. I think they have some speed and it will be fun. But I care less about that than the opportunity to get to go out and do your sport. I think it is great, people want to talk about how different it is and how decisions were made at different universities but those are first-world problems. In this current situation, we are just lucky to be able to have this opportunity. Let’s just go take it, rip on it, and have a good time.”